Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 30 June 2018
Barrie Rutter and the Globe are made for each other. Fresh out of his storming leadership (and frequent personal performances) with Northern Broadsides, he returns here under the new regime, merrily reminiscing in the programme about 1996, when none of the costumes arrived from the airport until the interval. This time he is director of a pretty ridiculous Shakespeare collaboration with John Fletcher, loosely based on Chaucer.
Palamon and Arcite, in prison after a defeat, vow eternal bromance but promptly drop that when they sight King Theseus’ sister Emilia (Ellora Torchia), and both want her. Arcite is banished and Palamon is released by the jailer’s daughter (just like Mr Toad, though with an even more preposterous disguise). So on it goes, with some storming rustic dances and shouting, to the point when the King decides to solve it all with a fight.
For when you’ve got a medieval English tale based on an Italian romance from the classical canon, the obvious thing is to introduce a great deal of clog-dancing, morris, stave-clashing, barmy multicoloured ragwear, a Green Man, and some symbolic straw animals on sticks. Add some fine over-the-top acting, with King Theseus irritably baffled about the whole thing (favorite line – “What ignorant and mad malicious traitors ARE you?”). Second favourite: “Emilia, if one of them were dead, would you take the other to your husband?” “I cannot! They’re both too excellent!”. And there’s even a comedy Ophelia.
Jude Akuwondike is a grand Theseu, and the rival knights are splendid, Paul Stocker and Bryan Dick going it large like a couple of gap-yah lads, but the one who walks away with every scene she’s in (not least when dancing insanely with the cloggers, driven nuts by thwarted love) is Francesca Mills as the tiny, vigorous, sweetly naive and rompingly mischievous jailer’s daughter . She loves Palamon and gets persuaded by a very dodgy doctor to settle for Jon Trenchard in custard-coloured harem pants instead.
She has a special quality: an expressive, innocent face combined with a crazy determined fire in performance which makes everyone else look vanilla. She was last a hoot in Northern Broadsides’ touring Cyrano, and I wrote then that she stole the show “Not because she is of “restricted growth” but because in athleticism, comic timing, clarity and utterly credible sincerity of reaction she’d be a treasure at any height, in any company” . I say that again.
Oh, and the poetry? Yes, that’s there too, not top-rank Shakespeare but some lovely lines. And the moral (given that the final twist is hardly down to any conventional tragic flaw, but rather to an offstage stallion) is soothing enough. Poor Theseus resignedly hands over his sister to an unexpected winner and says “Let us be thankful for that which IS”.
Dear Barrie Rutter. Come again to the Globe, do. Next time let’s get you out there roaring at the groundlings yourself, where you belong.