‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’ review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson Nazar Safonov
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson Alexander Feklistov, Nazar Safonov, Agrippina Steklova
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson Agrippina Steklova, Alexander Feklistov
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson Agrippina Steklova, Sergei Miller, Alexander Feklistov
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson Anna Vardevanian, Andrei Kuzichev
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson Sergei Miller, Kirill Chernyshenko, Anna Vardevanian, Alexey Rakhmanov
 (© Johan Persson)
© Johan Persson

Deliriously enjoyable Russian language version of the raucous metafarce

Francis Beaumont’s 1607 metaplay ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’ is a big old milestone in the history of British comedy. Following the exploits of a couple of ‘audience members’ who invade an unbearably pretentious play called ‘The London Merchant’, you can see its fourth wall-breaking influence on everything from panto to ‘Monty Python’ to ‘Fleabag’. But I don’t recall my sides being in much danger of splitting when it was revived by the Globe a few years back: the fact that unexpurgated it’s three hours long and in early modern English can put a dampener on the bants.

However, there are other ways of tackling it. Internationalist company Cheek By Jowl’s touring production – a collaboration with Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, in Russian with English surtitles (dialogue projected on to a screen) – is ruthlessly funny and fun. Running at a pared-back hour and 40 minutes, it holds true to the essence of Beaumont’s text while gleefully dragging it into the modern era, at farce velocity. Here ‘The London Merchant’ is a haughtily impenetrable piece of European director’s theatre, all minimalist visuals and live video feeds. Basically, it’s a parody of the sort of show you tend to see at the Barbican – many by Cheek by Jowl – and the core team of director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod have great fun tearing the archetype to pieces.

Speaking in plain language – in contrast to the ludicrously flouncy wordage of ‘The London Merchant’ – here bumpkin-ish grocer (Alexander Feklistov) and his wife (Agrippina Steklova) shamble amusingly on to the stage with their bags of shopping and proceed to more or less ruin the play: complaining they don’t understand it, demanding changes, foisting their feckless charge Rafe (Nazar Safonov) upon the cast, insisting on ever more lurid props, nicking the video camera and occasionally bringing everything to a standstill while they have a massive fight. It is very funny.

A pedant might query why exactly the actors are so easily persuaded to try and incorporate the duo’s suggestions into their play – that isn’t something that’s ever really explained. Except the answer is obvious: ‘because it’s funny’. And here it really is. This ‘Knight…’ is a smartly controlled explosion of pure, joyous silliness.

This review is of a performance in Madrid in April. The Barbican run is too short to meet Time Out print deadlines.

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