Jacobean dramatist Ben Jonson certainly threw down a gauntlet to anyone brave or reckless enough to take him on. It’s easy to see why The Devil Is An Ass (1616) is performed even less often than Volpone or The Alchemist, as the dense and difficult text presents enormous challenges for modern production.
Spartan Dogs, a new London company, have a bold stab at it, with their inaugural production at Kennington’s White Bear, and they come close to pulling it off.
Director Kate McGregor updates the action to 1829, which works well enough, giving it a vaguely circus setting (pre-echoes of Dickens’ Hard Times), while wisely not over-exploiting the theme. She shapes her large cast’s performances skilfully, keeping a tight grip until the later stages when things go a little awry.
The long scene in the second half, where the would-be seducer Wittipol (Sean Turner) dresses as a Spanish lady gives the opportunity for the borderline between bold physicalisation and grimacing and cavorting to be too frequently crossed by all and sundry and things start to get rather tiresome.
McGregor recovers from this to give us a strikingly-realised denouement where the foppish Fitzdotrell presents his feigned bewitchment as the ravings of a twitching, frenetic clown, red-nose and all. It’s Oliver Lavery‘s finest moment of the evening as the dotty protagonist.
There’s plenty of sustained energy and colourful performances, with Davin Eadie‘s spidery Merecraft, Phil Bishop’s gawky Pug and Emily White’s sharp, enticingly-named Lady Tailbush catching the eye. One gets a sense of a teeming metropolis filled with the sort of street detail that is treated more fully in the author’s slightly earlier Bartholomew Fair.