Review: The Knight of the Burning Pestle (Barbican Theatre)

Cheek by Jowl pair with Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre to create this madcap re-imagining of Francis Beaumont’s comedy

The Knight of the Burning Pestle
The Knight of the Burning Pestle
© Johan Persson

If someone had suggested that I really needed to see the first English meta-drama, written in 1607, performed in Russian I would probably have chosen to give it a miss. But this co-production by Cheek by Jowl and the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre of Francis Beaumont's ground-breaking comedy comes pretty close to being essential viewing.

Directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod it begins with a group of po-faced actors, dressed in various shades of black, walking on stage, moodily carrying the chairs on which they then proceed to sprawl in various degrees of intensity. Oh please, I thought. Not that tired old trope of actors carrying the furniture around again.

But that is the whole point. Because just as this group of gloomy impassioned actors embark on the performance of The London Merchant – a play which purports to "examine the true essence of human nature" – a grocer, who has been sitting in the audience with his wife, pops up on stage, and in voluble Russian complains that they'd like to see normal people on stage, with a bit more humour and joy. They summon their nephew Rafe from the stalls, and he – stage-struck and bashful and quoting mouthfuls of Shakespeare, outlines his plan to introduce a Knight of the Burning Pestle into the action.

From that moment, mayhem breaks out, with every aspect of the play within the play under scrutiny from the critical trio, who satirise the tropes of European theatre – complaining about the cube that forms the set, they are told it's a concept – as well as asking vital questions about what theatre is for, and whose lives should be reflected.

It is very funny, and all the more so because it has such energy and passion. Donnellan has stayed faithful to the outline of Beaumont's plot, and the spirit of the original, while introducing elements of updating: the grocer and his wife, we learn from her whispered on-stage phone call, are only here because they couldn't get tickets to The Lion King. The language is freshened up too. When the heroine of The London Merchant finds herself alone in the woods with her lover, she rips her underwear off in anticipation of sex; when she subsequently finds herself under threat, the wife is quick to shout from the sidelines: "Put your knickers on and run girl."

The wife's warm-hearted interventions on behalf of all the beleaguered and badly treated women in the play is one of the qualities that makes her so endearing; so is her ability to call a spade a spade. When told the characters are all lost in the woods, she quickly remarks "No they're not. They're behind the box".
As played by Agrippina Steklova she has an instinctive humanity that stands in sharp contrast to the chilly alienation of the play's director (Kirill Chernyshenko, magnificently harassed). The mobility of her face, her range of expression and emotion are quite astonishing, and she's matched by the bluster and exuberance of her generally devoted husband, as played by Alexander Feklistov. Nazar Safonov's sad-faced Rafe is also a bumbling delight.

But all the actors are excellent. The fact that they are Russian – with all the tradition of theatre that represents – adds a layer of potency and meaning to the satire. They are capable of conjuring true feeling as well as flinging themselves into wild antics. Donnellan directs with flair and care. It is a wonderful, mad night, which manages to bring a dusty, difficult play back to full theatrical vividness.