In the prologue to The Roaring Girl – currently running in the RSC’s Swan Theatre, ‘Mad’ Moll, the heroine (if that’s the right description), dares only promise laughter – as “Tragic passion, And such grave stuff, is this day so out of fashion”.
She – or rather, the Thomases Dekker and Middleton, who co-authored the play – could have a point. Henry IV, part II was on in the main Royal Shakespeare Theatre, whilst we were filling the “small theatre”; however, when I went to see Shakespeare’s history (certainly nowhere near as comedic as part I…), a few weeks ago, there were many, many empty seats – and tonight did not appear, from the size of the crowds, to be any different. Even though the Swan was not quite sold out, last night, there weren’t that many seats free; and the stalls and circle were full – of people, as well as laughter!
Although there is a strong, central theme of female independence – feminism, even (amazing, when you consider the play was written, and first produced, over 400 years ago – and by two men… – although based on the very real Mary Frith…) – this does not mean that all the expected riotous ingredients of lewdness, debauchery and wicked punning of Elizabethan and Jacobean ‘city comedies’ (as also demonstrated by Falstaff, of course, in Eastcheap…) disappear behind the sexual and social politics; nor the (oft-criticized) Victorian setting. As director Jo Davies says, in her introduction to the RSC’s prompt book for the play: “The exuberant materialism of [the Victorian] era seems to fit well… and there’s a stark dramatic contrast between remarkable wealth and the lawlessness of the streets” – especially when you remember Dickens’s notion of “slumming”, and of “the attraction of revulsion”.
Nevertheless, nothing is to be taken too seriously: as is obvious from the first scene onwards; although you may be slightly misdirected by the permanent cross-dressing of Moll, if you are used to such shenanigans – in, say, As You Like It – being a vehicle for romance and comedic misunderstandings: as these are of only of passing interest in the tangle of plots and continually weaving interactions of Moll and the other characters (whose lives she often facilitates).
Yet, in a way, our protagonist takes the idea of Rosalind – especially in her ‘protection’ of Celia, and her transformation into Ganymede… – to its ultimate conclusion: making it a life-choice; showing her command of the stage, her world, and the other characters. It signals her independence; her difference; her refusal to be seen as ‘the weaker sex’.
I have no humour to marry: I love to lie on both sides of the bed myself; and again on the other side. A wife, you know, ought to be obedient, – but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore I’ll never go about it…. I have the head now of myself and am man enough for a woman: marriage is but a chopping and changing, where a maiden loses one head and has a worse one in its place.
If you take the play as it is, though – a recipe of Shakesperean-era farce, social observation (erring on the side of ridicule), and pantomime – albeit with the added condiments of wantonness and jazz (oh, yes!) – then you will not be disappointed. This is pure entertainment; and to look for anything much deeper – despite Moll’s cleverness; and insistence on being blatant, not latent, in every aspect of her dealings – will probably lead to disappointment.
Lisa Dillon is astounding as Moll; and – although she dominates the stage; and takes the majority of the lines – the rest of the cast (including the creative team and musicians) are wonderful in support: especially in the final scene, which will ensure you have a huge stupid grin on your face (if you’re like me), and maybe a tear (from the jollity, as well as sadness that the night has ended…) in your eye, as you leave the theatre.
Quite possibly the best thing on at the RSC, at the moment.
The journey home was marvellous, too: with a barn owl flying by me, as I left Stratford; a repeat performance of last night’s ‘honey moon’ rising over the Edge Hills; and a muntjac deer investigating the car, as I drove through – and then stopped in, of course – Lower Tysoe. I’m still buzzing, four hours later…!