Recently I went on one of my trips to Stratford upon Avon, and for the first time, I had no Shakespeare planned. Instead, I saw two of the plays in the “Roaring Girls” season – a selection of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays with strong female roles – performed in the Swan Theatre.
The Roaring Girl, the play which lends its title to the season, was penned by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton in around 1607-10. It stars Lisa Dillon as the “Roaring Girl” herself, Moll Cutpurse, a character based on the real-life Mary Frith, who dressed as a man and lived by picking pockets. Thanks in part to Dillon’s performance, and in part to the character herself, the scenes with Moll are sparkling and brilliant.
Unfortunately, I found much of the rest of the play to be hard to follow, with confusing subplots and disjointed action. The plot centres around Sebastian, a young man who turns to Moll for help in order to be able to marry the girl he loves, a union which his father has forbidden. There are too many other strands going on, and I was confused for a good portion of the time.
The decision to update the action to the 1890s made me think of Sarah Waters’ historical novels (and their television adaptations), a move which may or may not have been intentional. While I thought the new time period worked, it meant that we didn’t fully appreciate the impact that someone like Moll would have had four hundred years ago.
Having said that, this was a really interesting production which I certainly don’t regret going to see.