Every year Shakespeare’s Globe puts on a programme of play readings, known as Read Not Dead; thankfully, the new regime hasn’t put paid to them and they are still an important part of the schedule. I normally try to get to one or two a year, and on Sunday I went along to The Coxcomb, an early work by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. The play is based on an episode on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Since 2016 also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Spanish author, it’s no wonder it was chosen for performance this year.
The plot of The Coxcomb is convoluted, concerning a man who falls in love with his friend’s wife and is surprised to find that his friend appears quite happy to let him indulge his lust. There is also a subplot involving a runaway couple. It’s not always easy to follow, but it leads to several amusing moments.
The plays are always given out to the actors on the morning of the day they are due to take place; they then spend the day rehearsing them before presenting them to the audience in the afternoon. Apart from the scripts in hand and the odd missed cue, you’d hardly notice, a testament to the skill and commitment of the actors involved. The Coxcomb was no different, with actors giving rounded performances. It was an interesting piece, and well worth the watch.
The concept of a play-within-a-play is not a new one, as the Globe’s new production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a 1607 drama by Francis Beaumont, shows. This joyous romp, performed to great effect in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is in complete contrast to the previous play performed here, The Duchess of Malfi, and reveals just what a versatile space it is.
In fact, the tiny Playhouse proves the perfect setting for a play in which several audience members take an active part. A Strand grocer and his wife (the brilliant, spirited Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn) turn up to a performance of a play called ‘The London Merchant’, but are vocal in their criticism and demand that their apprentice, Rafe, take on a role in a more exciting play. Hence, Rafe (a fine, likeable performance from Matthew Needham) becomes the ‘Knight of the Burning Pestle’, with wooden horses and followers that seem to have come straight out of Monty Python.
Despite the very long length of the production, the time flew by, thanks in part to the frequent short intervals. I found there was always something interesting going on: essentially you are seeing three plays all mixed in together: ‘London Merchant’, ‘Knight’ and the vocal audience members, who pass drinks and snacks around the audience, hurl suggestions and criticism at the on-stage actors, and occasionally get up there themselves.
I completely loved this very silly but clever and heartwarming play. I hope the Globe continues to put on shows of this calibre in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – it was a real treat.