The Roaring Girl is a much better idea than it is a play. The idea of the ‘Roaring Girl’ (the title, of course, of the current Swan season) is a fantastic crucible for exploring ideas of gender identity and sexual performance, and the involved plot of shopkeepers’ wives and rakes about town taking advantage of one another is genuinely entertaining, but as a play I find it unnecessarily complex and quite tedious, each scene taking far longer to play out than its action warrants. Jo Davies’s energetic new RSC production didn’t resolve these issues for me, but managed in its own way to create an entertaining romp from the material.
The production was set in 1889, specifically to draw a connection between Moll Cutpurse’s cross-dressing behaviours and Emmeline Pankhurst, but presumably also to find a compromise between a period whose sartorial politics would be too alien for a modern audience and a contemporary setting where the play’s gender games would struggle to make sense. The production never committed to the specificity of its setting however, anarchically disrupting history whenever it felt it would be entertaining. The all-female on-stage band (‘The Cutpurses’) combined 80s hair metal, 70s funk and noirish jazz, and the canting scene was realised as a cringe-making rap battle between Lisa Dillon’s Moll and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Trapdoor that worked neither as rap battle nor as entertainment, while retaining the original’s entire irrelevance to the plot.
‘Well behaved women seldom make history’ ran the tagline for the accompanying ‘Making Mischief’ season, and while the anarchic approach to period was not always successful, the production’s key strength was Dillon herself. Whether leading the band, beating up the arrogant Laxton (Keir Charles, reprising his role of being the butt of confrontations with the leading lady from Arden of Faversham), swinging from Sir Alexander Wengrave’s chandelier or rolling her eyes at the young lovers kissing, Dillon commandeered every scene in which she appeared. Accompanied by her maidservant (Joan Iyiola), who held a parasol over her mistress and shared unspoken jokes with her, Moll strode through Victorian London first in long skirts and then in full male costume, her face lightly stubbled. Dillon’s performance of masculinity was focused on confidence rather than disguise, particularly as she sprawled in high-backed chairs and swaggered with the gallants. Everyone around her was enamoured of her, fighting for her attention and often assuming sexual privileges with her, to their inevitable embarrassment.
Dillon’s charisma was the production’s heart, but the difficulty with this is that Moll’s role rarely progresses or clarifies the narrative action of the play, which meant the production felt occasionally self-indulgent. While the original songs and live music were wonderful, scenes of Moll having fun were less compelling than the main plot. However, when Dillon’s Moll was allowed to make a more serious point, the value of this energetic performance was realised – most significantly, in her long duel with Laxton, which played out as a self-defence against rape that turned Laxton’s sexually aggressive behaviour back on him to his own shame. Occasional allusions to Moll’s melancholy granted the character some depth, without sacrificing the independence that, as the final brief kiss with her maid showed, was dependent on her ability to choose her own path.
The period setting allowed for a clear class structure to be established from the start, David Rintoul as Sir Alexander presiding over cabinets of curiosities and dinners with brandy, while tuxedoed men in bathchairs and uptight butlers (Christopher Middleton’s wonderfully fawning Neatfoot) tutted together over the antics of Joe Bannister’s Sebastian Wengrave. Freshwater’s Trapdoor wore scuffed suit and battered hat, and was left hanging around at Sir Alexander’s gates hoping to catch his employer. The dapper gallants lorded over the shopkeepers while betraying a certain amount of anxiety over their own dress and position, and were nicely differentiated – Charles’s lecherous Laxon, Peter Bray’s nervously treacherous but cowardly Goshawk, Ian Bonar’s careless Jack Dapper. Dapper was imagined as one of the girls, he paired with Moll during their scenes and joining the women’s group during the final jig, for no particularly obvious reason.
The real strength of the production was in the interactions of the shopkeepers and their wives, making a more concerted statement about the disruption of male privilege by the collective of women working together. Lizzie Hopley stood out as Mistress Gallipot. Initially barely able to resist Laxton, her lines were peppered with asides and winks at the audience, sustaining a running commentary on her indiscretions. The hapless Timothy Speyer as her husband was forced to watch helplessly as she tore up her letter from Laxton dramatically, clutched with screams of ecstasy as she saw ways out of her situation, and manipulated him out of his money. As Gallipot defended her with faint praise to Laxton she turned with raised eyebrows to the audience, drawing attention to her own silence as the men bartered over her. Her hysterical variety of tone and gesture contrasted with the more formidable (but no less funny) Harvey Virdi as Mistress Openwork, who kept her husband (Tony Jayawardena) in a state of perpetual anxiety as she complained, flirted and remonstrated with him. Yet as the two worked together to expose the treacherous Goshawk, it was made clear that the partnership was far more even, he coming into his own to defend the honour of both himself and his wife, before collapsing into hysterics as Goshawk grovelled crying on the floor.
The more straightforward scenes of plot were carried out well, in particular a fun sequence as Faye Castelow’s Mary, wearing tweed, first draped herself over Sebastian to his obvious titillation and Moll’s amusement, and then hid behind Moll’s double bass in order to escape Sir Alexander. However, without cutting the scenes tended to drag on interminably after the jokes had run their course, playing out to an obvious conclusion. The exception was, happily, the final trick played on Sir Alexander. As he removed the veil from Sebastian’s bride, Moll threw aside her costume, chucking elements of it at the shocked guests and swinging from Sir Alexander’s chandelier (pleasingly, stepping aside from the play’s ending that sees Moll end up in wedding dress) until Mary was escorted in. It was perhaps only at this moment that the production achieved its aim of making Moll a genuinely disruptive presence, making herself at home in the thrones of the upper classes while Sir Alexander pleaded forgiveness.
The production was framed at beginning and end with Moll in spotlight and punching the air as floodlights flashed, positioning this as her story throughout. Conceptualised as a Ganymede-led showcase, this worked to orient the play around its most interesting character while still frustratingly trying to cram in everything else, including the dismal rap scene. While the play would have benefited from the same cutting accorded Arden of Faversham, the ideas and energy here (realised finally in a compartmentalised jig which saw each character dancing moves that both mocked and celebrated their personalities) went some way towards making an entertaining evening out of the play.