The RSC’s Winter season, coming at the end of a year commemorating the centenary of the start of World War I, has been unified by its engagement with war. From new plays on Oppenheimer and the Christmas 1914 truce to the anchoring of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won on either side of WW1, the productions have engaged with memories of war and often within a comedic framework. It’s a disquieting set of concerns, preserving nostalgia for an indomitable British spirit and celebration of valour and chivalry, without needing to bring things too close to home. This is the purpose of a centenary, of course: remembering without necessarily reliving.
Surprisingly, and not unpleasantly, Phillip Breen’s production of Dekker’s out-and-out comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday offered one of the season’s most compelling and least romanticised depictions of war. Against Max Jones’s glorious set evoking the public cloisters of St. Paul’s, Simon Eyre’s London went about its daily business on the thrust stage. But in the background, beleaguered and frightened, appeared reminders of the French wars. The opening scene in particular re-cast Lacy and the nobles as aristocratic press-gangers, bullying and threatening the shoemakers into submission as they pleaded on behalf of Daniel Boyd’s excellent Ralph. The procession that closes the first scene evoked the chain gang, with the troop’s captains clattering their weapons against walls and forcing their trudging men off to France.
The severity of the context pervaded the production, meaning that the comedy never became as boisterous as it might otherwise have, but also allowing the play to introduce a tone of sincerity that offset the more obviously ridiculous moments. Within the war context, Ralph’s story became the production’s heart as he returned not only lame but severely disfigured facially and with what might even have been intended as a form of PTSD as he veered between melancholy and sudden bursts of anger or irritation. Hedydd Dylan played Jane with utter devotion, toying with a sense of the character’s own (unfounded) guilt for being led into a second engagement and complicating her process of grief.
The sincerity of this plot rendered Jamie Wilkes’s Hammon the real villain of the piece. Wilkes had a dazzling array of brightly coloured outfits, and his nasal voice and light tone, coupled with upturned nose, rendered him an incongruously clean presence in the gritty streets of London. His essential arrogance was established in his early wooing of Rose, for which the two engaged in a kind of tango around the corners of the stage, she spinning out of his reach and offering sharp ripostes. By contrast, the wooing of Jane was staged under a single overhead light, the two surrounded by darkness. Hammon’s forcible pressurisation of Jane straddled the bounds of sensibility, begging laughter at the sheer audacity of his presumption. Following the ‘news’ of Ralph’s death, Jane was reduced to uncontrollable weeping, prostrate on the floor, and yet Hammon still stood over her demanding that she give him a yes-or-no answer. The intakes of breath from the audience as he bullied a woman in extraordinary pain to yield to his demands said it all.
It was in relation to Ralph and Hammon that the camaraderie of the shoemakers shone through, with Tom McCall’s brusque Hodge offering the wounded man support and a sensitive ear while Joel MacCormack’s Firk ribbed him gently. With the bonhomie of Eyre’s shop established early in amusing scenes as David Troughton’s Eyre bellowed, pulled pints, reacted to the maid’s farting and diddled the Boy (who I think was played by William Watson in this production), Breen was then able to develop a more nuanced mode of friendly support that allowed for bickering (Hodge and Firk nearly going at it hammer and tongs) and finally all-out solidarity. The confrontation with Hammon at the cathedral was dark in tone and lighting, lit by flaming torches and peopled by hooded bystanders. A confrontation that could have been played out as a comic transaction was instead performed at swordpoint and at high intensity, Ralph at one point throwing away his crutches to lunge at Hammon. Michael Grady-Hall as Hammon’s servant acted violently to protect his master and was treated violently in return, especially as he tried to recover Hammon’s cast-away money. While I felt that the temper of this scene dulled slightly the breathtaking effect of Hammon offering to buy Jane (which still got a great reaction from the audience), it also gave a powerful sense of the bond tying the shoemakers together, and the rejoining of this community by the finely dressed Jane was as much of a victory as the reunification of the lovers.
The production was less successful in explicating the broader social contexts – in particular, the establishment of the titular holiday felt rushed past – and the final scenes inevitably had to be anchored around a sense of Eyre’s frantic organisation of offstage events rather than attempting to establish the importance of e.g. the shoemakers being allowed to sell leather at Leadenhall (retained as a climactic moment that, in the context of the production, fitted oddly). Yet the atmosphere of the day-to-day life of trade was very clear. Josh O’Connor was a highly amusing Lacy when disguised as Hans, his yarps and clucks evoking a poor impersonation of Dutch which was regularly broken by sighs as he struggled for words and gave up to deliver the English equivalent. Hans was played as gentle and affable, a benign cover for Lacy, and the scenes in the shoemakers’ parlour were light and conversational.
However, when in his own person with Thomasin Rand’s Rose, Lacy showed a different side, hyperventilating with panic at the thought of her father approaching. Rand’s Rose was the leader in this relationship: from sending off Sandy Foster’s entertaining Sybil to find her fiancé, to dictating to Lacy how he should conduct his disguise, there was a lovely comic sense of a woman who knew how to patiently and firmly organise the men around her in order to compensate for their essential fecklessness. Both Rose and Sybil were quick-witted and fast-spoken, taking command of every scene in which they appeared when they needed to and then stepping back to watch, smilingly, as their elders followed them to their own ends.
Yet regardless of the actual plot, this is the Shoemaker’s play. Troughton and Vivien Parry as Margery Eyre repeatedly stole the show as they rose from near-rags to outrageous riches and adjusted their manner to suit. This was depicted sartorially: Eyre gradually adopted the accoutrements of his new positions until he was clad in velvet and be-chained, while the red-headed Margery even more hysterically fell in love with her French hoods and increasingly elaborate skirts, until she emerged in the full regalia of Elizabeth I. Margery’s inability to manage her clothes correctly was a source of much simple humour, particularly as she attempted to hold herself upright and dignified while Eyre pushed her about, and later threw herself flat on her face before the King, throwing her underskirts over her head.
More important than their clothes was their demeanour. Troughton and Parry established a wonderful back-and-forth, snapping at and insulting one another before engaging in all sorts of inappropriately public fondling. Their crackling energy, bolstered by Firk’s constant innuendo and the maid’s passing of wind, created a chaotic environment that dominated their scenes. The necessary tension that sustained interest was generated by Margery’s adoption of airs, putting on an affected regal accent and waving from the wrist. Eyre, by contrast, sustained his bullishness, therefore embarrassing Margery and destabilising her just as she attempted to show dignity. In one glorious fight, Margery’s façade cracked, and her slippage back into a deep-throated Cockney bite was always entertaining.
At the play’s conclusion, the sudden introduction of Jack Holden’s King injected a new level of comedy and severity to proceedings (a marker, I think, of Dekker’s understanding of how to structure a successful comedy). Holden was first scene playing tennis with one of his nobles, and appeared in fine robes with a toffish guffaw that aligned him simultaneously with (Shakespeare’s) Henry V and Henry VIII as well as (the historical) Henry VI. Holden’s brilliant performance created a King who was unpredictable but amenable, leaving Eyre hanging in suspense for a moment before gracing him with hysterical laughter and commanding he continue to be merry. The King allowed Rose to weep on stage for some time after ‘divorcing’ her from Lacy, in order to allow the seriousness of the action to sink in for Oatley and Sir Hugh. A genial, fun-loving King, his willingness to adopt the tone and standing of his own people made sense of the scene.
And yet, the King revealed himself in the final moments to perhaps even be closer to Hammon in his overall sensibilities. Clapping his loyal subjects, he took in hand the Boy who had been present as part of Eyre’s retinue throughout the play (and who had delivered the Prologue) and jovially tied a red ribbon around his arm, marking the child out as the latest recruit to the French wars, and abruptly ending everyone else’s mirth as a day’s holiday became a limitless conscription. This sober ending, recalling the heavy-handed state of the production’s opening, was a timely reminder that the big business of politics remains separate from the performed personalities of rulers, offering a lovely grace note to a fascinating production.