Jenny Easton’s production of The Devil is an Ass for Mercurius revived one of Jonson’s finest city comedies in a suitably evocative location. Although most of the action took place on the viewing platform in the Rose Playhouse, the play opened with the sight of Lewis Chandler’s Pug in the far distance, pinned against a wall at the far end of the huge pool of water that drowns the foundations of the original Rose theatre. Trapped in the cavern, bathed in red light and speaking to the booming voice of an unseen Lucifer, Pug’s starting point in the depths of the ruins nicely set up the unusual premise of a play which evokes hell, only to suggest that early modern London is a far less desirable place to be.
This lean, dynamic and frequently hysterical production cut the play prudently, running a mere 90 minutes with only eleven characters played by eight actors. The efficiency and speed with which they still managed to cover the core action of the play rather made me wish more companies had the confidence to cut so drastically, including with Shakespeare, as it allowed the cast to play at a speed more usually suited to high farce. Each of the cast did excellent work, both subtle in the treatment of individual lines and ostentatious in the commitment to ridiculousness.
Competing for pieces of scenery to chew were Michael Watson-Gray as Fitzdottrell and Benjamin Garrison as Meercraft. Fitzdottrell, first discovered kneeling in a circle attempting Faustian conjuration, was a fool from the start. His incantations were accompanied with grand hand gestures and elaborate pronunciation, and followed by harrumphs of disappointment. In the intimate space, all of the cast took advantage of the opportunities for complicity with an audience, and part of Watson-Gray’s presentation of his character’s folly was his appeal for understanding to an audience busy laughing at him. The play’s driving action was his penchant for get-rich-quick schemes, and Watson-Gray sold these with an un-dampable zeal. In a pivotal scene, looking at a succession of (richly detailed) scrolls with various schemes on, Fitzdottrell flew between them, the con artists having to do little to stimulate his credulity.
Watson-Gray’s energy was matched by Garrison’s charm as the chief con artist. Meercraft was silky-voiced with his gull and rough Cockney once Fitzdottrell left earshot, and his ability to shift between his two personas made him a compelling and very amusing figure. Able to keep up a quick patter, the tall actor used his height to wink over people’s heads and constantly indicate the dual performance he was keeping up. Garrison’s skill here was in his ability to cue to the audience what was really going on through his silent reactions, whether gleefully rubbing his hands behind Fitzdottrell’s back or storming offstage steely-eyed after pretending all was well. As his plans fell apart, further, his anguish manifested in his buckling at the knees, tearing at his hair and screaming silently.
The frenetic energy of these two performances kept the play moving along at a fast lick, and also emerged as physical violence, particularly as Fitzdottrell repeatedly turned his attentions to the hapless Pug. Chandler became the Manuel to Fitzdottrell’s Basil Fawlty, particularly when the master took a large rubber stick to his servant. Pug’s demeanour throughout oscillated between gleeful anticipation of evil and rueful sorrow at his failures, and his increasingly injured and bedraggled state were cartoon-like in their slow degradation of the wilful villain. By setting Pug up as subject to an all-powerful disembodied Lucifer, the production emphasised his childlike qualities and ineffectiveness. While his actions in the reduced text left him primarily a voyeur to events, he also fulfilled the role of the witty servant in commenting on the action. The moment where the outraged, and only partially dressed, Ambler (Nicholas Oliver) arrested the man was one of the funnier scenes, as Pug gave a litany of diffident, nonsensical answers to reasonable questions, enraging his rival and exacerbating the situation.
Fitzdottrell’s outlandish behaviour also prompted the effective set pieces. Easton’s staging was simple and creative throughout, making fine use of a handful of chairs and two red drapes to evoke balconies, drawing rooms and street scenes, while occasional placards hung above the stage identified the location more precisely. The simplicity of staging meant that the more important dynamic spatial arrangements came through clearly. When Fitzdottrell, for the price of a cloak in which he took great pride, allowed Monty d’Inverno’s Wittipol to speak to his wife provided they stay at least a yard apart, these dynamics became clear. Fitzdottrell placed Beth Eyre’s Mistress Fitzdottrell centre stage and used a yard stick to manually dictate Wittipol’s distance. D’Inverno then used the circumference of this imagined circle as his area of activity, before moving to her locus to speak her ‘part’ in recognition that she was not allowed to speak. The subversion of the spatial arrangements that Fitzdottrell had set up was not only amusing, but established the wit and precision with which Wittipol undercut his love rival at all points.
D’Inverno seemed to be having a whale of a time in a gift of a role. When wooing the upright and surprisingly complex (in Eyre’s performance) Mistress Fitzdottrell he was dashing, suave and sincere, if a little insufferable. When embracing his disguises, however, he threw himself fully into his roles – in his disguise as a Spanish lady, his ludicrous accent, gestural body language and fervent advice sold his performance right up until his melodramatic reveal of his true identity. The relationship established between himself and Mistress Fitzdottrell was initially romantic but quickly became chivalric; this turn was given less attention in the cut text than might have been the case in a longer production, but allowed the initially separated lovers to become collaborators in setting up her fortunes.
Charlie Ryall was subtle as Ingine, the quieter of the two con artists and the stage manager of many of the tricks. Ryall established a smooth flow of activity, whether passing jewels from one hand to another and high-fiving her collaborators, to shifting quickly between costumes for different stages of the gulling, to keeping up a patter of approving or disapproving noises to back up Meercraft’s showmanship. The nods and winks worked fantastically in the small space, and the production understood that these subtleties would come across collusively as part of an intimate performance. Similarly, Fitzdottrell’s final plot – involving him thrashing in a bed pretending to be mad – depended on the audience being close enough to appreciate the transparency of the game. Fitzdottrell kept one eye on Meercraft, listening for his instructions and reacting always with a slight delay to incorporate his suggestions into his performance. His movements in turn prompted Meercraft to desperately react with explanations of what symptoms were being seen, and the amateurish clumsiness of it all made for a very entertaining scene, particularly as he finally gave up on the trick and revealed some of the props he had been waiting to use (a rubber bat!).
Pug was returned to the darkness for his stint in Newgate Prison, and the Voice returned to cackle (accompanied by thunder) and summon him back to Hell. The final scene, presided over by the gullible justice (Stephen Good) enacted a suitable righting of wrongs and allowed Wittipol and Mistress Fitzdottrell to come out on top while Ingine dashed offstage and Meercraft found himself cornered. The production ended rather abruptly, but the company pulled together a thoroughly entertaining and dramatically tight reading of Jonson’s play that, in the hands of a capable and game company, made it seem like a faster and more coherent Alchemist while also parodying Faustus. A real treat.