Andrea and I went to see The Roaring Girl at The Swan theatre in Stratford on Thursday night.
It is, I am told, the first in a season of plays celebrating women on stage.
The play, by Middleton and Dekker, is contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s output, but very different.
I have seen things by Middleton before, The Revenger’s Tragedy and Women Beware Women are rather dark and brooding, and quite a lot stabby stabby. They are tales of woe. A Mad World My Masters, which is the most recent of his plays I have seen, and also the one put on by the same company who performed this one, was the one I described as a cross between ‘Whoops There Go My Bloomers’ and ‘Carry on Matron.’ It had been heavily rewritten for a modern audience, and worked brilliantly, proving hugely entertaining to someone with as gutterish a mind as myself.
The Roaring Girl was supposed to be a comedy, the protagonist of which is the Roaring Girl of the title, a woman known as Mad Moll, who wanders the streets of London’s nefarious stews, knife in hand, cross dressing on tap, confusing people like hell.
It certainly confused me.
I liked the fact that it looked at a surprisingly modern London underworld. I also liked that it talks about freedom of the individual and judging women by their worth not by how they dress or speak. It was interesting, but the story made it very hard to be interested because of the way it was staged. Not all of the time, but enough of the time for me to struggle with it.
Mad Moll is supposedly morally adrift, but with a heart of gold. She is an individualist who does as she pleases when she pleases. People think she is bad, but she has her own code of honour and will not be put upon. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a greedy father who refuses to let his son marry the woman he is betrothed to, because he is hoping for a better financial match. In order to try and get his father to acquiesce with his desire to marry his own sweet Moll (or Mary), the son pretends he is infatuated with, and eventually to be married to Mad Moll. The father is incandescent with rage and tries all kinds of nefarious means to discredit and be rid of Mad Moll, all of which she thwarts.
There are lots of cross narratives in the play. A father who is ashamed of his son’s penchant for young boys and dandy dressing, tries to catch him out. An old soldier plays both ends to the middle to try and get as much money out of the gentry as he can etc.
It could have worked, had the director done as fierce a job of pruning the play as they did with A Mad World My Masters. The first half was too long and confusing. At one point I did wonder if we were ever going to have an interval at all, and my arse cheeks were protesting as we neared the end. Not a good sign when you are aware of how uncomfortable you are. You are clearly not being transported by the drama. The second half was speedier, and funnier, and got things moving rather better, although it was at times just as confusing, and there seemed, in the last five minutes to be an ‘oh shit, we forgot to tidy up that narrative thread,’ moment where everything came together in a godawful tangle at the last gasp, making you aware of the gaping plot holes that went before it as you went ‘Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that bit’.
As it was, it was ragged and uneven and fairly unsatisfactory.
To give them their due, this was a preview performance. It is there for the wrinkling out of problems. One of which was that the stage floor was created to look like flagstones of a London street, and the man in the antique wheelchair nearly got hurled out headlong when it appeared that the chair was not fit to combat the cobble stones with him in it. That was problematic, but entertaining. I think were you to go and see it in a few weeks, when they have trimmed it down and tightened it up, and the cast have gelled together as a team, it would be a much better, and rather different play.
It is definitely worth going to see anyway because of the excellent dance number at the end, which did bring the house down despite all.