The RSC have brought a Jacobean London 'city comedy' back to its roots with Eastward Ho! which opened at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue last night. Anything more London could not be imagined. As twenty-first century Londoners, we are experiencing the joys of overcrowded public transport and the PPP, of gridlocked inner-city roads and turnpike-style toll systems imminently looming, of multi-national trade and the veneration of Mammon tottering with the slow but inexorable fall of shares, of banks and mortgages, dodgey land deals and spiralling property prices, of political and economic boom and bust, national and international fears of terrorism and social unrest. How reassuring to know that nothing really has changed in the last four hundred years.
So what was London like in 1605, when King James was a relatively recent arrival to the political scene, and the playhouses of London were catering to audiences hungry for novelty, satire and spectacle? Lucy Pitman-Wallace's production of Eastward Ho! teems with topical allusion and contemporary Mayor-Livingstonesque 'in-jokes' that bring to life a style of satiric humour which pokes fun at the nouveau-riche, the wannabe aristo, the priggish and puritanical, the wanton and wayward, and all the other inhabitants of what was a relatively tiny City of London and its suburbs, forced by swelling numbers into an expanding urban sprawl. London was stretching at the seams, and the Gielgud stage evokes this as it is swamped by a mass of street vendors, bearing their wares aloft, and vying for aural supremacy with their timeless 'cries of old London.'
The River Thames, so vital for the movement of goods and people, is symbolically represented by the masque-like head-dresses of two passing trading ships, majestically worn as vast hats by actors who slip effortlessly past each other against the backcloth. Dogs bark, horses' hooves clatter, and this eruption of sound announces the importance of 'commodity.' London has emerged into the seventeenth century as a city of consumers and traders. Mercantilism rules; references to riches in the colonies, like the virgin-queen Elizabeth's own Virginia in the Americas, where even the native's piss-pots are made of gold, spill from a play that foregoes the intrigues of an Italian court, or a neo-classical evocation of ancient Rome, or the historical adventures of an aristocratic elite, and focuses instead on the everyday, the reality of trade and London life.
Where are we guided on our A-Z romp of the city but to Goldsmith's Row in the City of London , the titular centre of those half-magician half-alchemist goldsmiths, whose trade is shrouded in mystery as they produce fine jewellery and thread to grace and adorn the wealthy men and women of the city.
Secretly searching for that elusive prize of Harry Potterful importance -- the Philosopher's Stone -- we are introduced to the abode of William Touchstone the goldsmith, played with vein-bursting energy by Geoffrey Freshwater, and his two apprentices, the hardworking, and ever-so-boring Golding, portrayed with hair-ruffled fortitude by James Tucker, and the drunken, whoring, petty pilfering ne'er-do-well, Quicksilver.
Billy Carter's natural Irish brogue compliments Quicksilver's inebriated smooth-talking schemes to the full. Given the boot by his long-suffering employer, Quicksilver chooses the quick route to social success: Eastward Ho!, the cry of the boatmen on the Thames taxiing Londoner's to the royal palace of Greenwich, spring residence of the Court of King James.
Meanwhile, Touchstone has the problem of all moderately successful business patriarchs, how to satisfy the social-climbing ambitions of his eldest daughter, Gertrude, and his shrewish and demanding wife, Mistress Touchstone. Claire Benedict is splendid as the grand wife and mother, slicing her way through life like a matriarchal man-o'-war, forcing her husband to pander to the follies of his farcically arrogant daughter.
Gertrude, as played by Amanda Drew, is a slavish follower of fashion and excess, petulantly demanding the best to suit her fanciful social standing, and offering more respect to her itsy-bitsy pooch than to her father or mother, let alone those lowly enough to be her sister or apprentices in the firm. Accoutred by Joshua Richards, who plays the lascivious and pin-cushion hatted tailor, Poldavy, with camp delight, Drew's performance is faultless, a comic tour de force from beginning to end. Like a flame haired Baby Jane meets Lucille Ball, and sounding every inch the love-child of Harry H. Corbett as Steptoe, Drew prances and struts in her hooped scotch farthingale, coquettishly flirting and ranting, screaming and blubbing, and eventually discovering humility and legitimate pride after some hilarious misfortunes. A truly star-like performance.
Fortunately for Gertrude she is courted by one of King James's 'thirty pound knights,' played by Michael Matus as the newly-advanced Sir Petronel Flash, flash by name and flash by nature. Haughtily resplendent in an outrageously garish red and gold doublet and hose, fanciful French falling-band ruff, and tall feathered hat, Petronel is the personification of all the social breeding that money can buy.
This is a none too subtle dig at the ease with which a knighthood could be purchased from the new King; James makes our new year's honours lists seem paltry affairs, creating no less than two thousand three hundred and twenty three knights during his reign, nine hundred in 1603 alone. But it landed two of Eastward Ho! 's playwrights, George Chapman and Ben Jonson, in gaol, whilst John Marston went under-ground until the storm blew over. These were dangerous times to offend a monarch. Chapman, Jonson and Marston could expect to have their noses slit and a red-hot iron bored through their earlobes. Even so, this was a liberal and humane punishment compared with Elizabeth 's preferred simple approach - chop off the writer's right hand; swift and effective.
Even worse though, Petronel is accused of only spending four pounds on his knighthood, handing away his last pennies to purchase it from a page. So why does this gallant 'Knight' seek a marriage with Touchstone's daughter, a tradesman's daughter at that? Land of course, a smallholding of Gertrude's that Petronel can trick his wife into selling for hard cash to finance his ventures in the Virginian colony. All this in return for a non-existent castle 'built with air' which Gertrude greedily packs off to inhabit, accompanied by Quicksilver's strumpet, Sindefy, played by Sasha Behar, who pretends to be maidservant to this pompous new lady in order to delay the eventual realization of her lover's lies about wealth and property.
Touchstone is forced to submit to his wife and daughter's demands. Gertrude and Petronel are married, but as paternal revenge, or perhaps just to feel he could control something in the household, Touchstone secretly permits his trusty apprentice Golding to marry his younger daughter Mildred, played with equally puritanical simplicity by Shelley Conn. Golding's advancement as son-in-law triggers a giddying elevation through the City-Father hierarchy, literally overnight becoming deputy Alderman of his City Ward, with all the legal powers accompanying the office.
Golding's success, however, is nothing to the unbelievable failures of the adventuring Petronel and Quicksilver. They are in cahoots with the moneylender, Security, played with satanic darkness by Paul Bentall. Long winkle-picker shoes and a head-tilting hump-backed frock coat makes this sly individual strut like a giant secretary bird cum ever-watchful vulture, seeking out the next disaster to feed his carrion tastes. Recently married to Si ân Howard's earthy and easily led Winifred, Security uses his lawyer-friend, Colin McCormack's Bramble, to draw up binding documents that inevitably lead to losses of inheritance and property. Even so, Security is almost cuckolded by Petronel and Quicksilver, who brazenly invite Winifred to act as 'companion' on the long journey to America .
What of the voyage to America ? As Petronel and Quicksilver carouse with their captain and fellow adventurers at the Blue Anchor Tavern in Billingsgate, they are warned, with woeful Cassandra-like doom by Wayne Cater's skilfully comic drawer, of a 'tempest' on the Thames , and the tide dangerously against them. Fired by drink, the adventurers ignore these warnings and brave the storm-tossed Thames .
Wayne Dowdeswell and Martin Slavin design the lighting and sound of a London storm with eye- and ear-splitting realism. The torrents of rain suggested by their device seem to drench the Gielgud stage, a grey-blue gloom descending over the bedraggled survivors of a shipwreck. The doomed Virginian vessel has gone down. All is lost. How far have the drunken adventurers journeyed Eastward Ho! ? Why, as far as the Isle of Dogs of course.
A spell in Bridewell prison with Security, the intervention of a forgiving Golding, and the obvious moral salvation of Quicksilver, ensures that Touchstone can provide the comic denouement to this glorious farce. Marrying the fallen Sindefy to his ex-apprentice Quicksilver, Touchstone embraces anew his impoverished son-in-law, Petronel, provides for his humble and contrite daughter, Gertrude, and shows Security the error of his scheming, cuckolded ways. All is right with these citizens of London , a moral ending to this fanciful tale.
To think this play, when first performed in 1605, was acted by a Children's company of young boys and youths in the indoor luxury of a candlelit Blackfriars Playhouse. What skill must these young men have been trained to, and what a joy that this vibrant and vital production has returned to London, courtesy of the RSC. A worthy and delightful addition to the season at the Gielgud Theatre, my advice is to Eastward Ho! to London 's West End and catch this marvellous adult antidote to festive excess.
Kevin Quarmby © 2002