The Dutch Lady, directed by Robert Ball for FRED theatre, at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford upon Avon, 6/7 2017.
Reviewed by Sara Marie Westh
It is an unusual treat, and a privilege, for any early modernist to watch a play that has not been acted for more than three centuries – not to mention reviewing it. The Dutch Lady is one such rare occasion.
Discovered and prepared for performance by Dr Joseph Stephenson of Abilene Christian University, The Dutch Lady has survived in manuscript form only, in the Boston Public Library, as part of bibliophile Thomas Pennant’s collection. In collaboration with Robert Ball, artistic director of FRED theatre, a collaboration facilitated by Dr Martin Wiggins of the Shakespeare Institute, the play was seen by audiences for the first time since the Restoration on 6 July.
As the plot will be unknown to all but those who attended the first few performances, here follows a brief (reasonably spoiler-free) outline: Jolly (Neil Jacks) is broke, and as such needs to pass his economically demanding mistress, the Dutch Lady of the title, Fuscara (Georgia Christodoulou) on to someone with a more thriving bank account. He has determined that the virtuous Aimwell (Phil Hemming) is ideal for this purpose, and is unwittingly helped in his plot by his friend Bezar (Peter M. Smith). Meanwhile, Fuscara and her attendant lady Violetta (Kelley Costigan) make their own preparations to avoid poverty, preparations centred on extracting funds from their respective suitors. Hotlove (Nathan Blyth) lends a hand out of open self-interest, hoping to pave his own way to Fuscara’s bed by landing her with a wealthy, old knight, Sir Ralph Beetle (Marc Phillips), for a husband. Sir Ralph’s young nephew, the lawyer Withernam (Ed Loboda) fights his own poverty in a further subplot. Meanwhile, the deeply corrupt Surfeit (James Parsons) imprisons a competitor – the ever-offstage Truman – and runs a religious movement as his personal harem.
To discover how all this ends you will have to watch the play yourself, yet a few particularly striking scenes crave mention.
The physical comedy provided by Amner (Lyle Mitchell), as he dresses his master Aimwell – played with absentminded stoicism by Hemming – is a carefully timed and eminently executed piece of performance; I can honestly say I have never laughed so hard at a cravat before. As profoundly unsettling as this was amusing, every appearance of Surfeit was a study in revulsion, making certain scenes downright hard to watch, an effect achieved by a combination between Parsons’ transformative acting and Ellie Allum-Marshall’s innocence as Love-the-Saints. Christodoulou and Costigan portrayed an easy camaraderie between Fuscara and Violetta, rendering them in proto-feminist manner as women striving for control of their own wealth, social status, and bodies in a world dominated by male power. This may sound at first like a contemporary acting choice, but the diolague in their shared scenes demonstrates a strikingly modern exploration of gender relationships on the part of the anonymous author. Jacks and Smith were irrepressible as the comic duo Jolly and Bezar, buzzing at the edges of the action: morally compromised, yet utterly charming. Blyth flits between the rakishly engaging and downright menacing as Hotlove, changing from lover to perfidious tormentor over a line of dialogue. Finally, Phillips delivers a nuanced and in the end deeply moving interpretation of Sir Ralph. As the plot goes through its final movements, he stands centre stage, in vain attempting to follow the quick changes brought into his life by the younger characters, exhausted by his emotional journey, and left speechless by the merciless manner in which control is wrested from him. His confusion and desperation was reminiscent of King Lear, and brought the callousness of the world the old knight found himself in to the forefront.
As an extra treat, for the attentive Shakespearean, there are quotes from Julius Caesar, the Henriad, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be found, some subtle, others beyond blatant.
The production is supported by Abilene Christian University, University of Birmingham, The Shakespeare Institute, and The Sir Barry Jackson Trust, and will transfer to London and Birmingham in the upcoming week. I strongly recommend watching it. Consult FRED theatre’s website for more information and booking.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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