The Knight of the Burning Pestle – Barbican, London

Writer: Francis Beaumont

Director: Declan Donnellan

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

As theatregoers wouldn’t it be great if we could change the course of events on stage to suit our tastes? After all, we’re paying for the seats, and surely we deserve a happy ending? In The Knight of the Burning Pestle two Russian tourists clamber on stage and harangue the cast demanding more excitement. This production by Cheek by Jowl is so good that it’s surprising that this play from the early 1600s isn’t revived more often.

It starts austerely with the actors appearing from behind the white cube that dominates the otherwise bare stage. They brandish chairs as if they are props in a piece of contemporary dance, before one of the actors delivers the prologue to a camera just off stage. As this is Declan Donnellan’s company from Moscow, every line is spoken in Russian with surtitles in English above the action. At first it’s hard to keep up with the dense Elizabethan language, and the prospect of a long night beckons.

But this over-earnest beginning is part of Francis Beaumont’s plan; he is criticising the Elizabethan desire for new plays and new plots. He is also satirising the new middle-class’s power and sense of entitlement. The two hecklers who finally make their way on stage feel that they have every right to demand that the play, about an apprentice’s elopement with his master’s daughter, should feature a knight-errant like Don Quixote. The couple also call for more blood, and some exotic locations. Their interruptions are welcomed by the audience as the play is certainly better with their suggestions.

The metatheatricality is staggering for a play over 400 years old, and the occasional updates to the text – the Russian couple really wanted to see The Lion King, but it was sold out – ensure that this play feels as fresh as a daisy. The cast are wonderfully downtrodden with a very expressive Kirill Sbitnev as Tim trying to please everyone. The petulance of Anna Vardevanian ‘s Luce is a joy to behold as she pouts and poses her way through a complicated love affair with Jasper, an exasperated Kirill Chernyshenko . As the Russian interlopers Alexander Feklistov and Agrippina Steklova are a perfect comedy duo. Watching them react to what is happening on stage is akin to watching Gogglebox.

Donnellan has cut a few scenes from Beaumont’s play to ensure that the show is a speedy 100 minutes, without an interval, but as the plays reaches its hysterical finale you won’t want it to end. There’s a nagging sense that Beaumont was also targeting the audience in his satirical play, and this feeling is heightened by this production in Russian, which will only attract the discerning. But in the end it seems that we’re really laughing at ourselves, and at our own expectations on what a night at the theatre should bring.


Runs until 8 June 2019 | Image: Johan Persson

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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