A healthy rendition of subversive Jacobean theatre that's carried by a convincing cast
With Shakespeare In Love just opening in London, you’d think it’d be a little longer before we started seeing more Jacobean capers in the same vein. Tim Norton’s Civil Rogues broadly copies Stoppard’s winning formula of taking a Shakespearean play and subverting its context, creating a sketchy romp in the process. There’s the usual cross-dressing, long speeches about theatre and a smattering of knowing quotes for the geeks, but it’s an enjoyable 60 minutes all the same.
Set during Cromwell’s reign, Norton begins with a performance of Romeo and Juliet that's broken up by order of the Lord Protector, scattering the rogues far and wide. We follow Charles, Will and Richard, who run away in their dresses and have to keep up the guise in Lady Margaret Cavendish’s household, testing their acting abilities. Scenes of a farcical nature ensue.
Marieke Audsley’s direction struggles to hide the showcase-like nature of the production, but draws out some solid performances from the cast all the same. Elliott Ross, Laurie Davidson and Sam Woolf provide a sturdy centre to the show as the three players, and Kate Craggs as Cavendish is a peevish orchestrator of events. It’s a cohesive ensemble, and does the best it can with a less-than-original script.
This is a spirited defence of theatre which isn’t quite completely coloured in, with the hefty and complex plot struggling to convey a real sense of jeopardy or farce either way. Civil Rogues has nothing in it that you haven't seen before, but it just about manages to pull it off.
REVIEW – Civil Rogues
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By Danielle Farrow
These Civil Rogues are actors, fleeing Cromwell’s Roundhead soldiers. It is the day King Charles has been beheaded, productions are banned and three actors, in the costume of their female characters, manage to escape capture and wheedle their way into the house of Lady Margaret Cavendish as hired help. The lady is a Royalist who just so happens to have hit upon the idea of squandering all her wealth on putting on a play – what else could suck all that money up with no return quite so successfully? – before Cromwell and his Puritans can get their hands on it.
The actors do not uncover their female disguises, so that plenty of humour can be wrung from them and even some touching romance. There is some attention paid to the family of the Roundhead sergeant, also connected to the Cavendish household, and at the troubles of the times, and there are quotes and other allusions to plays, Shakespeare predominating, with the play amusingly put on by Lady Margaret being Romeo and Juliet.
Tim Norton’s script was developed at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Other Place and is full of fun, but also skims over some questions of believability – not so much whether you can accept the main plot, easily bought into as a joyful romp, but rather there are holes in its internal logic. There is at least one reference to a quality never established and there are some tiny issues, that could have provided further comedy if addressed, such as: why on earth would a character like lead actor Gascoigne accept the role of Tybalt (necessary for plot, but not believable without a fight)? Such things run throughout the play, with details which bring true quality – including to light entertainment – forgotten or ignored. That these ‘women’ are dressed in fine Elizabethan garb is never even mentioned, let alone addressed.
It is only the men in female costume who have suitable hairstyles (wigs), while there is no attempt to give the lady of the household the same for the Carolean period. Otherwise, though, costumes and set are decent, the latter consisting of walls of appropriate panelling across the back and on both sides, allowing different exits and entrances, with a chandelier hanging centrally, and a large basket put to use.
Performances are solid throughout, and do involve an occasional layer deeper than simple entertainment, such being particularly well played by Elliott Ross as a young actor admired by the bootboy. As a company, the cast work well together, and the pace of the piece keeps up momentum, while allowing for subtler moments.
Civil Rogues is a funny and even endearing comedy, with flashes of wit, that connects well with its chosen period. The script could do with a little more polish to explain – and indeed to utilise – certain gaps in its own comedic world, and this lack of detail is seen slightly in the production’s design, but there is plenty here to amuse, remind or inform, and, above all, to heartily entertain.
31 July – 25 August (not 11), 17:00 (18:00) @ Pleasance Courtyard