Philip Breen’s production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday in the Swan Theatre rather surprisingly reveals Â Thomas Dekker’s play to be a neglected masterpiece. The play is in many ways a very modern theatre piece. It alternates compressed time with expanded time; Dekker chooses not to show several scenes crucial to plot development with the result that untold and half told stories lie behind much of the action. What the audience might expect to be dramatic and tension-filled scenes are omitted and merely briefly mentioned. Characters frequently defy audience expectations.
The rise of the power and significance of the merchant class is Dekker’s subject, a theme which allows him to make implicit comparisons of the behaviour of the rising merchant class with that of the aristocracy and, daringly at the end of the play, with monarchy. Shoemaker Simon Eyre attempts to intercede on behalf of his employee Ralph Damport when the latter is conscripted into the army but fails, so that Ralph and his new wife Jane are separated as Ralph goes off to war. In a parallel plot Rowland Lacy, nephew of the Earl of Lincoln, is crossing class barriers by being in love with Rose Oatley, daughter of the Lord Mayor of London Â (a grocer), but he too is sent to war. Ralph goes to war but is injured. Lacy goes to war but deserts, returning to London disguised as a Dutch shoemaker, finding employment with Eyre. Â The injured Ralph returns to Eyre and his old job. On their return neither man is reconciled with his partner; Jane has disappeared and Lacy keeps his head down. But in the end both couples are reconciled. Jane, having been wooed by Hammon who himself is crossing class barriers by wooing her, rejects Hammon when she recognises the injured Ralph and Lacy’s disguise is finally seen through by Rose and, despite the opposition of parent and uncle, they marry secretly.
There is a lot of material about social class, its relationship to discourse and its reflection in clothes, but what triumphs is personal integrity and sound morality. The programme comments on the emptiness of Eyre’s speech, but this is not entirely true. Although his verbosity creates a great Â deal of humour it is his humanity, his adherence to promises he has made and his loyalty which shine through the surface of ridiculous verbosity. This is a play where moral integrity triumphs, with few of Shakespeare’s ironic or dark edges. Â The king appears at the end, Â pardons Lacy, sanctions his marriage with Rose and grants Eyre (now Lord Mayor) and all cordwainers the right to sell leather in the new Leadenhall market, the show of royal authority matched by the show of workers’ solidarity earlier in the play.
The production begins with the Prologue and a beautifully blocked dumbshow. The plot exposition is extremely economical, action moving swiftly between scenes, seamlessly linked on a bare stage. Max Jones’ s costumes are to die for: gowns and hats are gorgeous but not merely decorative. The colour matching and occasional colour symbolism are delightfully matched by satirical touches, Eyre’s costume accentuating his growing portliness and his wife Margery’s ever-bigger farthingales reflecting her rise in wealth and self-importance. I am deeply covetous of Hamm0n’s gorgeous hats.
The acting is splendid. David Troughton is wonderful as Eyre. Daniel Boyd as Ralph and Josh O’Connor as Lacy are also splendid, resisting the temptation to overdo either physical injury or the cod-Dutch accent. The harridan Margery Eyre is beautifully played by Vivien Parry, her comic timing superb and her physicality completely under control. Her transition into Queen Elizabeth reminiscent ginger wig and fine gown was gloriously comic and the discrepancy between what fell out of her mouth and the beauty of her costume a most delightful motif. The effeminately gay king (could Dekker really have been suggesting James VI of Scotland should be the next king as early as 1599? Probably not) played by Jack Holden was clear but not overdone. Boy (played by Charlie Bygate the night I saw it) was astonishingly poised both vocally and physically. These for me were the acting highlights, but this is an ensemble production with no weak links.
What else? Lots of visual stimulus – processions upstage, figureheads on some of the auditorium columns, deft management of handprops, a wonderful range of period slang nicknames and verbal abuses (mainly from Eyre), the recurring joke of the name of Eyre’s journeyman Firk, the effect of the Shrove Tuesday bells, lovely dances, spirited singing, delightful stage pictures, the splendid moving touch of tying the red conscription ribbon round Boy’s arm at the end, mirroring Ralph’s ribbon at the beginning, the motif of recognising identity through shoes: these are just a few of the wonderfully creative touches in the production.
This is the best thing on at the RSC at the moment. Come and see it. A warm welcome awaits you at Moss Cottage, too, if you want to stay the night.