RSC Swan Theatre/Stratford on Avon
No, this is not about Jimmy Choo. Or Blahnik. Not even about a pair of those High Street Clark’s clodhoppers that look like leather watermelons.
The Shoemaker’s Holiday, written in 1599 by Thomas Dekker when Shakespeare was running riot in London theatres, is a sharp political comedy about those who go off to war. Not the Henry V heroes or the bold brusque earls and dukes that went around with clunking weaponry. But the little people in the trenches Shakespeare and co many times simply forgot.
Yes, royalty in the shape of a nameless fickle king does descend to give out an ominous decree at the end. But mostly the the characters are those threatened with unwillingly being drafted into regal wars that they really want nothing to do with nor understand.
So, Ralph the happy shoemaker, is press-ganged into an unnamed French war despite his bombastically merry boss’s pleas. He returns a lame scarred ghost of himself, his loving wife reduced to being a poor seamstress. It was not a meaningless setting either. In 1599, London was being scoured for draftees for an unpopular war in Ireland where thousands died.
There are romantic sub-plots; there are fops, dandies and callow noblemen. But these are minor players. This is about the cobblers who have to live in a culture where at any moment that royal hand can point to you and fling you into the mud and deprivation of a foreign bloody field.
He created characters, as in The Shoemaker’s Holiday, who you would meet in the London street. Shakespeare only did this once, with the Merry Wives of Windsor.
The production is a stand out. David Troughton (above) is hilarious as the voluble senior shoemaker Simon Eyre who makes a million in backing a commercial shipping venture and slowly claws his way up to be the Lord Mayor of London. Vivien Parry (see left) is his shrill wife, with a face like a raptor who grabs hold their newfound stature with two claw-like hands. They are a pair made in comedic heaven, all their lines squeezed to the pips for broad laughs. Peppering the stage are characterswho carry with them the labels of humour: Cicely Bumtrinket, Firkbottom, Damport and Dodger.
Of course, with the RSC, set and lighting only add to the candle-lit illusion of late Elizabethan theatre. We are placed, in a guildhall for this play, complete with wooden gargoyles, a huge circular glass window, flying angels and descending chandeliers to reflect the image, the dream, of mercantile power… but middle class power that can be snuffed out, as towards the end, the regal fingers snap and the palace thugs wade into shanghai more recruits to the world of fruitless wars, blood and mud.
Until: March 7th
Tickets: 0844 800 1110