- The Shoemaker’s Holidayby Royal Shakespeare Company
In 2014, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged several productions that, in various ways, commemorated the centenary of World War I. Erica Whyman directed The Christmas Truce, Phil Porter’s new play set in December 1914, and both Love’s Labour’s Lostand Love’s Labour’s Won(the RSC’s advertising gimmick title for Much Ado About Nothing) had WWI backdrops (see Jami Rogers’s review below). Philip Breen’s production of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which opened at the Swan in December 2014 and played until March 2015, begged to be seen alongside these productions. Dekker’s play is often read as a gleeful romp and this appeared to be confirmed by the production’s casually sexist advertising trailer. In it, a group of women lined up to have their feet measured and shoes fitted; they made orgasmic faces as they were presented with their new shoes, and a caption “SHOES. SEXY SINCE 1599” was followed by the description: “A RIOTOUS COMEDY OF CLASS, CONFLICT AND COBBLERS IN LOVE.” Yet the promise of carefree frivolity was not, in the end, entirely granted: a tour de forceending ensured that the brutal cost of war was not forgotten.
The impression that The Shoemaker’s Holidayis light-hearted is misleading, of course, but the play does its best to hide the sting in the tail to come and the production accordingly maximized the merriment in its earliest moments. The play was printed in 1600 with a dedicatory epistle “To all good fellows, professors of the gentle craft, of what degree soever,” which declared that “nothing is purposed but mirth,” and this printed paratext was performed together with the prologue. The company mimed key features of the plot as outlined in the dedication—but the epistle conveniently leaves out the effects war has on Ralph. The cast’s energetic [End Page 517]performances, married with the rustic charm of the period costumes, did indeed prepare the audience for mirth: David Troughton’s ebullient Simon Eyre ruled the domain of the stage; Josh O’Connor’s disguised Rowland Lacy delivered the expected laughs with his cod-Dutch accent. And yet, this production was not quite as mirthful as it might have been. Margery Eyre’s (Vivienne Parry’s) famous line, “I must enlarge my bum” did not get as many laughs as expected (see Dekker, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, ed. R.L. Smallwood and Stanley Wells [Manchester UP, 1979]: 10.37–38). Nor did Eyre’s attempt to find Cicely Bumtrinket, the maid who has the “privy fault” of farting in her sleep (4.37). These lines surely have the potential to be funnier, but in this production they felt a little undersold. If these are relatively minor quibbles, the failure fully to capitalize on the humor of Hammon’s (Jamie Wilkes’s) wildly inappropriate wooing scene was a bigger disappointment. Wilkes could not quite manage the astonishing brashness required even to attempt to pull off such a serenade. Wilkes transmitted Hammon’s uncomfortable ineptitude, and this won him some laughs, but the result was mild amusement and embarrassment when it could have been uproarious laughter.
The production was at its strongest in confronting the play’s challenging tonal variety. Troughton conveyed the right note of sadness as he tried and failed to prevent the conscription of Ralph (Daniel Boyd); afterwards, he attempted to...