Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Barbican: ‘a hilarious night at the theatre’

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Cheek by Jowl’s Knight of the Burning Pestle, which is on tour internationally.

Going anywhere with your aunt and uncle can be a fun experience. They are authority figures without the strict boundaries of your parents. In Francis Beaumont’s early modern play Knight of the Burning Pestle, a dour tragedy begins before a grocer, his wife and their nephew interrupt the performance in the hope of seeing something more upbeat. What follows is a hilarious night at the theatre.

Produced by Cheek by Jowl with Moscow Pushkin Theatre, the company of Knight of the Burning Pestle performs in Russian with English surtitles above the stage. If a small complaint may be made of this production, it is that these surtitles sometimes moved a little slow, however the tact and expressiveness of the cast means comprehension was rarely compromised.

Knight of the Burning Pestle was first performed between 1607 and 1611. Yet do not let this fool you: this piece was ahead of its time. Beginning with a noir aesthetic, the play those on stage begin to perform is a sombre affair: black clothing, artistically-slumped bodies over chairs, and, most importantly, a projected head austerely setting the scene: ‘From all that’s near the court, from all that’s great / Within the compass of the city walls, / We now have brought our scene.’

This is until on steps the Grocer (Alexander Feklistov) who asks if, instead, a story that celebrates the common people of the city can be put on. Another cry from the audience reveals the Grocer’s Wife (Agrippina Steklova), who also asks that the story be humorous. But who should play the hero of this new tale? Enter Rafe (Nazar Safonov), nephew to these theatrical interrupters. Sent on his quest and exceptional for his stupidity, Rafe gives Don Quixote a run for his money.

Troublemakers or geniuses? Agrippina Steklova and Alexander Feklistov.

As the confused cast (and audience) look on, Rafe is taken backstage to prepare for his role. In the meantime, the original play goes on: Jasper (Kirill Chernyshenko) is relieved of his station despite his love for Luce (Anna Vardevanian), and the two conspire to run away together. Jasper’s parents, the Merrythoughts, are also going through marital problems, leading to the wife (Anna Karmakova) leaving.

Or, at least, that would be the play if Rafe and his family did not constantly interfere with the cast. Whether it be Rafe charging in on a horse (read: a hobby horse) or the Grocer’s wife attacking the cast with her handbag (she rather got into the action a bit too much at points), Knight of the Burning Pestle always ensures a hilarious antidote is around the corner, though quite when it rears its meta-theatrical head is anyone’s guess. 

Yet Beaumont’s play functions also as a farce on renaissance drama. Jasper’s threat to haunt his enemies implies a parody of the revenge tragedy genre, whilst there is an abundance of references to Shakespeare throughout. In Rafe’s final scene – a massive set piece with blood, decapitated heads and an axe – viewers can detect a Coriolanus or, to use another popular character from the early modern stage, a Tamburlaine. Luce and Jasper also almost become another pair of star-crossed lovers who die too young, and the lines ‘O, I die, Horatio’ and ‘My horse, my horse, my kingdom for a horse’ can be heard.

This is also, however, a modern adaptation of Beaumont’s play. The Grocer literally goes behind the scenes with a handheld camera and captures the flurry of organised chaos to be found. More hilarious still is when the Grocer’s wife’s phone goes off, which she proceeds to answer. ‘No, Lion King was sold out so we had to come here’, she explains. ‘Everybody talks of some Brexit’, she continues, ‘but I haven’t seen that movie’ – if only that was the case.  

Director Declan Donnellan has ensured this is a stupendous production that works well with Nick Ormerod’s design. The entire cast put in wonderful performances, though naturally Fekistov and Stekolva are the standouts. The high standard of the entire production proves why Cheek by Jowl is so internationally respected. 

At the very end of the production, the Grocer’s wife adamantly explains how a happy ending is needed to ensure the audience leave with a positive mindset. In a visual echo to the opening scene, she proceeds to arrange each actor on stage, giving them individually a little dance. The dark lighting is replaced with vibrant colours and the macabre tone becomes one of pure delight as the group dance together. 

Knight of the Burning Pestle is the original Play That Goes Wrong, but it is also a reminder of the importance of theatre to help relieve the pressures of a world that seems full of tragedy. If only more theatre was as enjoyable, clever and surprising.   


Knight of the Burning Pestle is at the Barbican until the 8th June, 2019.      

Photograph credit: Johan Persson.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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