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Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning (1948) is an extraordinary verse-drama from a period of British theatre that is too often dismissed as the twilight hour of drawing-room comedy, ripe for destruction by the mighty realism of the kitchen sink. Here is a playwright looking linguistically to the past, for sure, with language that is Elizabethan in its love of metaphor, rollicking, overblown, sometimes over-written, but more often witty and energetic. He reminds me less of Eliot, whose Murder In the Cathedral (1935) is probably the most famous verse-drama and more of Dylan Thomas – the romping delight in words concealing a shrewd, sly, earthy view of the world that is completely modern.
The Lady’s Not for Burning was originally produced by Alec Clunes, the Actor-Manager who took over the Arts Theatre Club in 1946 and made it so influential. Clunes was in the vanguard of those looking for drama that was entertaining, but also intelligent; that could break the stranglehold of the West End drawing room play. Which only goes to show that revolutions, theatrical or otherwise, never happen overnight.
This production, directed by Walter Sutcliffe, reveals anew that intelligent, entertaining drama that Clunes first discovered. The actors seize the poetry, the sheer floweriness of it, and wrestle it to the ground. They don’t overpower it however; they master it with dynamism. The Finborough’s tiny acting space accommodates the play surprisingly well, though the offstage recordings of a baying crowd did sound a little like a busy night at the bar downstairs.
The Lady’s Not for Burning is essentially an ironic comedy set in Medieval England. Thomas Mendip, a discharged soldier who has been “floundering in Flanders”, has had enough of this wicked world and wishes to be hanged. He is at the Mayor’s House urging the authorities to find him guilty, when the sound of an incensed crowd alerts them to a new arrival, Jennet Jourdemayne. “Sorry to interrupt but there’s a witch to see you”, announces Richard, the servant. The irony stems from a man who wishes to die and a woman who doesn’t, confronting the hypocritical pillars of the law, who care less for truth than for social standards and are determined that the man shall live and the woman shall burn at the stake.
A darker-hued production would have put more emphasis on Jennet’s fear of the looming flames and brought a sense of the thumbscrew to the stage. This would have given a fairly weak plot more drive and depth. However, here they have given the abundant comedy in the verse the upper hand and who could complain when surrounded by an audience roaring with laughter. I particularly enjoyed Raymond Boot’s off-the-wall Chaplain, in love with his lute and Gay Soper as the Mayor’s sister Margaret Devize – who is shocked to find the crowd “using words only fit for the Bible”.
Gemma Larke, as Jennet, brought a natural spontaneity to the witch, although she failed to convey much terror. And Morgan Brind (Nicholas Devize), who apparently left drama school last year, looked like an actor with a strong career ahead of him, giving a mature comedy performance.
Without a doubt the joy of the evening is in the words and the company never fudge the often-tortuous sentences, swollen with metaphors. Sometimes they seem as impenetrable as those of one of Shakespeare’s wordier Jesters – “Show me daffodils happening to a man … and the need for rhubarb.” Other times they are as succinct as the best Coward – “I wasn’t born, I was come across.” And “Do I merely festoon the room with my presence, Mayor?”
The theatre has included this play in their poetryatthefinborough, a new series of productions of verse plays commissioned by Artistic Director Neil McPherson. Among these will be a new drama by their Playwright-in-Residence Peter Oswald, who adapted Schiller’s Mary Stuart for its successful run last year.
The Finborough also has a policy of tackling neglected work and it would, perhaps, have been interesting to have seen Fry’s less frequently revived A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946), Venus Observed (1950), or The Dark Is Light Enough (1954). Fry’s heyday spanned just these brief few years, before Osborne’s Look Back In Anger (1956) muscled verse drama into the theatrical backwater where it has pretty much remained ever since – making the Finborough’s initiative all the more valuable.
As Harold Pinter was to show us years later, all drama dialogue is style; whether poetic or kitchen sink, it can never be real. Christopher Fry’s style may have been obtuse at times, but it showed a way – however idiosyncratic – of uniting the language of the past with the ideas of his era. Verse-drama’s time may be coming again.
Claire Ingrams © 2007
Originally published on R&V 22-04-07
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