Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • THE LADY’S NOT FOR BURNING • Finborough 2007 • Year

john gielgud pamela brown

John Gielgud & Pamela Brown on the programme cover for the original production, courtesy of Beguiling Hollywood

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enogastronomista

Food & Wine

Coffee fuels my photography!

~ my everyday life through the lens of my camera ~

Polly's Paper Studio

Vintage Inspired Paper Crafts & Digital Design

Life on La Lune

A journey through life in Southwest France

Vanessa Couchman

Historical Fiction with a French Flavour

Disability & Determination

It isn't being John Malkovich, but it is being me

Nicholas Andriani

Writer + Researcher + Poet + Translator - Japanese Literature, Folklore, and Narrative Design & Pop Culture Studies.

Joe Ruggiero at Home

Daily Reflections from My Home and Garden

Mitch Teemley

The Power of Story

Genealogy Jude

Unlocking the Door to Your Past

COOKING ON A BOOTSTRAP

by Jack Monroe, bestselling author of 'A Girl Called Jack'

Stevie Turner

Realist, writer, reader, reviewer and rocker.

The Stuff They Won't Include in Any Tourist Guide: The Real England

The Real England is a concise, direct, and not-so-gentle window into the depths of the leftovers of the world’s once greatest empire. It is told from the perspective of one lone (or not so lone) long term visitor. It informs one of the dregs of the country and helps to explain quaint British oddities such as the crack addicted chav.

Postcards from

home and away...

S.O.U.L. S-P-A-C-E

Artists, Writers and Visionaries Blog on the Unique and Ordinary

The Lady Sews

Collected works and other excuses from a textile obssessive

coelsblog

Defending Scientism

@KellyOSullivan

has random thoughts

Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

JEMSBOOKS

Writing - Loving What I Do and Doing What I Love!

Noir

the darker side to sedge808

Off Center & Not Even

Photographs, music and writing about daily life. Contact: elcheo@swcp.com

Reina Cottier Art

Creative Intuitive from New Zealand

Tenafly Road

Family Saga Fiction by Adrienne Morris

johnrieber

Burgers, Books, Music, Movies, Offbeat Adventures & Pop Culture!

Etan Smallman

Freelance journalist

Assemblage Art

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013...

Candia Comes Clean

Candid cultural comments from the Isles of Wonder

blackwings666

Horror, Science Fiction, Comic Books and More

The Wandering Empath

Traveling the World Through Others

I didn't have my glasses on....

A trip through life with fingers crossed and eternal optimism.

penwithlit

Art, Literature, Poetry, Politics and a little History

Jet Eliot

Travel and Wildlife Adventures

Judith Barrow

Writer & Author

Sophia Riley Kobacker

it's all about the story, possums...

Tropical Affair

Observations of the illusion through the eyes of wonder...

Doodlewash®

Adventures in Watercolor Painting and Sketching, Watercolour Magazine, with Charlie O'Shields

Luanne Castle's Writer Site

Memoir, poetry, & writing theory

Life in Russia

The Bridge between two countries

London Life With Liz

A lifestyle blog with a little bit of everything.

Brotherly Love

A personal exploration of autism from a brother’s perspective, including family relationships, philosophy, neuroscience, mental health history and ethics

Alex Raphael

Entertainment, travel and lifestyle blog

%d bloggers like this: