It’s a common conundrum. You have gone to the theatre, and instead of enjoying Wicked for the fourteenth time, you’ve gone off-piste and chosen an experimental piece of physical theatre devised by a group of recent graduates with no budget and seemingly no idea of what a plot is. Four minutes in, you regret everything. What do you do?
It’s the conundrum at the heart of Francis Beaumont’s play, staggeringly ahead of its time when first produced in the early 17th Century and now presented – in Russian – by international theatre company Cheek by Jowl. Just a few minutes into the production – an artsy, minimalist romance story – the action is interrupted by an elderly couple who, they explain as they clamber from the audience onto the stage, would like to see a different play instead. From that point onwards, the company juggle the complex metatheatrical task of presenting a play, a play within that play, and live criticism of both plays.
It’s amusing throughout and in places, it’s very very funny. The increasing distress of the ‘actors’ – particularly their ‘director’ Kirill Sbitnev is a joy to watch, as they haplessly find themselves acting out nonsensical scenarios. Alexander Feklistov and Agrippina Steklova are the belligerent audience members, and their various interruptions and requests are often hilarious.
However the production does suffer from comparison – perhaps unfairly, for Beaumont’s play is the great-great-great-grandfather of metatheatre. But others – Noises Off, the Play that Goes Wrong and more – have done it since, and done it better. The comedy becomes a little repetitive, a little predictable.
Nick Ormerod allows for the metatheatrical device to unfold in a simple but clever set design, and the (often ingenious) use of projections effortlessly modernises this centuries-old play. It’s a slick and well-executed production, and is very well worth a watch if you enjoy mayhem unfolding on stage.