Theater Review: The Shoemaker’s Holiday, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) has two theaters in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which holds about 1,000 spectators, is used for plays by Shakespeare, as well as some other authors (such as next season’s Death of a Salesman). The smaller Swan Theatre, with about 460 seats, is now almost exclusively used for plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (though it has also recently presented productions such as Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, based on Hilary Mantel’s novels, and a new play, Oppenheimer, is being performed there in coming months). As part of this separation, the Swan productions present plays which are not often performed, for the most part, and which end up being a mixed bag.

In the past year, I have seen several plays at the Swan. I did not like The Roaring Girl, and liked The Witch of Edmonton even less (I didn’t bother reviewing the latter). Yet Arden of Faversham was brilliantly performed. It seems to be about 50/50 which plays at the Swan will be good.

So, I headed off to last night’s excursion to see The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a 1599 play by Thomas Dekker, with low expectations, and was delightfully surprised. One of the problems with these “lesser” plays is that they are, indeed, not all very good. They have historical interest, notably because many of the authors collaborated with Shakespeare, but many of them would probably not be performed if not for that connection.

The Shoemaker’s Holiday is no exception. It’s not great theater, but the RSC’s actors, director and designers made it into a wonderful evening of entertainment. The plot is simple: here’s the RSC’s synopsis:

Rowland Lacy loves Rose Oatley but it’s not going to work out. An aristocrat and a middle class girl aren’t supposed to marry, not least because Rowland is a very bad boy and her parents really don’t approve.

When his father sends him to war to reform his ways, Rowland must take drastic action to avoid any chance of unnecessary personal injury and secretly pursue his love. He goes from riches to rags. Losing himself among the craftsmen of London he assumes the guise of a Dutch shoemaker (he learnt Dutch on his gap year of course) at the shop of the larger-than-life Simon Eyre and his wife Margery who are decidedly on their way from rags to riches.

A pretty standard plot for this type of play, and not that far from some of Shakespeare’s comedies. The language isn’t brilliant, and the story itself gets a bit heavy at times, but director Philip Breen did wonders with the play. I presume he must have cut some of the text – I don’t have a text to compare it with – and the performance (2:30 plus a 20-minute intermission) was well paced, with lots of action, and there were only a few dull moments.

There was hardly any set for this play; just a few stools here and there, and a trap door at the front of the stage, where some of the characters would enter or leave. Most everything happened with the actors standing or moving. But the staging was dominated by some of the most opulent costumes I’ve seen at the RSC. (Unfortunately, the RSC website’s page with production photos doesn’t really show highlight the costumes very well.)

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The other highlight of the production was the company itself. This seemed like a very tightly-knit group of actors, who were acting in a play that they knew isn’t a masterpiece, but that they could turn into an enjoyable evening by not taking it too seriously. This isn’t to say that there was any feeling of the actors not giving their all; quite the contrary. Much of the acting was just at the limit of being over the top, and this made it all the more fun.

Among those whose performances were brilliant was David Troughton as Simon Eyre. Mr. Troughton has a great deal of experience with the RSC, but this is the first time I’ve seen him on stage. With his Falstaffian persona, he was a beacon when he was on stage. His character – a bold, impudent shoemaker – rises to become a sheriff, then the lord mayor of London, even entreating the king, at the end of the play, to share a feast with his shoemaker friends, who he had never forgotten. He is a very amiable character, sharing his ambitions with his friends.

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Vivien Parry as Margery Eyre was just this side of crazy, but in a good way. Constantly insulted and humiliated, she nevertheless exuded grace and her own kind of elegance even when clad in a comical costume and makeup.

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Joel MacCormack as Firk showed great talent as a forthright and insolent shoemaker.

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And all the younger female leads were excellent, with Sandy Foster as the ribald Sybil and Thomasin Rand as the sweet lover Rose Oatley.

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This play was full of laughs, more due to the actors and direction than the text itself, and was a delightful entertainment. Most of the audience had smiles on their faces as they left the theatre, and, while it’s not an unforgettable play, it was certainly a memorable evening.

Photos Pete Le May for the RSC.