You’d be forgiven for supressing an internal groan as po-faced Russian actors all dressed in black stalk onto a dimly lit stage each carrying a chair as if it was the crown jewels. My companion closed his eyes with dread when the convoluted surtitles appeared high above the Barbican stage. It was hard to believe we’d survive 1hr 40 mins (without an interval) of an earnest Russian version of a play written in 1607.

Luckily Francis Beaumont’s comedy was extraordinarily modern for it’s time and this new condensed version has been heavily adapted for a contemporary palate. It becomes clear that the more desperate our internal monologue at the start, the more we will laugh at the Grocer (Alexander Feklistov) and his wife who soon emerge from the audience, bumble onto the stage to interrupt the action, demanding better entertainment. Once this has been established, the time flies by and with a great deal of silliness and a very accessible dose of meta-theatre.

‘Cheek by Jowl’ and the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre have re-united for this European Tour following the success of their production of Measure for Measure in 2015. Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod have evidently had a lot of fun with this parody of austere ‘modern theatre’ set off by the deliciously human and very ‘ordinary’ Grocer and his wife who would rather see their nephew play a heroic Knight in a show with lots of blood, smoke and the odd de-capitation.

The specific contemporary references are enjoyable if not original (Brexit, Meghan Markle, the wild woods of Waltham Forest, answering a mobile during the show) but it’s astounding to think that Beaumont’s original text was so bold. What would happen if audiences took control of theatre? And to what extent is that already the case? ‘Do as you’re told’ reprimands the Grocer’s Wife (Agrippina Steklova)’we’re paying!’

There’s no doubt that ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’ presents a pretty damning view of popular opinion and it was not appreciated by its original audiences in 1607 who thought it lacked ‘judgment’ among other things. The impressive cast successfully negotiate the fine line between parody and honesty without which it would be un-watchable. But perhaps it was just ahead of its time in terms of referencing its own form? The post goggle-box audience of 2019 certainly seemed to enjoy it…

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