The Hypocrite at the RSC. Dir. Phillip Breen. Writer: Richard Bean
Having swept up lavish praise in Hull, the question was whether this bawdy farce could continue its towering run after transplanting to Stratford-upon-Avon.
From the opening sequence showing Sir John Hotham’s untimely end, any doubts were emphatically swept aside on the night.
Mixing true events based on Hull’s contribution to the Civil War in 1642 with elements of a sex farce, this was a chest plate-thumping march into Shakespeare’s heartland.
Rarely can the English Civil War have inspired such hilarity.
One-liners were delivered with superb pace and timing by a cast half from Hull, City of Culture, who were led by Caroline Quentin in great comic form and Mark Addy outstanding as the conflicted Sir John.
The political side of the play drew in the Ranters, Levellers and Millenarian non-conformist movements and songs powerfully delivered by a kind of folk-protest band.
The co-production was also a physical piece, well suited to the intimate nature of the Swan Theatre, with magic and stunts aplenty, not least in the opening scene featuring the beheading of Sir John. Fittingly for a ‘world turned upside down’, the play starts at the end.
Speaking at a pre-show discussion, writer Richard Bean revealed that as a native of Hull, he returns frequently for material and inspiration and although the play has political elements, he differs in his source material, say, from David Edgar “who hasn’t written 15 plays about Bexhill On Sea”.
The award-winning playwright said events behind the production, when researched, “read like a Feydeu farce”. The songs (by Grant Olding) “play a different role”, bringing balance and “reminding you it’s a political play”.
As for any message for today, Bean said “you can read into it what you like”.
A major concern was “will it work in Stratford?” but he found that after the first week all had gone well, with the Swan “working very well as a venue” and “the Hull jokes working fine in Stratford”.
The audiences, Bean noted, are ‘”treating it as a play rather an event”.
So it proved, with a production that was a bawdy cannon shot through the pages of Shakespeare and of Hull’s tumultuous past.
By Much Ado reviewer
For tickets and further information visit the RSC’s website