And Laugh We Did: ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’

As one of the Department’s resident medievalists, most of my teaching concerns heroes and monsters, knights and ladies, and magic and the supernatural. However, this year, I’ve had the unexpected pleasure of co-teaching (with Ruth Ahnert, Una McIlvenna, Anthony Ossa-Richardson, and Harriet Phillips) a new module on Renaissance drama.  Aimed at second year students, ESH280 Renaissance Drama explores four key themes in the plays of early modern England: London; metatheatricality; strangers and others; and law and justice. My research is in late medieval and early renaissance drama, so it’s been a real treat to learn more about the drama of a slightly later period, and even tease out parallels and points of contact with the material I work with more closely.

Of all the plays we have read this semester, one stands out as both uniquely modern, but also curiously indebted to medieval literature and culture:  The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont. First performed by a cast of schoolboys in 1607, it has recently been revived and is currently playing at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at The Globe. So, on a dark and rainy December evening, the ESH280 team left Queen Mary and travelled to the Southbank, ready to be transported to early-seventeenth-century London, where the play is set.

With its candlelit stage and galleried (for which read, uncomfortable) seating, its historically accurate costumes and carefully researched staging, ‘authentic’ is certainly one word that readily sticks to any account of Adele Thomas’s production. However, far more than a history lesson, this is a production that reminds us how formally daring, how generically subversive this play really is.

The premise is relatively straightforward: a grocer and his wife turn up at the theatre to watch a production of a play called The London Merchant, but unhappy with the way that play seems to be proceeding, they interrupt the action and demand their apprentice, Rafe, be given a role as the knight of the play’s title. Watching Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn as the grocer and his wife air their views while chewing noisily on popcorn and passing drinks to other members of the audience, I was struck by how modern – how post-modern, even – this play can feel. Centuries before Punchdrunk, before You Me Bum Bum Train, here’s a play exploring how we as audience members experience theatre and, in turn, how our experience as audience members can affect or even change the fabric of the play we are watching.

But strangely, this, the most curiously current of all the play’s many conceits, is also one of its most medieval. Long before the proscenium arch, before the fourth wall had been put up, separating actors from their audiences, medieval drama thrived on a dynamic that frequently placed spectators at the heart of the action. To take just one example, in the late medieval morality play Mankind, not only are audience members required to pay to make the chief devil appear – thus neatly paying the actors’ wages – but they are also duped into singing a dirty little ditty, a ‘Christmas song’ that has little to do with the birth of Christ, and rather more to do with lavatorial misadventure.

Mankind was probably performed at inns and other venues in and around East Anglia in the second half of the fifteenth century; quite some way then from the candlelit stage at Blackfriars where The Knight of the Burning Pestle was first staged. However, both plays share a kind of crazed exuberance, a recognition that active involvement is often the best way of making, playing with, and sometimes even disrupting meaning. They also thrive on comedy – by which I mean less the classical genre than the ability to make you bellyache with laughter. And laugh we did. Raucously, rambunctiously, and probably uncouthly. It’s a reaction that is somehow so central, but can often fail to come off in a classroom. And if that isn’t an advertisement for the current performance, I don’t know what is.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 11 January 2015.

REF2014: Response and Implications

The School of English and Drama is delighted by our success in the REF, which recognizes us as one of the leading research institutions in the country. The Department of Drama is ranked 1st in the UK for the quality of its research, while the Department of English is ranked 5th (and 1st in London).

The results testify to international quality of the dynamic interdisciplinary research done by our research staff. The REF measures quality in research outputs, in our research environment, and in the impact our research has on the wider world. In each measure we have performed exceptionally well. This is a testament to the hard work and collegiality with which colleagues across the School have approached the REF.

The REF results are vital in determining future research funding, and this result will ensure the School continues to prosper in the coming years. The research that REF measures also has an important influence on our teaching. The School has long adopted a philosophy of research-led teaching; this means that the modules we run at undergraduate and postgraduate level are taught by international experts in the field, and students are thus exposed to the latest and most exciting ideas. The impact result also reveals that academics in the School are committed to speaking to audiences beyond the university.

In the following two videos, I reflect on the importance of the REF, and some of the implications it was for us and for other institutions.

 

Race, Racism and ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’

Katie Beswick, Lecturer in Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, on her research into race, racism and Theatre of the Ghetto.

One of my research interests is in the genre of drama that journalist Lindsay Johns has pejoratively termed ‘Theatre of the Ghetto‘. This genre, according to Johns, is primarily ‘about guns, drugs and council estates’ and regularly depicts black people (particularly men) as inhabitants of unsavoury or troubled home environments and as the perpetrators or victims of crime.

‘Theatre of the Ghetto’, I would add, usually adheres to the conventions of social realism – where working class spaces are depicted with a close attention to detail in the set design, costume and staging. Plays that might fit into this category include Off the Endz (Bola Agbaje 2010 Royal Court), The Westbridge (Rachel De-lahay 2011 Royal Court) and Estate Walls (Arinze Kene 2011 Ovalhouse).

It is easy to see why Johns is dissatisfied with the state of contemporary black British theatre, which again and again presents stereotypes of young black men, which reinforce racist conceptions of black masculinity that already circulate in the dominant culture. In many of the post-show talks and Q&As that I have attended after theatre (and indeed film) of the ‘ghetto’ events the question asked by audience members is: ‘what can we do about our young black men?’ Audiences (both black and white) appear to receive these works as truthful reflections of the total state of the young black British community, and respond by seeking methods to ‘fix’ the youth.

I think audiences are asking the wrong question – what we should be asking, especially in this period where the rise of the far right throughout Europe threatens to create and entrench divisions between racial and religious groups, is: ‘what can we do about racism?’ What can we do about racism, which operates to demonise groups of the population and which is so pervasive that it works through cultural intuitions such as theatre to reinforce its dangerous message?

Accusing mainstream theatres of racism is ethically complex, not least because most of the plays that fit the ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ mould are written by black writers, often claiming to reflect the ‘reality’ of the life of the black British community. And, after all, what right does a white woman such as me have to tell these writers what kind of theatre they should and shouldn’t be making? (Another good question.)

But of course – as is hardly ever publically acknowledged, particularly at the Royal Court, which emphasises the primacy of the playwright – plays have more than one author. The producers, directors, set designers and centrally, the funders of theatre also contribute to the overall meaning created by productions, and importantly, decide what gets made, and how.

What can we do about a system where, as playwright Arinze Kene has argued, black British playwrights are coerced into writing ‘the same old shit’, in the knowledge that these are the stories theatres want to stage?

Happily, there does seem to be a fledgling move towards mainstream theatres asking questions about the stories they produce. Over the past couple of years I have come across two especially powerful productions that place racism at the centre of the story, questioning ‘norms’ of the theatre industry in different ways.

The first is Nathaniel Martello-White’s play Blackta (Young Vic 2012), which explores the place of the black actor in the contemporary theatre industry. Blackta calls attention to the pressures young black men feel to live up to stereotypes of extreme masculinity – ‘homophobic, misogynistic, tough’ – and examines how the acting industry exploits and reinforces conventional depictions of black men.

The second is Arinze Kene’s God’s Property (Soho 2013), which subverts conventional ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ narratives, which often position black men as recidivist criminals. At the end of the play, the mixed-race Chima who has served a long prison sentence for the murder of his white girlfriend, Poppy, is revealed not to have killed her at all – he has covered for Poppy’s father, who killed her accidently, trying to attack Chima after becoming enraged that his daughter was carrying a black man’s baby.

Both of these examples mark an important, I think, way in which the theatre industry is starting to interrogate its own practices. Although, depressingly, after a showing of God’s Property at the Albany in Deptford, audiences were still asking, ‘what should we do about our young black men?’ A question which conveniently shifts the gaze away from those in power, who might be able to actually do something about the social problems caused by racial and economic inequality.

 

With thanks to Charlotte Bell at Queen Mary University, whose question on my paper at the Seeing Like a City symposium prompted this blog.

If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on realism and the ethics of representation you might like to read articles I have written (and co-written) on the subject: here and here.

Welcome to the QMULsed Blogs

Welcome to All Things SED, the new blogging platform for the School of English and Drama (SED) at Queen Mary University of London.

The School brings together two of Queen Mary’s outstanding departments: the Department of English and the Department of Drama. The School has an international reputation for its high-quality research and its excellence in teaching. The latest REF (Research Excellence Framework, 2014), ranked Drama as first in the country and English as fifth in the country (and first in London) for the quality of their research. The latest National Student Survey revealed high levels of student satisfaction: 100% of Drama students and 94% of English students were satisfied with their programmes.

All Things SED is a platform for our students and academics to blog on cultural developments and reflect on their work and practice. The site will host regular bloggers and one-off writers. We will also host SEDcasts: video and audio interviews with members of the School.

If you are interested in contributing on a regular or one-off basis, please get in touch with the All Things SED Webmaster.