Not being an expert in minor playwrights of 17th Century England, I had never heard of Philip Massinger nor his comedy The City Madam. So it was with the giddy excitement of a theatre nerd seeing a rare production, mixed with a touch of apprehension, that I entered the Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Had I done my research, I would have found that Massinger was a master satirist and social critic with a keen sense for the fun that can be had on the stage when exploring the English social system.
The City Madam follows the fortunes of the inappropriately-named Frugal family. Luke Frugal, destitute and penitent, has frittered away the family fortune, been imprisoned for his debts, and imposed himself on the charity of his brother and his family. Despite the title, Frugal is the enigmatic heart of this play and much of the production’s tension stems from the audience’s awareness that we are never quite sure what he will do next – a fact that Jo Stone-Fewings performance deliciously foregrounds, shifting mercurially under a restrained surface of Christian benevolence. Sir John Frugal, his brother, is the play’s moral compass and he devises a ruse to both unmask his brother and reform his extravagant wife, the City Madam of the title, and his daughters. In this play even the women are camp caricatures and Lady Frugal and her daughters do a wonderful job of maintaining the audience’s sympathies for three rather ugly characters. Meanwhile Christopher Godwin’s performance adds a dignity and intelligence to the play. The stillness that he brings to Sir John reminds us that there is a moral purpose to the action that whirls around him.
Massinger’s play is part-parable, part-pantomime. If you’re expecting the high-flown verse and delicacy of composition that you might find in Shakespeare, look elsewhere. Massinger’s style is robust, witty and satirical and Dominic Hill’s direction conjures a heady vivacity from the text. Indeed, the whole play has a riotous carnival feel to it. Suffused with exoticism, magic and – of all things – puppetry, which surprisingly delivers one of the most touching spectacles of the entire production, the play has a surrealism and immediacy that is vividly brought to life by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The costuming is flawless as you would expect from the RSC – I particularly enjoyed the incongruous purple satin bows on Mr. Plenty’s attire, a lapse in taste that only a self-made man could make. Hill described The City Madam as participating in the same heightened reality as a Hogarth cartoon or a Dickens novel and it is a sentiment I can strongly agree with, all three delighting in the absurdity and extremity of human life. Yet the play’s thematic interest in the parvenu, old money and materialism adds a depth and intellectual resonance to the present day that manages to stimulate thinking whilst not spoiling the fun.
And with the free RSC Key scheme making it possible for students to see RSC productions for only £5, this is fun that won’t break the bank – and if Massinger is preaching anything it is surely that pleasure in moderation is the best pleasure of all.