‘I say unto thee, a playhouse is a school for the old dragon and a playbook a primer for Beelzebub.’
On Tuesday, Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle pulled out their primers for evil and got down to their wicked work on the next batch of scenes from John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats.
The last time we were with our characters, Sir George Thunder was scheming to marry his son Harry to his distant relative, Lady Amaranth, who is forced into being a Quaker by a dictatorial Will. The conditions of this Will are enforced with glee by Ephraim Smooth, the character with the dim view of theatre. Meanwhile, Rover, a character with a very positive view of the theatre, has helped out the kindly Mr Banks against the ungenerous Farmer Gammon and had been seen doing this kind act by Lady Amaranth and the two have a connection.
It was in this week’s instalment that things grew complicated (spoilers, but I plan to try and explain this plot, more as a feat of derring-do than anything else.)
Rover was taken to Lady Amaranth’s by Sir George Thunder’s valet de chambre, a man called John Dory, under the confused identity of being Harry, Sir George’s son. Rover decides to play along as it gives him time to spend with Lady Amaranth and he helps out Lamp, the theatre impresario by persuading Lady Amaranth to stage a play at her house. The play is to be As You Like It but Ephraim certainly does not, dismayed at Rover’s training all the staff in the art of theatre.
Rover is then told that as Harry Thunder, he is expected to marry Lady Amaranth. As much as he is keen on this idea, he feels it would be immoral for her to marry him, a lowly player, under an assumed identity. He is prepared to tell her everything when his friend Dick Buckskin turns up, saying that he has concocted a scheme to marry Lady Amaranth and has hired an actor with the wonderful name of Mr Abrawang to play Harry Thunder’s father, Sir George Thunder.
However, Dick Buckskin is the genuine Harry Thunder and the man he’s called Abrawang is the real Sir George Thunder. Harry is expecting Rover to play along, but smitten by his love for Lady Amaranth, immediately blows ‘Abrawang’s’ cover, much to the confusion of the old man, who insists he really is Sir George Thunder (because he is).
So, now we have Rover pretending to be Harry Thunder who loves Lady Amaranth and believes that his friend Dick Buckskin was intending to play Harry Thunder but has relinquished the role to him out of kindness, not knowing that Dick Buckskin really is Harry Thunder and the old man, Abrawang, who he thought was playing Sir George Thunder is actually Sir George Thunder, although Rover is ignorant of that fact. Simple really.
Actually, it wasn’t all that difficult to follow in real time and there were so many good jokes, it didn’t matter much either way. Every character has one or two corking lines and I couldn’t tell which were my favourite.
I did love Ephraim Smooth and his Malvolio spirit, and hope he gets a kinder ending than that character. Aside from anything else, he gets to dismiss a play as, ‘prelude, interlude, all lewd’ and his description of someone playing of the violin: ‘The man of sin rubbeth the hair of the horse to the bowels of a cat.’
Rover is a character so engrossed in theatre that he can only express himself in theatrical quotes and, when left to his own words, finds himself extremely tongue-tied. That said, his incessant need to quote isn’t always the clearest way of communicating. Shakespeare references are all well and good, but the modern cast weren’t up on all the eighteenth century quotation he flings about - including the plot-vital reference to Mr Thunder from the play The Rehearsal. It’s not only the modern audience, half the characters in the play aren’t sure what he’s saying either, marvelling at being compared to bulls and larks and suchlike. Luckily, he can speak plainly when it’s important. He reminds me a great deal of characters in a comedy like Spaced or Clerks, an early example of a character who can only represent himself through pop-culture references. I also enjoyed that, despite being an actor, he is really very bad at pretending to be someone else.
Even Lady Amaranth, who could have been a very bland character, has a spirited defence of theatre, using similar defences to the ones that Jane Austen had of the novel: ‘A good play, is taking the wholesome draught of precept in a golden cup.’ There’s also something very fun about the strait-laced character giving in to her secret desires to unwind and making some very stretched excuses to do it.
Though, out of all the characters, my favourites are probably the characters of Sir George Thunder and his man, John Dory. Sir George is a big, blustering Squire Western-type figure, hollering and bellowing, much like Lord Wellington in Blackadder. He is extravagantly happy and extravagantly angry and he is accompanied by the deadpan stoicism of Dory. When given good news, Thunder orders Dory to create a punch big enough for ‘a jolly boat to sail on’, including such quantities as a ‘hogshead of sugar’ and ‘an orchard of oranges’, watered down with a ‘fishpond’ of water. However, when the news turns out not to be as good as it seemed, Dory is castigated as ‘a thirsty old grumpus.’ Rover, in the belief that Sir George is really Abrawang the actor, applauds his apparently simulated anger: ‘That’s right! Strut about on your little pegs’.
The biggest laugh of the night came when John Dory was giving Sir George the steamy details of (the man Dory believes to be) Harry’s courtship of Lady Amaranth. At two, he will be walking with her in the garden, at half past they plan to rest in the flowers, at three they shall get up again, at four they are ‘picking a bit of crammed fowl’ but if it’s half past… ‘they’re cracking walnuts.’ The phrase ‘cracking walnuts’ cropped up a few times later in the play and I shall never see the activity in the same way.
At the end of this session, the characters were tied deep in notes with only a few scenes left to straighten everything out. This Tuesday, we shall see if everything ever runs smooth or if anyone ever gets their walnuts cracked.