Someone in the bar during the interval of the RSC’s production of The Roaring Girl sighed, sat down and said to his wife, ‘This is the strangest Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen in my life.’ To which his wife, with some exasperation, returned, ‘It’s NOT by Shakespeare!’ This illustrates perhaps the chief difficulty with this play; the audience simply don’t know how to deal with it. It’s certainly not Shakespeare, its language is rife with early-modern colloquialisms, and it is set in a city so far removed from modern-day London that Gray’s Inn fields, the site of dubious assignations a-plenty, is way out in the suburbs, as is the equally notorious Brentford.
But this is a wonderful play, and it is a real shame that this production, directed by Jo Davies, never quite wins over its audience. Jacobean city comedies can bring much to the modern stage: they are heavily rooted in the geographic scene in which they are set, and can communicate to audiences what it might have been like to experience the manic, expanding, disease-ridden metropolis at the turn of the 17th Century. This production only occasionally illustrates the wonder of city comedy; in its much brighter second half the characters crowd on and off the stage with an ease and fluidity which conjures a better sense of the bustling urban atmosphere.
Lisa Dillon is the indomitable Moll, a woman often mistaken for a man on account of her navy tattoos, bulky biceps and tendency to don masculine clothing. She has the name of a prostitute but does not swim in those streams anymore, instead choosing to defy convention by beating up a man who tries to have sex with her and tricking an angry father into believing that his son is in love with her. She is a hermaphroditic character who ‘likes to lie on both sides of the bed’. In other words, she is one of the most glorious female characters in early-modern drama. Lisa Dillon takes on the role with spirit and a Cockney accent, but I’m not quite sure why she needs to be quite so ‘laddish’ and there is a bit too much fist-pumping and shouting for my liking. I quite liked her raucous musical numbers, though, and the final piece is absolutely hilarious and – dare I say it – the first moment the actors completely relax.
There are some strong performances, particularly from Lizzie Hopley as Mistress Gallipot, whose facial expressions and habit of mouthing certain words are very funny. Equally, RSC stalwart Geoffrey Freshwater is great as the conniving Ralph Trapdoor (I particularly enjoyed the rapping/ canting battle). Although some of the actors struggle with the two-dimensionality of their characters, Tony Jayawardena and Harvey Vidi as sparring husband and wife Mr and Mistress Openwork are particularly vivacious.
The scene in which Moll attacks and dismembers (almost literally) the writhing, pitiful Laxton is so momentous and boldly acted that I have awarded the production three stars; however, in general, the show, to my disappointment, never quite fulfils its very real potential.