Tuesday 8th January 2013 to Saturday 9th February 2013.
The Union theatre, 204 Union Street, London SE1 OLX
Web site http://www.uniontheatre/ Telephone Box Office 020 7261 9876
Phil Willmott and his company have done good work in adapting the anonymously written Fair Em (full title from the two quartos is A Pleasant Comedie of Faire Em, the Millers Daughter of Manchester. WIth the love of William the Conqueror) for production. But in the end, however much energy and inventiveness a production has: you just can’t make a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
If anything this production should have come even closer to a boisterous Elizabethan version of pantomime and eschewed some of its attempt at taking the action seriously, as a solution to dealing with the Pythonesque meanderings of the increasingly improbable plot developments that unfold.
Fair Em is really one of the weakest, flimsiest Elizabethan stage comedies you will come across and there’s no real surprise that it hasn’t been revived in four centuries. Although what can only have been an example of misfiling in Charles I’s library may have led some cock-eyed optimists to think Fair Em might possibly be by Shakespeare: it is hard to imagine how Shakespeare could ever write so poorly, even if he had been dying of the plague at the time. As an experiment in staging one of Shakespeare’s Apocrypha this more or less proves conclusively he had no hand in it and that it almost certainly isn’t worth reviving again, when there are so many much better Elizabethan comedies deserving of performance.
Figure 1. David Ellis as Manville and Caroline Haines as Fair Em. Photography by Scott Rylander.
It isn’t just the plot is such a ramshackle affair of two quite separate stories uneasily yoked together, one based upon traditional ballad sources such as ‘The Miller's Daughter of Manchester’ and another intertwined story about how William the Conqueror is tricked into marrying a Danish Princess. Nor is the problem that it plays around so ridiculously with history in a retelling of William I’s life, that it could almost be termed post-modern; it would no doubt have surprised William’s actual spouse, Matilda of Flanders, or indeed the average Elizabethan theatre goer who knew some history. The paramount problems are that there is so little poetry in the lines or psychological insight in the presentation of the characters.
Of course, there were Elizabethan entertainment duds, just as there are today, and this is probably their equivalent of what you sometimes find late in the evening, while flicking channels on satellite TV and there is a desperate need to fill a schedule. Who on earth could have written that mess you wonder? In the case of Fair Em no one wanted to own up. Laughing at it, rather than with it, is the way to enjoy it.
The most likely candidate writers of Dear Em were either Robert Wilson or Anthony Munday, but if so, then neither was on good form, or else this was a rush job to fill a hole in the schedule.
Em and her father, Sir Thomas Goddard, who are Anglo-Saxons living in post-Conquest England have been banished to the North of England where they pretend to be a miller and his daughter. However, Em is so luminously beautiful that not one, but three Normal nobles fall for her, even in her lowly guise as a miller’s daughter. To try to placate her jealous lover Manville she tries to put off the other two nobles by pretending to be struck blind and deaf.
Meanwhile William I in disguise as Sir Robert of Windsor has travelled to Denmark, where he has discovered in shock that the woman he thought he was in love with, the Danish Princess Blanch, is not as beauteous as her image suggested. (‘Ill head, worse featured, uncomely, nothing courtly/ I never saw a harder favoured slut.’) He falls for a captured Swedish princess instead, Mariana, who actually loves his ambassador, the Marquis of Lubeck and Mariana cunningly arranges that William will steal away with Blanch – who has fallen in love with Sir Robert of Windsor - while thinking it is actually Mariana he has eloped with. No one seems worried what William will do when he discovers this trick. Amazingly enough, all ends well - if that is extremely unlikely - as William suddenly seems for no apparent reason to finally decide he does love the Danish King’s daughter he previously loathed after all and war is narrowly averted between William and the unnamed Danish King.
Figure 2. Caroline Haines as Fair Em and Robert Donald as Trotter, 'the miller's boy'. Photography by Scott Rylander.
Em marries the one nobleman who truly loves her, Lord Valingford, and in a moment of insanely preposterous Elizabethan retrospective nation-making by wish-fulfilment, Anglo-Saxons and Normans all start getting along happily (quite unlike the endless Anglo-Saxon rebellions of the real William I’s reign). Odd’s blood - William even gets offered the Danish throne in the future upon Blanch’s father’s death!
The interpolation of anachronistic folk songs by four performers called Green Willow was quite pleasant as a way to liven up the action and it is always good to see some neat playing on the musical box. The songs did bring out a summery feel. It was also pleasurable to hear the pagan sounding, ‘All around my hat’, although that is a nineteenth century ballad about a lost love and scarcely Elizabethan nor actually appropriate to the action. The cardboard cut-out set by Phillip Lindley, recalling Wenceslaus Holler’s Elizabethan panorama of London, with an additional windmill, was also watchable, as were the beautiful mediaeval styled costumes, though little of the play is actually set in London (mostly in Denmark and the north of England). The acting was certainly bold and pantomimic though I think it might have been better to have been even less serious. Caroline Haines as the ‘beautiful’ Em and Madeline Gould as Princess Blanch were agreeably feisty, while Robert Donald played a doddering ancient ‘miller’s boy’, Trotter, in a style that would have suited a Carry On film. However, there were decent comic turns from others in the cast.
I can imagine that if I had seen this production at an open-air theatre in the summer - preferably after several ales like a proper Elizabethan - it might have worked better than it did on a wintry night near waterloo. It is a shame though, that Willmott and his excellent company have rather wasted their considerable talents, when there are so many other seldom seen Elizabethan comedies that really are worth reviving: Fair Em, I fear, has curiosity value alone.