The Gentle Craft

I assume I’m in a minority in preferring Thomas Heywood’s 1 Edward IV to Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Both plays – each written in 1599 – set the rise of an unlikely citizen mayor against the more sinister backdrop of royal and aristocratic manipulation. Heywood makes it abundantly clear that King Edward is a playboy whose flippant abuse of power has a devastating effect on the people he is charged to govern, but Dekker is more ambivalent: the maimed soldier Ralph alerts us to the misery and destruction of a cruel war, but the play seems to end jovially and the class boundaries, blurred during the main body of the play, appear to be reasserted. For sure, Dekker’s ambiguity is to be appreciated, but in reading I’ve found the end of 1 Edward IV more moving. Thankfully, the RSC have given audiences the chance to see Dekker’s play in action. Indeed, under the direction of Philip Breen, they have delivered a production which deals with the tonal complexity of the ending with great care and subtlety.

The first half of the production handled the sombreness effectively, but fell a little short on laughs. I liked how Simon Eyre (David Troughton) conveyed a note of sadness as he tried, and failed, to prevent the conscription of Ralph and both Ralph’s departure, and his return – scarred in the face and requiring a crutch for an injured leg – were poignant. I didn’t think, though, that the production was as funny as it might have been: Hammon’s awful attempt to woo the distraught Jane has the potential to be much funnier but it needed a brasher performance than James Wilkes delivered. However, the second half of the production provided more humour, frivolity, and happiness without sacrificing the darker and more troubling aspects. Indeed, the combination of the two – or movement from one tone to another – was highly effective.

There are a number of examples that might illustrate this, but Jack Holden’s bravura performance as the King encapsulates the point most fully. The historical Simon Eyre was mayor during the reign of Henry VI, but, the identity of Dekker’s king is never made explicit and, in many ways, his talk of French wars seems to call to mind Henry V (Shakespeare’s Henry V was, indeed, written in the same year as The Shoemaker’s Holiday). Holden’s extravagant King reminded me of a slightly more ebullient Richard II: he’s full of bouncing rhyming couplets, outlandish rhetorical flourishes, and frivolous changes of mind. It’s all very enjoyable, especially since he seems sympathetic to the Mayor and keen to unite Lacey and Rose, the loving couple. But in his final speech, the King simultaneously accepts Eyre’s offer to eat at the banquet and (without batting an eyelid) announces his intention to continue the war against France. The production ends with the King’s men wrenching away Eyre’s young apprentice and tying a red ribbon to his arm in a manner which recalled the earlier conscription of Ralph. The shoemakers grasped desperately and forlornly in their attempts to stop the boy from suffering the same fate as Ralph. In an instant, the entire tenor of the play shifted: it is a masterstroke which testifies to the brilliant ambivalence of Dekker’s play. I’d still like to see 1 Edward IV performed, but my admiration for The Shoemaker’s Holiday has now increased.

Shoemaker RSC

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