The City Madam

Philip Massinger
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The City Madam production photo

Credit crunches, the nouveaux riches, royal weddings and despicable bankers calling in mortgage debts. Philip Massinger’s The City Madam has it all. Add to that London gallants impossibly disguised as South American native princes (in all innocence described as ‘Indians’ in this far from politically correct play), who literally conjure magical flames and puppetry to entertain their greedy kin. The result, a fascinating glimpse at 1630s London citizenry and minor aristocracy desperately trying to survive the economic vicissitudes of capital-starved venturism.

Philip Massinger’s The City Madam offers an unusually bitter exposé of the mores and moral outrages of Caroline England. Written in 1632, seven years after James I’s death and the accession of Charles I, The City Madam can be seen as a rumbling, grumbling indictment of social ills. As the recipient from John Fletcher of Shakespeare’s principal Globe-writer laurel, Massinger was obviously pandering to prevailing taste. There is a disquieting misogyny that overrides the play, shielded by the overt attacks against usury and capitalistic trade. Characters like Frugal, Plenty, Penury, Fortune, Stargaze and Tradewell embrace their personifying names with moralizing fervour. The women with whom they share their lives, their beds and their debts, are pawns to be dispensed with as financial status dictates.

Dominic Hill has directed this potential minefield of contemporary obscurity with great panache. This is no doubt assisted by the amazing ensemble created for the reopening season at the Swan Theatre. In less skilled hands, the humorous irreligiosity of the set speeches would be lost. Instead, the audience are introduced to characters who accept their stereotypes and add life and energy to potentially obscure comic dialogue. References to Bridewell, the New Exchange or Burse, to the Fleet, and to outlying rural idylls like Brentford, Staines and Barnet, abound. This immediacy could be lost on the twenty-first century Stratford clientele. Instead, it adds unexpected colour to a decidedly dark comedy.

Sir John and Lady Frugal, brilliantly played by Christopher Godwin and Sara Crowe, live in their London townhouse. Their home is evoked by a large wood-panelled rear stage wall, through the solidly ornate double doors of which their visitors make their entrances and exits. The whole panel and the two chairs that sit to each side, are over-painted with trompe l’oeil precision by an image of the prodigal son, returning to the lap of a forgiving father. Prodigality is certainly not a vice tolerated in this frugal household. Sir John is a usurer, a respected, knighted banker who owns the property deeds to many creditors and whose wealth is stored in sacks of gold and silver in a locked room.

Lady Frugal benefits from her husband’s obvious wealth. She and her two parvenu daughters, Anne (Lucy Briggs-Owen) and Mary (Matti Houghton), flounce about in the latest fashions, desperate to be accepted into society. Their faces whitened and rouged, lips painted into grotesque pouts, these women epitomize the citizen wives and daughters who would spend, spend, spend, and so fuel the nation’s economic boom. Where have we heard that before?

Within the Frugal household resides Sir John’s penniless and put-upon younger brother, Luke Frugal. Jo Stone-Fewings plays a Luke whose impoverished state provides the freedom to suffer with pious zeal. When his brother seeks to call in certain bonds, to bankrupt the profligate citizens who seek his aid, Luke pleads and prevails on their behalf. His passionate petition is observed by Lord Lacy, a nauseatingly aristocratic pompom played superbly by Nicholas Day, who hatches a plan to put the poor brother’s piety and virtue to the test.

None of this would be necessary if Sir John was not himself in despair over his wife’s spendthrift ways and his daughters’ arrogance. Their acquisitive demands frighten off their male suitors, one the wealthy northerner Mr Plenty (Felix Hayes), the other, the future lord, Sir Maurice Lacy (Alex Hassell). Father and two suitors claim either to have entered a monastery or to have escaped to the Americas as ultimate punishment to the women. Luke is ostensibly left with his brother’s fortune to do as he pleases. The outcome is certainly not one involving the Christian charitable virtue so regularly invoked in the play.

When next the three ‘escapees’ return, they appear to all like gold-clad Inca warriors, conjuring fireballs and explosions onstage and talking in an outrageous nonsensical language. All are fooled, not least Luke who allows them free rein within the household. This freedom ensures that comedy and dramatic irony abound. Puppets play a hauntingly realistic version of the Orpheus in the underworld story and Cerberus barks and growls menacingly around the stage. Morality fable meets classical mythology.

The citizen’s wife and daughters are not the only women to suffer, though. The local prostitute, gloriously named Shave’em (Pippa Nixon), and her bawdish companion Secret (Liz Crowther), are likewise banished to Bridewell, there to have their wickedness whipped from them. Echoes of Shakespearean drama abound in this prodigal brother play, whether of Measure for Measure or Merchant of Venice, all packaged with city comedy immediacy and topicality.

There is little likelihood the dialogue will inspire. This is a play to be enjoyed for its superficiality, the same superficiality with which the female citizenry dress their scab-ridden bodies. It is entertaining, funny and thought-provoking. Profound it is not, though it is certainly salutary to see the problems of debt and foreclosure, credit and obscene wealth, portrayed in a play written three hundred and eighty years ago. Brave, funny, disturbing and brilliantly acted, The City Madam will intrigue and delight. What more should one ask?

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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