Review: The Dutch Courtesan

The Dutch Courtesan

For boisterous knockabout and sheer linguistic inventiveness, John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan is one of the best comedies of the early seventeenth century. It was the first play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to have been revived by Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company in the 1960s, but modern productions are not exactly thick on the ground – certainly not productions like this one, in which all the parts are played by boys. Perry Mills’ staging of the first three acts was part of an ongoing exploration of the capabilities of the Elizabethan boy actor, but not for a moment was it an academic exercise. For a start, the modern dress costumes gave the show a contemporary instead of antiquarian feel. And very quickly, the vigour of the performances and the clarity of the plotting drew the audience in.

“Advance thy snout, do not suffer thy sorrowful nose to drop on thy Spanish leather jerkin, most hardly honest Mulligrub”: from this very first exchange, it was clear that the boys would give the impression of understanding every word they were saying – probably to a greater degree than the audience. The effect was to make Marston’s exotic prose, full of Elizabethan in-jokes, into a kind of private language, a schoolboy argot, that created a terrific bond between the speakers and left us laughing at ourselves for not keeping pace with it. The technique was precisely that intended by Marston, who was a very smart lawyer trading his verbal wiles to an audience largely composed of other (slightly less smart) lawyers and professionals.

When the play was first published in 1605, it was prefaced by a summary: “The difference betwixt the love of a courtesan and a wife is the full scope of the play, which intermixed with the deceits of a witty city jester, fills up the comedy.” The plot concerns two friends. Freevill is an easy-going, pleasure-seeking man about town, played with complete confidence by Oliver Hayes. Malheureux is, as his name suggests, an unhappy, repressed puritan – a successor to Shakespeare’s Malvolio, the kind of man whose real life equivalents hated the sexed-up rough and tumble of theatre and were accordingly ripe for humiliation at the hands of the playwrights. Owen Hibberd caught the type perfectly.

You’ve guessed it: the two friends both get involved with the same high-class call girl, the Dutch Courtesan Franceschina, brought to life in an astonishing bravura performance by Harry Davies, who mesmerised the audience with everything from his facial expressions to his vocal range to his feather boa and beyond. He brilliantly caught both the character’s confidence and the continental accent for which Marston’s scripting provides plenty of hints. One moment a foxy come-on: “Vill not you stay in mine bosom tonight, love?” Later, impassioned indignation: “Gods sacrament, ten towsand divels take you, you ha’ brought mine love, mine honour, mine body all to noting.”

The sub-plot concerns a conman Cocledemoy (Jack Fielding) using disguise and role-play to outwit a money-grubbing pub landlord called Mulligrub (Kieran Ford) and his upwardly mobile wife (David Fairbairn, another exuberant cross-dressed performer). Mills’ direction kept up a lively pace in the shifts between the two plots, and his use of a wide, shallow playing area within the Upper Guildhall allowed him to create some nice effects of scenic counterpoint, most notably when the bawdy, rumbustious world of tavern and brothel was contrasted with the image of the chaste heiress Beatrice in a window-frame. The tableau of an angelic-looking Jonny Clowes accompanied by Nurse Putifer (Harry Lesser) inevitably conjured up the memory of Shakespeare’s Juliet. Oliver Hayes’ switched with ease between playing the Romeo part, the trickster and the two-timer, while Davies pulled out all the emotional stops when it became clear that Freevill was heading for the wealthy beauty who will bring him money rather than the gorgeous tart who could cost him dear, in both funds and sexual health.

When the boy players hit the London stage around 1600, attracting new writing talent of Marston’s calibre, Shakespeare and the grown up professional actors became seriously worried. We know this from a famous exchange in Hamlet: “There is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for’t: these are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages – so they call them – that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither.” Those who were privileged to see the little eyases of KES playing The Dutch Courtesan will really understand what Shakespeare was talking about: the common stagers in the Courtyard behind the new science block have good cause to be rattled.


Professor Jonathan Bate

University of Oxford