A performance of The Coxcomb as part of the Read Not Dead series

Sunday 13th November 2016

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe

Review by Nina Romancikova, MA Shakespeare Studies

Read Not Dead: Love’s Pilgrimage 1

The reading of The Coxcomb, a late play written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher was part of the Read Not Dead series organised by the Globe Education, where a group of actors are given the script of a play in the morning, they rehearse it and then perform the whole thing in front of an audience in the afternoon.  

At the centre of the play is the theme of cuckoldry. More specifically, Antonio (played by the remarkable Tim McInnerny) offers to share his wife with his best friend after having heard of his interest in her. This strange and frankly ridiculous proposition came as a shock to us – the modern audience and the actors made their awareness of this known by their own mocked over-exaggerated reactions of disbelief, and thus inducing laughter from the audience. Moments like these, when the actors seem closer to the audience than the text brought a spark to the whole experience – one that could not be similarly replicated in an actual performance of the play.  

That is not to say that The Coxcomb was simply a reading. It had many lively scenes, especially those with the immediate crowd-pleaser McInnerny. And a particularly enjoyable scene was when the drunken men stepped out of the tavern in a calamitous manner that was delivered with strong energy and once again made the audience roar with laughter.  

However, just after that drunken scene, the tone of the comedy changes as events begin to turn to a tragedy, of which Leah Whitaker’s Viola is the true sufferer. Her loved one who promised to marry her is stumbling drunk out of the tavern and mistakes Viola for a whore. Viola’s fate continues to worsen as she is now shunned by her husband-to-be and is abandoned in a field only to meet with an array of characters who do not make her life any easier. It is Viola’s story that makes the play one step away from a tragedy. Whitaker performs and reads Viola’s sorrowful adventures with a tragic overtone, albeit subtle. The tone is sombre towards the end even after the two young lovers meet and are given a happy ending. The reading manages to bring out both the foolish, amusing tone of The Coxcomb as well as the borderline tragic one, which was touching in the end.

Read Not Dead readings are notorious for being very long, but during The Coxcomb I barely had a moment to think about its length. This goes to show how well it was directed, cut and performed since although The Coxcomb was only a reading, it managed to draw me in as if it were a normal performance.