Fair Em, Union Theatre, London

Director Phil Willmott notes that Fair Em – an Elizabethan comedy plucked from oblivion – is a “quirky, slight entertainment written around 1590 . . . The fact that it was wrongly attributed to Shakespeare in the library of Charles II is probably the reason why you’re here.”

Not for the drama? Fair Em’s author is a mystery. The text “contains little or nothing written by the enigmatic paradox known as ‘Shakespeare’,” claims Willmott. “It has neither the poetry nor the subtext that we associate with the established canon.” I agree.

It has two plots that overlap briefly and superficially. William the Conqueror (played by Jack Taylor as a humourless boor) pursues a Swedish princess to Denmark. Unwittingly, he kidnaps a Danish princess (disguised as a Swedish princess) and marries her. In England, meanwhile, pretty Em, daughter of a knight disguised as a miller, fends off suitors by pretending to be deaf and blind. It all ends implausibly – impossibly – well.

For no apparent reason, the action is performed against a black and white frieze of 16th-century London. (Not only is Philip Lindley’s design misleading, it also cuts off a precious segment of a very shallow acting space.) Young minstrels supply a musical commentary with pastoral ditties sung doo-wop style. Characters wear tights and puffy tunics, “olde” hats and satin slippers. It’s hackneyed fare.

According to Willmott, the company is working for free. This means they “can take artistic risks because nothing monetary is at stake”. Yet beyond choosing to stage Fair Em at all, those risks are hard to see. It looks and sounds like a “period” piece almost to the point of pastiche. Moreover, there is nothing at stake in the drama. Comedy is grounded in pain. Every action must have real (potentially humiliating) consequences. Here, we are shown faces working in grotesque overdrive in place of inner feeling; there’s a good deal of hammy stage weeping with no heart behind it. And with no stakes, there is no real laughter either.

Brighter spots include the brazen zest of Madeline Gould as Blanch, Princess of Denmark, and some bouncy historical dancing.

Willmott’s “slight entertainment” is barely entertaining. Fair Em looks bound for oblivion once more.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.