Jo Davies's adaptation of The Roaring Girl just finished its run at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Written by the Thomases Middleton and Dekker in 1611, The Roaring Girl features a remarkable, real-life figure. Mad Moll is a cross-dressing, cigar-smoking woman who assaults the sexist and assists the virtuous. The rest of the play is an uneven romantic farce, sometimes funny, often obscure.
This version has elements of three time periods: it is written in the Early Modern period, set in in the Victorian era, and infused with modern rock music. Still, instead of conveying sexism's timelessness, this decision diminishes Mad Moll's radical character.
Part of the setting's purpose is to show that the Victorian age was not as prudish as we think. One viewer pointed out that at the end of the play, it is not Mad Moll who is isolated, but the old white men. Still, this takes away from the titular Girl, who is far more transgressive than the play attempts to be. Lisa Dillon is fine as Moll "Cutpurse," but her slim, androgynous looks are not truly groundbreaking in the way Moll is supposed to be. Her queerness is rather chic, while Moll is spoken of as an ever-present source of wonder and danger.
The main plot is so silly that a disclaimer is included within the text. A young man pretends to pine for Moll so his true love will look good in comparison. His overbearing father sets out to sabotage Moll. Several scoundrels attempt to seduce two married women--or more precisely, their purses. David Rintoul stands out as the intolerant Sir Wengrave as does Harvey Virdi as Mistress Openwork, who turns the tables on her seducer. (Other names include Gallipot, Goshawk, Dapper, Tiltyard, Trapdoor, and Neatfoot.)
A concluding speech boldly pronounces the importance of individuality and tolerance in the face of societal judgment. The message hits home.
The performances are energetic, and Moll is a brilliant individual. Still, one gets the sense that The Roaring Girl is a fascinating play to study, but one that is confusing and even dull to watch.