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The Knight of the Burning Pestle review at Barbican Theatre, London – ‘metatheatrical playfulness’

Anna Vardevanian and Andrei Kuzichev in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Photo: Johan Persson

A group of stylish actors, immaculately clad in black, glide around a stark stage. Declan Donnellan’s updated take on Francis Beaumont’s 1607 comedy, an early exercise in metatheatrical playfulness, starts as parody of Regietheater conventions. There’s video and surtitles and it’s all very solemn.

Then the play-within-a-play they’re performing is disrupted by a couple of audience members, a grocer and his wife (Alexander Feklistov and Agrippina Steklova), who are bored, confused and regret not booking to see The Lion King instead. They take over, dragging their nephew Rafe up on stage to play a knight in the kind of play they’d much prefer to be watching. He enthusiastically obliges.

Cheek by Jowl’s Russian-language version, condensed to 100 minutes, glories in the play’s years-ahead-of-its-time satire. Donnellan, together with designer Nick Ormerod and the incredibly well-drilled ensemble of the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, has created a delicious send-up (and interrogation) of a certain mode of contemporary theatremaking, of which Cheek by Jowl is a proponent.

The Russian company is dizzyingly skilful. Rafe’s extended death scene and a song-and-dance sequence are particular highlights; Steklova is a delight throughout. Underlying all this is a discussion of accessibility, audience and who art is for. This feels timely, though it’s easy for the serious points to get lost amid the laughter.

It’s also almost too slick at times; there’s never any sense of real chaos or jeopardy. It’s essentially one extended joke – the cast becomes increasingly more harried and dishevelled as the couple unintentionally sabotage the performance – but fortunately it’s a very funny one.

Moscow’s Pushkin Drama Theatre: The Russian theatre ripping up the rule book

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Cheek by Jowl's entertaining Russian-language update of Beaumont's metatheatrical comedy