This guest post is written by Dr Hero Chalmers, Director of Studies in English, who co-organised the event with Dr Subha Mukherji, University Senior Lecturer in English and Graduate tutor at Fitzwilliam.

On Friday 27 February the Fitzwilliam Literary Society hosted an evening during which two of our alumnae, Adele Thomas (English 2000) and Caroline Williams (English 2003) returned to talk about staging their smash-hit production of Francis Beaumont’s Jacobean city comedy, The Knight of the Burning Pestle in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe.

The play is built around a running gag in which a grocer and his wife, played by actors situated amongst the actual audience of the play, persistently interrupt the ostensible action of the performance. While the playing company set out to perform a somewhat tiredly generic comedy of young lovers thwarted by authority, entitled The London Merchant, the grocers intervene to insist that it transmutes into a chivalric romance (the Knight of the Burning Pestle) starring their young apprentice, Rafe. The fusion which results is at once deliciously parodic and heroically ebullient.

KBP436 (Medium)

Originally performed at the second Blackfriars theatre in 1607, the piece was a notorious flop at the time and, despite some valiant efforts, has proved difficult to carry off in the modern period. All the more remarkable then that this production – of which Adele was the director and Caroline the assistant director – turned out to be so popular with audiences that, after its original run in spring last year, it returned for a further sell-out Christmas season from December to January 2014-15.

The speakers gave a fascinatingly personal insight into the rumination, research and rehearsal which lay behind this winning formula. First, Caroline illuminated the historical background of the play and outlined the role of an assistant director. Then, Adele led us through the thinking behind her key directorial decisions, speaking passionately about her sense that, in order to succeed, the play needed to be purged of the narrow class prejudice which has often attended it. As well as opening up this particular theatrical gem, her remarks galvanised the audience to consider wider questions about the nature of theatrical pleasure and the need to render theatre not merely the province of a metropolitan elite.

The evening culminated in a hilarious performance workshop under Adele’s direction featuring student actors wittily experimenting with ways of running the play’s opening scene. For the closing question and answer session, Adele and Caroline were joined by Farah Karim-Cooper, the Globe’s Head of Higher Education and Research who played a leading role in the project to complete the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. She spoke revealingly about the discoveries which are emerging from staging Renaissance plays in this new playing space designed to echo the indoor theatres of Shakespeare’s time.

Adele said: “It was such huge privilege to come back to Fitzwilliam to talk to the students and staff about a show that meant a great deal to me. There is no doubt that what I learned as a student at the College directly influenced my vision for Pestle and that I owe Hero and Subha enormous thanks for being such inspiring teachers. I was really struck by the students’ energy and brilliance and by the passion of the teaching staff. It moved me greatly to think that when I was a student at Fitz, my contemporaries and myself were moulded by these amazing people who were utterly dedicated to nurturing our minds and our developing sense of ourselves.”



Adele Thomas, Director of The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

Adele Thomas, Director of The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

Adele Thomas was the recipient of the hugely prestigious 2008 ITV Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme and is currently Associate Director for Connections at the National Theatre. Theatre includes: The Oresteia (Summer 2015), The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Thomas Tallis, (Shakespeare’s Globe); The Golden Hours: as part of Unusual Unions (Royal Court); The Bloody Ballad (Gagglebabble and Tour); The Passion and The passion: One Year On (as Project Associate for National Theatre Wales).



Caroline Williams Assistant Director

Caroline Williams Assistant Director

Caroline Williams is a director, performer and dramaturge. Her recent work includes Dad Dancing (BAC), Le Malade Imaginaire (The Globe), Living Things (BAC) and Now is The Time To Say Nothing (The Young Vic). Her work has recently been chosen by the Victoria and Albert Museum to represent England at the Prague Quadrennial in 2015. Caroline is currently Artistic Associate at the Yard Theatre.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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