Thursday, 10 March 2016

And the piece of Cod, which passeth all understanding…

Artwork by David Troughton/Edward’s Boys

Why and how choirboys originally chosen to sing hymns came to be part-time actors in Christmas pageants and morality plays, and then recruited or forced to be full-time actors in immorality plays, is itself an interesting story, but when Beaumont and Fletcher were starting out, boys companies like The Children of St. Paul’s were all the rage in London. For the English gentry to gather in their darkened ‘private’ theatres to hear and see a rosy-cheeked, soprano-voiced choirboy in a dress tell another rosy-cheeked alto-voiced choirboy in a beard, “It is impossible to Ravish mee, I am soe willing” …well, maybe what is true for all theatre – and not for television – is especially true for the 17th century: you had to be there.

I was there. Not time-travelling (well, not so much; although yesterday morning’s weather was most apt). Yet it did feel like a little piece of theatrical history was being made.

Having been, initially, dragged to plays at “the most productive tin hut in history” when I was a reluctant teenager; and having witnessed my last, most memorable, King Lear there, just before it finished its duty as The Courtyard Theatre; last night I was fortunate to be in the audience for the opening night of the first drama to be staged in the resurrected The Other Place, and its new, intimate Studio Theatre – The Woman Hater, by Francis Beaumont (possibly with a little help from his friend, John Fletcher – see below); presented by Edward’s Boys, directed by Perry Mills; and billed as “a lost gem of Jacobean theatre whose themes of gender politics, racial tension and homeland security are strikingly relevant to our day”:

An outrageous City Comedy and sharp satire, The Woman Hater was first (and last) performed by “Paul’s Boys” in 1606. Beaumont’s first play is now revived by Edward’s Boys, the renowned boys’ company from Shakespeare’s School. Previous successes include The Lady’s Trial and Galatea at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Henry V at the Swan Theatre.
     This production is set in 1950s Italy and features live music, an outrageous parody of the discovery by spies of a plot to assassinate the Leader of State (a few months earlier London had been shaken by the exposure of the Gunpowder Plot) [“Oh, Fawkes!”] and many satiric references to the plays of Shakespeare [including “a pair of deceitful legs belonging to a glover’s son at court”]. And a fish head

If Beaumont is mentioned at all these days it is usually in conjunction with his more famous collaborator John Fletcher (“Bo’mon’n’Fletcha”!) – probably a result of the fact that “Fletcha” also collaborated with someone called Shakespeare. However, Beaumont wrote plays on his own and one at least, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, has a strong reputation following several successful productions in recent decades.

Oh, and like that “someone” – i.e. another “leading dramatist and poet” (and I don’t mean Cervantes) – it is also four hundred years since Francis “never more than Frank” Beaumont died – almost to the day – on 6 March 1616. (He, too, is buried in his local church – in this case, Westminster Abbey.)

Beaumont juggles four plots with considerable ease, offering a bit of something for everyone: farce, bawdy wit, court satire, and a ‘high’ romantic plot.
– Lee Bliss: Beaumont and Fletcher

There is probably very little reason (or sense) in attempting to explain the story, and its multiple strands, in detail – probably because what there is of it – as you may have surmised from the snapshot above – is both happily ludicrous and sadly (perhaps) not quite fully developed (in other words, perfect for contemporaneous opera). To be honest, none of this really matters – although, with a little added exposition, and a bit of tinkering under the hood (oo-er, missus) – I think the play could be just as insightful (and even as feminist) as, say, The Roaring Girl. Although I’m still not quite sure why (even after re-reading the original text) – although I suspect it was down to the accomplished, gleeful camaraderie of all involved… – it was certainly just as uproariously entertaining: at least as presented here!

What narrative there is, though – and there are, of course, those subplots of increasing preposterousness: which somehow almost manage to conjoin (fnarr fnarr), to resolve into something meaningful – is enough of a skeleton for Edward’s Boys – “one of the hottest tickets around” – to clothe it in sumptuous fabrics of great joy, confidence, humour; and then reanimate it with the ultimate skill, and extremely ribald wit. (Try saying that quickly.)

The Prologue (adapted for this production) is, however, a little disingenuous. As this run’s publicity so gleefully proclaims: “like many of the boys’ plays, it is filthy, shocking and deeply offensive in general” (nay, nay, and thrice nay…) –

Gentlemen, Inductions are out of date, and a Prologue in Verse, is as stale as a black Velvet Cloak, and a Bay Garland: therefore you shall have it plain Prose, thus: If there be any amongst you, that come to hear lascivious Scenes, let them depart: for I do pronounce this, to the utter discomfort of all twopenny Gallery men, you shall have no bawdery in it…. I dare not call it Comedy or Tragedy; ’tis perfectly neither: A Play it is, which was meant to make you laugh, how it [will] please you, is not written in my Part: for though you should like it to day, perhaps your selves know not how you should digest it to morrow….

A pertinent admonition to reviewers – such as I – if ever there was one. (So I will be going back for the second showing – just in case.)

Finlay Hatch (Duke of Milan); and Jack Hawkins (Oriana) – photo by Mark Ellis/Edward’s Boys

I came away with great joy in my heart; as well as Mambo Italiano cycling gleefully around my mind. That decision to set the production “in 1950s Italy” (“Milan in 1954”, the precise programme notes tell us…) paid dividends: allowing echoes of the Mafia (a conscious violin case in the opening scene; readily-drawn pocket revolvers as weapons; natty suits, matching hats; and incredibly stylish, fresh haircuts…) and the Rat Pack – as well as some deft religious hints – to link cleverly with the overall tight-knit nature of the dramatis personae.

To say I was impressed with the calibre of the acting would be an understatement. There was a cohesive confidence that almost glowed…. But where to start? The top of the cast list seems like a good idea! (Just for the halibut.)

Finlay Hatch was a suitably menacing and petulant, potent, lovelorn Duke of Milan (or, possibly, the Codfather… (if you can think of a better title, please let minnow)): ready, at any moment, with his strong, physical presence, to ensure – via his reliable henchmen (or ‘Servants’) – that anyone who got in his way would soon be sleeping with the fishes. (No: not like that… – although Daniel Power’s galloping gourmand, Lazarillo; “a voluptuous Smell-Feast” – just the right side of caricature – certainly wouldn’t have minded!) Joe Pocknell was utterly superb as the manipulative, swaggering Count Valore – although there was not much ‘valour’ (apart from constant loyalty to his sister, Oriana) to be found in the way he constantly manipulated those around him. This was a suave and sophisticated central performance of great merit and maturity. He ruled the stage, as well as those around him.

Ben Clarke showed great emotional depth as Arrigo – especially in the scene where he confronted Oriana. He is not quite the stooge he first appears to be; and his development throughout the play was beautifully measured. Dominic Howden (who was also half of the sound production team), as Arrigo’s sidekick, Lucio, also grew in power and presence (oh, behave!) – especially in the scene where he dons his “Gown I use to read Petitions in”, and proceeds to (try and) condemn Lazarillo to be hanged for the treason he so obviously hasn’t committed. [Are you following this? Follow the umbrana, and it all makes sense. I promise. (You could say that it was all just a little bit fishy, to be honest. In fact, I was surprised Robson Green wasn’t on stage, with his tackle out. (Madam – please…!))]

Daniel Power (Lazarillo); and Ritvick Nagar (Boy) – photo by Mark Ellis/Edward’s Boys

Ritvick Nagar – as Lazarillo’s ‘Boy’ – was my performer of the night (but only by the teensiest of whiskers): shadowing (with a clever reversal of grease-stained-and-spotless, monochrome costumes) his ‘master’ effortlessly; continually taking the, er, piscatorial; always ready with a retort. Like many such servants – Volpone’s Mosca; or Valentine’s Jeremy – his job is the reverse of its description: he taunts, rather than assists; ridicules, rather than attends; and yet, is somehow, always at hand – with a keen sardonic smile – to not quite deliver what is asked of him. This kid will go far, that’s for sure!

Pascal Vogiaridis was surely born to play Harry Potter, with those glasses… – and was a sparkling delight, every time he appeared as the Mercer (“he deals in fancy fabrics”): even when duped into marriage. His slumped sadness, though, at such a fate, tugged at my heartstrings. George Hodson, as the Pandar (“a Pimp” – echoing The Jew of Malta, perhaps) who so niftily lures the Mercer in, wore his confidence constantly as a snide badge of pride. (Boo, hiss!)

Adam Hardy and Isaac Sergeant kept cropping up all over the place (as ‘Gentleman’, ‘Servant’, ‘Mercer’s Prentice’, etc. – as well as some rather hefty “ladies” at the end, I think: it was hard to tell under those wigs…); and, along with Nick Jones and Alistair Campbell – as a pair of almost Marxian (and utterly stupid) ‘Intelligencers’, or gumshoes (always getting the wrong end of all the sticks thrown at them by Valore) – demonstrated keenly the consistent strength and depth of the cast. As the closing number so ably showed: this was a company built on mutual admiration and support… – so thrilling to see in actors this young.

Adam Hardy (Servant 1); Daniel Wilkinson (Gondarino); and Isaac Sergeant (Servant 2) – photo by Mark Ellis/Edward’s Boys

So what about the ‘female’ members? (Yes, missus.) Jack Hawkins’ portrayal of Oriana [Valore’s sister – remember?] was a thing (no; just no…) of magical, magnificent, studied strength: from her effortless, endless teasing of Gondarino (the titular – stop it – Woman Hater) – including her entrancing rendition of Mambo Italiano in the first half – to her sullenness; her desire to die rather than be dishonoured; and her final, eventual ‘acceptance’ (see, this it where the play loses its feminist edge – and it was doing so well…) of marriage with the Duke. (“I’m gonna make her an offer she can’t refuse.”) Hawkins – along with the other ‘girls’, and their utterly convincing portrayals – proves both the viability of, and rationale for, boy companies. Special mention must therefore also go to Charlie Waters as Julia (eventually Mrs Lazarillo) – and his stunning, pure singing voice – Felix Crabtree as the cheeky Francissina (eventually Mrs Mercer); and Abhi Gowda as Oriana’s gentle, patient, constant companion and ‘Waiting-Woman’.

James Williams – whilst craftily beginning his transformation to a spectacularly hammy ‘Deaf Gentlewoman’ (a great contrast with those ‘true’ feminine characters) – deftly delivered that Prologue; and effectively anchored the whole shenanigans by removing his wig to then deliver the Epilogue. His is an assured and knowing presence, with a keen knack for commanding an audience.

And, then, finally, there is that mysogynist, Gondarino – portrayed so fearlessly and assuredly by Daniel Wilkinson. Daniel Power’s Lazarillo may have ensnared us all with his witty, exaggerated-yet-subtle buffoonery – reinforcing the subtitle of ‘The Hungry Courtier’ (in many ways, with equal weighting) with aplomb; plumbing the heights and scaling (ba-dum-tish) the depths of pathos and bathos – but it was Wilkinson’s indestructible inhabitation of his (in many, many ways, unsympathetic) character that will stay with me: from his nervous tics, wringing of hands, to his rapid shifts of gear, mood and desire. This was tremendous stagecraft – when surrounded by so much tremendous stagecraft… – and it would have been easy to overact the rôle in the mode of, say, Kenneth Williams or Frankie Howerd. But he made both “Comedy” and “Tragedy” his own. Overawing, insightful, magnetic, inspiring talent. Bravo!

Overall, the play, I thought, was paced well-nigh perfectly – you could even say it was turbot-charged… (sorry) – the descent into deep darkness in the shorter, second half contrasted well with the extended humour that went before and after. There were some lovely, flawlessly-integrated musical moments (with Maninder Dhami, Patrick Ellis, and Thomas Banbury; directed by Ben Dennes – all appearing on-stage); and the consistent periodicity of all aspects – with an almost complete absence of set (except for the low-key suggestions of the power of both state and church) – worked extremely successfully.

I understand why the ‘stage’ area – to fit in with other venues – was arranged as it was (a long axis, with a couple of central, crossing, side entries – with much audience participation (willing or not)); but I am not sure (having tried both the superb new audio loop – yay! – as well as directly accessing the sound through my hearing aids) if the acoustics of The Studio Theatre are less ‘echoey’ when the new seating (which was cleverly folded away into the end wall) is deployed. Officially – and there was a definite charm to being in a not-quite-finished theatre building… – The Other Place doesn’t open for a couple of weeks: so only time will tell. It is to the credit of all the actors that I heard them quite clearly.

I walk past The Other Place – habitually telling the inspirational Buzz Goodbody how much she is missed (as well as saying “Hello Forever” to the ineffable Norman Rodway…) – most times I am in Stratford-upon-Avon; and it felt so good, last night – as I wandered back to my car, reverting to the present, passing her memorial stone once again – to know that the wonderful work she initiated still continues, still grows – and in a manner I hope she would have applauded as enthusiastically as this happy, dispersing audience. Fabulous!

Thus through the doubtful streams of joy and grief,
True Love doth wade, and finds at last relief.

Poster by David Troughton/Edward’s Boys

Edward’s Boys
Edward’s Boys – an all-boy theatre company comprising students from King Edward VI School – Stratford-upon-Avon (“Shakespeare’s School”), have received academic attention and popular success as a result of their work exploring the repertoire of the boys’ companies from the early modern period. In the words of Dr Emma Smith (University of Oxford), the Edward’s Boys project “is the most sustained attempt to re-imagine what we think boy companies could do – and it will really rewrite the academic theatre history books”. All of their previous performances are now available on DVD.

The Woman Hater
There are two performances at The Other Place (formerly The Courtyard Theatre) in Stratford-upon-Avon on Wednesday, 9 and Friday, 11 March 2016 [now sold out] at 19:30. (The Other Place site will open to the public from Monday, 21 March 2016.)
     On Thursday, 10 March 2016 there is a performance at The Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy; and on Saturday, 12 March 2016 at King’s College London Chapel (both 19:30). Tickets for these performances are available here.
     The production then goes on tour to France: where audiences in Montpellier and Beziers will have a first chance to sample a unique slice of English theatrical history.
     For further information, please contact Richard Pearson at King Edward VI School (01789 203104).

Daniel Wilkinson (Gondarino), in rehearsal – photo by Mark Ellis/Edward’s Boys

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