March 18, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

Galatea (Edward’s Boys) @ King Edward VI School

I first encountered Lyly in the form of a heavily cut production of Endymion performed by the junior boys of King Edward VI School in 2009, back before they were even known as Edward’s Boys. Having missed their 2010 Mother Bombie, it was something of a delight to return five years later and find Endymion’s Prologue, David Fairbairn, all grown up and presiding as Venus over the climax of their first full production of a Lyly play, Galatea. While the company have performed plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare, Middleton, Marston and more, Lyly remains the house playwright, the early modern writer who perhaps best exploited the potential and physical ambiguity of a boy company, and this triumphant production was a fitting culmination to the company’s work so far. On home turf in the gym of King Edward VI School itself, with some actors reprising roles from previous productions (notably Fairbairn’s Venus and Joe Pocknell’s Cupid, both last seen in Dido), this was the perfect marriage of play and company, allowing the Boys to return to what they do best.

Set in the semi-mythical forests of Lincolnshire (!), director Perry Mills imagined a world of constant movement. Scenes were interspersed with glimpses of groups of characters passing through, giving the sense of a series of chance collisions in the forest. The wonderful Daniel Wilkinson was a towering Diana with staring, wild eyes, emerging haughty and alert surrounded by her nymphs before running off again to pursue her quarry. The three clowns – Rafe, Robin and Dick – wandered offstage, hollering to one another as they sought their fortune in the wilds. Jeremy Franklin’s lavishly bearded Neptune disguised himself as a shepherd to oversee his plans, and Diana’s lovestruck nymphs sighed and swooned as they staggered after their oblivious loves. All of this extratextual action heightened the play’s connection to Elizabethan prose and poetic romance, giving the sense of the sprawling environment, the meandering paths and multiple quests familiar from works like The Faerie Queene. Here, however, the emphasis was on the amusement created by the criss-crossings of wildly disparate groups.

In the main plot, George Hodson and George Ellingham excelled as caricatures of brusque farmers, steering their dimunitive children (Charlie Waters’s Galatea and Pascal Vogiaridis’s Phillida) away from a place of sacrifice. This tree, made up of several smaller boys perched on older boys’ shoulders, had a somewhat macabre aspect to it in its twisting limbs, made explicit when Neptune joined the bodies for the first attempted sacrifice and positioned his arm around the frail Hebe (Dominic Howden). As always, the company capitalised on the availability of actors of hugely varying sizes by exposing the vulnerability of the bodies of the young. Galatea and Phillida had little agency, steered and hidden by their fathers, while Hebe was dwarved by the tall bodies surrounding and ensnaring her. Yet the priority given by the play to the plaintive voices of the young was obvious here, especially in Hebe’s epic speech, punctuated by the expectant pauses as she and citizens awaited Neptune’s sea monster. While more might have been done to emphasise the comic aspect of the deflated expectations, the performers captured beautifully the complex hurt and relief of a girl rejected for sacrifice for not being the most beautiful maiden, her father Ericthinis (Adam Hardy) both comforting and admonishing her as he led her, broken, offstage.

Moments such as these were strengthened by emerging from a largely presentational acting style that acknowledged the presence of the Queen (an audience member crowned at the production’s start) and imagined the play at least partially as pageant. Galatea and Phillida’s long set speeches, spoken largely to the audience (amusingly, often followed by turning to the other only to find that they were now addressing the audience themselves), set out the formal debates over their own identity as girls disguised as boys, falling in love with a ‘boy’ whose own gender identity was fluid. While the tone of these scenes tended towards sadness as they admitted their own relative lack of agency in pursuing their feelings, there was also a childish exuberance to the excitement they felt as they followed one another offstage. The love here felt platonic rather than unnecessarily sexualised, based in aesthetic appreciation of one another; yet neither actor had eyes for anyone else, and the connection between them was sustained persuasively throughout while their fathers and the authorities bickered over the dangers of not appeasing Neptune.

The relatively serious handling of this plot was punctuated by moments of surreal comedy (in one lovely moment, Phillida snapped a branch off an actor playing a tree, who cried out in pain and proceeded to sulk), but more regularly by the gods, who were having an enormous amount of fun. Pocknell’s Cupid was, as in Dido, an adorably arrogant trickster. Appearing first revealed behind the central door standing in the traditional pose (leaning forward, one foot held in the air, bow at the ready), he turned and winked at the audience, a wink that dominated his subsequent performance. This irrepressible Cupid rapidly took down Diana’s nymphs, drawled Diana’s own name in mockery of her deep voice, and even after his wings had been clipped maintained a chirpy disposition, if slightly slower of foot. He was juxtaposed deliberately with Diana, who towered above the rest of the cast and boomed her threats with alternating rage and glee. The comedy came from Diana boiling over with rage at her silly nymphs, who giggled and sighed in the corners of the stage after Galatea and Phillida. The angle here was to render Diana a formidable presence while undercutting her insistence on chastity at all times, and the delayed appearance of Venus to counter her and resolve the situation perfectly expressed the allegorical purpose. Venus, another older actor, was the only match for Diana and restored equilibrium, taking Cupid into her arms and presenting a sassy confidence that even Diana recognised made her pomposity ridiculous.

Neptune was similarly a severe presence undercut by moments of amusement. His appearances were accompanied by drumming, and his slow, stately gait established authority after the giddy tripping of the other characters. Yet there was a deliberate comedy to his ‘disguise’ as a shepherd, his flowing white beard and wig spilling out from under his flat cap). It was Neptune who closed the production rocking out, taking up a microphone in place of a trident and coordinating the curtain calls. Within the play itself, his roaring demands provided the little tension necessary to progress the plot, and served yet again to highlight the vulnerability of his intended victims.

The main comic plot was, thankfully, genuinely amusing. The three traveling brothers, all sporting Villa shirts and Birmingham accents, were initially berated by Lawrence Barber’s stomping, sou’-westered Mariner before being left to their own devices, and they provided the bathetic effect throughout, beautifully enraging Diana by crashing the final set of resolutions and being entirely oblivious to the incongruity of their presence. Finlay Hatch led the subplot as he encountered the wonderful Alchemist (Jasper Durbin) who babbled incoherently, and the austere Astronomer (Ed Beighton) whose high-minded pursuits were comically brought down to earth by Hatch’s questions. Swaggering and cheering, the brothers made their relatively disconnected subplot matter to the production by establishing the energy and carnival spirit that drove the chance encounters and made light of the more bizarre encounters.

The combined effect of these disparate elements was a joyful but always enlightening romp through a play that absolutely depends on the ambiguous performativity of the boy actor. Brilliantly, following Venus’s promise to turn one of the two disguised girls into a real boy, the two were brought back onstage for the finale in their School uniform, the most obviously neutral costume available to them, reminding a modern audience of the early modern boy actor’s ability to be a ‘blank slate’. The production didn’t shy away from the dangers of longing and loss that pervade the play – even in the hysterical offstage bleatings and then screamings of the sheep being hunted by Diana, there was a reminder of the destructive forces nominally at work within the forest. While immensely amusing, then, I felt a lively sense of hope emerge from a production that insisted on surrendering to feelings rather than to obstacles, and on a belief in the magic of performance.

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