March 1, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Endymion Extracts (King Edward VI School) @ The CAPITAL Centre

One of the CAPITAL Centre’s current Fellows of Creativity is Perry Mills, teacher at King Edward VI School in Stratford, who is running a fascinating project based on 16th-17th century boys’ companies. These companies, the relatively ‘private’ rivals to the adult companies of the period, were hugely popular in their heyday. Their plays, often scandalous, were educated and appealed to a sophisticated clientele, and the companies of choirboys who performed them were renowned for their voices and faculty with complex parts. Small wonder that many of the greatest dramatists of the age, including Middleton, Lyly, Marsden and Jonson, wrote for them.

Mills’ project gives academics a fascinating opportunity to see extracts of the boys’ company plays performed by a modern day cast of boy players, drawn from the teenage students of the school. Their current production, commissioned for a conference at Shakespeare’s Globe, is a heavily-edited 40 minute version of Lyly’s Endymion, the story of a youth in love with the Moon who is cursed into a decades-long sleep by a jealous rival for his affections. It’s rarely performed, so the opportunity to see even an edited version at Warwick was hugely appreciated.

Mills’ text excised the Sir Tophas subplot and simplified most of the supporting characters: thus, Tellus only appeared for the final reckoning and explanation of her actions, Geron’s previous relationship with Dipsas was not mentioned, and several characters were entirely removed: Dares and Samias, Floscula and Semele (though Eumenides’ sacrifice of his own happiness was alluded to), while Corsites’ role was greatly reduced. One charitably hopes that the parent who, in the post-show talk, commented that the play was far less sophisicated than Shakespeare, didn’t realise that he was watching only extracts! What remained of the play served to focus attention on the friendship between Endymion and Eumenides, and Endymion’s love for Cynthia.

One of the production’s most intriguing and successful decisions came from the boys themselves, one of who had (according to the programme) "Hey, this Endymion – he’s so emo!". Thus, Endymion and Eumenides became lovelorn teenagers with black lipstick and t-shirts bearing legends such as "I like you – I’ll kill you last". This not only allowed the production to mock stereotypes of teenage angst, love and lust, but also made surprising sense of their opening conversation with its repeated references to blood-letting for the sake of love, appropriating the emo cult of self-harm and dramatic gesture.

Cynthia herself dominated the stage in a high throne, which she ascended and descended to the sound of eerie humming from the rest of the company. Dressed in grey suit with silver lapels and subtle make-up, the presentation of boy-as-woman was hugely effective, the young actor oozing a detached yet distinctly feminine authority. She rarely made eye contact with anyone else on the stage (made easier by the actor being a head taller than most of the rest of the cast), instead speaking to the middle-distance, aware but above the action of the play. This made the moments when she did actively engage with the other characters (such as when she finally realised Endymion was in love with her) all the more impactful.

Another of the production’s most fascinating decisions was to set up a member of the audience as the ‘Queen’, thereby recreating the original performance conditions at court. As Cynthia is herself a representation of the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, this allowed the company to step out of the action and engage in some good, old-fashioned flattery. Prologue and Epilogue were both addressed directly to her, but more powerfully Endymion’s own final praise of Cynthia was spoken directly to the ‘real’ Queen instead of to her on-stage counterpart. The purpose of the play was thus made explicit in performance, the production demonstrating how Lyly’s writing intersected with the external conditions of presentation. As the Epilogue closed, the boys dropped to their knees and bowed before the Queen, ending the play by literally offering their work at her feet.

While the removal of much of the comic material meant the extracts were inherently less funny than the play as a whole, the boys still found much humour in it. As well as satirising teenage lust, they came up with a wonderfully evil Dipsas complete with villainous cackle and a doddering Geron who hobbled along after Eumenides. The pair of boys who shared the Prologue, too, created humour through their shared lines and iterated stage managing of the action, such as their fixing a false beard and wig to the aged Endymion.

As dramatic experiment, this kind of work is invaluable, and as a performance Endymion managed to both shed light on early modern playing techniques and create a modern performance language for twenty-first century boy players. Testament, too, to the skill of the boys is their facility with language that most of the audience struggled to understand; unfamiliar and learned as Lyly is, through rehearsal the boys had clearly come to appreciate and make his words their own.

In a couple of weeks, the boys will be back presenting Middleton’s A Mad World, My Masters, with a punk aesthetic. Having seen them bring Lyly to life, I’m now fascinated to see what they make of Middleton.

Posted in Theatre review