March 12, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

A Mad World, My Masters (King Edward VI School) @ The CAPITAL Centre

A Mad World, My Masters, the second production from King Edward VI School this year is a very different affair to Endymion. For a start, it’s a relatively full text, compared to the extracts that made up the earlier play. For another, it’s the turn of the older boys, who I’d guess are about 16-18 years old, as opposed to the Key Stage III boys who played Endymion. The effect of having a more accomplished cast presenting a fuller text was to make this far more of a production than an academic exercise, and the boys delivered a fast, entertaining and very funny version of Middleton’s comedy. It was also, in good ways, extremely disturbing.

Perhaps what was most disconcerting is the independence of thought. Watching the younger boys playing Endymion, one was left in no doubt that they were effectively being presented by their company manager; there was a certain pageant-like quality to the performance, the sense that they were moving in pre-defined ways. Essentially, the production was safe, because we could sense the guiding adult maneuvering his performers. Watching the older boys, though, felt edgier. There was the feeling that, to some extent, the lunatics were taking over the asylum; the more developed boys bringing in their own particular talents and interests and taking control over their performances in a way the younger boys couldn’t

Maybe this is where the original boy players started to cause controversy? We know from academic studies that, as the companies continued performing, their younger players graduated to more active roles in administration and direction. Is it at the point where boys become men that satire starts to become dangerous? When you suddenly realise that, actually, these performers not only completely understand what they’re saying, but are also using it to project their own burgeoning beliefs, sexuality and attitude?

How often, nowadays, do adults sit down and place themselves in the hands of a child-controlled entertainment, exxpose themselves to the views and culture of the young? The use of punk music in the production acted as a reminder that the young have to go to extremes to get attention from the establishment; that politeness and conformity are ignored, while rebellion can’t be. In much the same way, Follywit is essentially ignored by Sir Bounteous Progress in his own clothes; it his only through his various disguises that Progress acknowledges his young relative, that the two of them have any meaningful contact.

From the play’s opening moments, with Follywit and his companions pogoing onto the stage and trashing the carefully-placed set, 70s punk was the production’s aesthetic. Snatches of recorded and live music punctuated the action, often comically rearranged as consort pieces to be delicately sung. Rather than tie the production too specifically down to a time period, the punk costumes and music mostly served to underscore the general sense of anarchic chaos, anything being possible when rules are disregarded.

Hugely entertaining individual performances dominated the action. Jack Fielding’s Dick Follywit showed great versatility as he went through his multiple disguises: coy lady, pretentious artist, over-stuffed lord, all allowing Follywit to gull Sir Bounteous in various ways. Yet the disguises were only partly fun for this Follywit who, in his own person, displayed a surprising amount of bile and resentment against his relative. His dissatisfaction was partly justified by the vacuousness of Sir Bounteous, but was in no small part motiveless teenage rebellion, focused against the nearest available target. His final comeupance, finding out he was married to a former courtesan, soured his triumphs fittingly. This moment, however, was a particularly uncomfortable one for a modern audience; Follywit’s disgust at Mistress Gullman’s profession and everyone else’s ridicule of him, in performance, overrode her arguments that she had changed her ways, and only the money Sir Bounteous gave to Follywit put a smile back on his face. The treatment of Gullman at this final moment, her marginalisation and disgrace, sat uncomfortably when arguably greater crimes (from a 21st century perspective) were easily forgiven.

Oliver Hayes (surely older than the rest of the company?!) made Sir Bounteous thoroughly ridiculous, a guffawing sycophant who first entered in bright pink trousers bearing a tottering pile of presents for his friends. His generosity was unpleasant and primarily self-gratifying, he taking pleasure in humbling himself before his exalted company. His infectious energy, however, drove the plot and made his gulling at Follywit’s hands all the more enjoyable. The other key driver was Tom Sharp’s Francesca Gullman, a husky-voiced and tall figure in elegant dress, who shared most of her lines with the audience. The punk influence shone through in this Mistress Gullman, with her can’t-be-bothered attitude and sarcastic mockery of everyone she came across, coasting through the city and never investing emotionally in anyone or anything. Even her final match with Follywit, made under pressure and with knowing deceit, kept the pair at an emotional distance from one another. Sharp’s performance was perfectly balanced by Tom Adams’ cuckolded Shortrod Harebrain. His Welsh lilt and near-ecstatic enthusiasm for everyone and everything was infectiously funny, and it was interesting to see a jealous husband played so innocently: this Harebrain genuinely wanted to love and be happy, and so the audience found itself rooting for him far more than the written text might have suggested. Ignorance is bliss, and the agreement of Penitent and Mistress Harebrain to meet no more gave their story perfect and happy resolution.

The boys created a Dickensian world of grotesques and comics who peopled the world of the play, from Progress’ camp steward and the entirely disinterested butler Rafe to the snivelling, leering brothers who stalked Mistress Gullman about the stage and the entirely confused Constable who was bound by Follywit’s ‘players’. It was a lively and full world, and one could see how Middleton reimagined the adult London as seen through the eyes of children. To return to my earlier comments about the disturbing nature of this production, it may go back to the idea that children see what’s really there; that the grotesque sexual language, casual adultery and opportunistic theft that the boys so joyously celebrated reflect and invert all-too-real uncomfortable truths about the adult world they are preparing to become part of. A comedy is made out of the stuff that makes up real-life tragedies, and life is turned into ‘play’.

A great job on a fun play, and the boys’ final dance to a live version of the Gutter Brothers’ "Girl for Granted" was a fitting and lively conclusion. The production made an excellent argument for the continuing relevance of boys performing the plays written for other boys over 400 years ago; the problems of the young, it seems, haven’t changed that much at all, and laughter still seems to be the best way to confront them.

Posted in Theatre review