August 8, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

A Mad World, My Masters (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

Unusually for the RSC, the poster to Sean Foley’s new production of A Mad World, My Masters (the second I’ve seen, the first professional) advertises itself prominently as ‘edited by Sean Foley and Phil Porter). This is a frustrating statement to read, partly as it implies on some level that the RSC’s other productions aren’t edited or don’t need editing, an implication disingenuous at best. Foley’s text is instead a substantive rewrite/updating that renames characters, contemporises jokes and aims, as his programme note suggests, to prioritise the experience of watching a city comedy that speaks to its moment of production as Middleton’s spoke to his audience in 1605. The politics of foregrounding Middleton as someone who needs [a unique level of] editing/adaptation aside, Foley’s ethos is refreshing; this play wanted its audience to have instant access to the fun.

In practice, this resulted in a hysterically and exhaustingly innuendo-laden take on Middleton’s comedy, updated to 1950s Soho (and drawing heavily on tropes of film noir and the jazz age), that acted as both satire and celebration of a particular kind of upper-class decadence. Moving between the bedsits, coffee bars, deserted streets and overblown mansions of London and its surrounds, a cast of eccentric and exaggerated characters engaged in a game of sexual musical chairs (often involving actual chairs) that made a virtue of superficiality.

Key to the success of this was Foley and Porter’s text. At one wonderful moment, John Hopkins’s Penitent Brothel, disguised as a doctor, delivered the wincing response to the line ‘Be patient’, ‘I cannot be patient and physician too’ and responded to the groans in the audience with ‘Thomas Middleton: 1605’, to huge applause. The explicit pointing up of the play’s multiple authorship, the apology for a bad joke that also acted as celebration of the author, and the production’s own entertaining self-consciousness all came into play in one aside, the enthusiastic appreciation of which indicated the party-like atmosphere that filled the Swan.

In some ways, the relentlessness of the farce was a frustration as well as a positive. With the language rendered largely unchallenging and a reliance on the RSC’s stock ‘thrusting’ gestures to flag up smutty jokes, the sacrifice for an atmosphere of continued hilarity being a greater variety of style. Dry-humping is rarely either sexy or funny, a rather tame place-holder for sexual behaviour, and the production’s refusal to either go to particularly dark places or mix up the pratfalls, post-coital reveals and mugging behind other characters’ backs became predictable after a while. This was only a shame inasfar as the moments of verbal humour and relative quiet were so strong, and just too few. The production used pauses to great effect, notably in Richard Durden’s marvellous Spunky, an ancient servant who shuffled interminably slowly towards his master and took ages to respond. The running gag about his hearing aid tuning in every time he entered a room became tired, but the slowing down of pace to allow audiences to enjoy the moment was welcome.

Richard Goulding, so wonderful back when I first saw him as Prospero in a Guildhall production in 2006, energised the stage as Dick Follywit, beginning by trashing the stage set for the Flamingo Club (starring the phenomenal Linda John-Pierre as a jazz singer who, Little Shop of Horrors-style, wandered the stage for the rest of the production accompanying other characters in their songs) along with his drunken friends. Goulding’s Follywit, a junior Boris Johnson, was part oaf and part wit, unpleasant in the level of his violence to Sir Bounteous’s servants but compelling in the drag act he performed during his second robbery of his uncle. Performed at high energy throughout, his final crushing defeat on the revelation of Sarah Ridgeway’s Truly Kidman’s true profession felt earned. Beneath the laughter there was a great deal of cruelty, and whether it was the production’s intention or not, I certainly felt sympathy for the deflated Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford) as he and his increasingly fidgety audience waited in silence for the thieves/players to return to the stage. Sir Bounteous’s efforts to keep his end up (in all sense) throughout the production were a constant reminder of the underpinning fears of mortality, impotency and irrelevance that emerged during his plea for his friends not to laugh at him seven years’ hence – a date at which, I suspected, he may have been referring to his posthumous legacy.

In the main plot, Redford and Goulding made for a hugely entertaining double-act, particularly when being undressed together by their servants and placed into ostentatious dressing gowns. Goulding, even pretending to be the OTT Lord Owemuch, was dwarfed in excess by the portly Sir Bounteous, revealed spanking a prostitute with a crop and drinking carelessly from the goblets held up by drooping servants. His safe was revealed through the careful stroking of a classical statue’s penis into the upright position (comically, an action that Follywit couldn’t achieve), and Redford’s game disgracing of himself (appearing in string vest for his tryst with Follywit in his prostitute’s disguise and throwing himself onto a leather sofa) ensured that any sympathy didn’t last long.

The main concurrent plot followed the attempts of Penitent Brothel to get into the skirts of Ellie Beaven’s Mrs Littledick, the demure (at first, at least) wife to Steffan Rhodri’s Mr. Littledick (who comically turned up with an enormous codpiece to the Jacobean fancy-dress ball that closed the production). Hopkins as Brothel was hysterical, literally self-flagellating with a crop as he attempted to beat the lust out of himself, and clumsily knocking over the furniture as he bumbled about the stage. Finally left alone with Mrs Littledick at last, he appeared with a huge erection stretching out his underpants and disappeared with his enthusiastic partner behind the covers of a four-poster bed. Later, in a scene that felt particularly out of place in the modern context, he was seduced over his hot plate in a tiny bedsit by a succubus (also Beaven) in red dress, leaving him in a panic of flagellation and burning his fingers in the electric fire.

The difficulty with this story was that it was left unfinished. Brothel rejected Mrs Littledick unilaterally, and she was left alone onstage for one of a number of setpiece songs, where she lamented her being left behind. The intrusion of the song (‘Cry me a River’) implied unfinished action, yet the story was left hanging. It was a reminder that, although language and setting were updated, the play’s misogyny and sexual politics were not. The easy dismissal of women based on their chastity or lack thereof was retained, the judgements of incontinence unchallenged, and while the men were embarrassed repeatedly, their agency remained undisputed. In this light it was particularly difficult to work out what to make of Rhodri’s Mr. Littledick, an unaware and ultimately smug cuckold.

More compelling in this regard was Ridgeway’s Truly and Badria Timimi, giving a wonderful understudy performance as her mother. Truly’s protean nature, matched only by Follywit himself, allowed her to segue between Irish nun (spreading her legs and lighting a fag as soon as Littledick was out of the room), screaming admonisher (playing opposite Mrs. Littledick’s cries of ecstasy for the sake of the eavesdropping Littledick), demure lady and canting trickster. Flirting cheekily with audience as well as characters, her brief aside when falling in love with Follywit during the play’s finale was followed by a bob and wink as she rejoined the group.

The cheeky aside was key to a production that drew its comedy from its self-consciousness throughout and, even if the relentlessness of the sexual gags became tiresome, the energy of the cast couldn’t be faulted. While it may have sacrificed some of the depth and wit of Middleton, the adapted text was witty in itself (a wonderful note that an angry young man like Follywit had been seen at the Royal Court lately was a particular delight) and the choreography and music sublime. To describe the range of physical comedy on display, from Harry McEntire’s delicate balancing in a bin and Ben Deery’s extraordinary somersault while continuing to keep hold of his cigarette in the first scene, to the desperate improvisations of the three wits as they tied up Dwane Walcott’s furious Constable in the final scene, this was a physically expert and slick production whose sacrifice of (much of) Middleton’s text was repaid by a furiously funny comedy.

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