Lessons from a Mad World

A Mad World My Masters, Swan Stratford, 29 June 2013

When this production exploded onto the Swan stage, a good deal of its energy and confidence came from the fulfilment of the editors’ intention that the play should be immediately accessible to the audience.

The Sean Foley and Phil Porter edit of Middleton’s play removed a fifth of the original, “but what remains is about 97% Middleton”, said Foley in the programme. Rather than wholly rewrite the text, the editors demonstrated faith in the ability of the audience to understand Jacobean English, while gently assisting them.

They clarified obscure jokes and references, supplanting them with hilarious and clearly signposted humour that revelled in its juxtaposition with the original. The subtext of the edit was that ‘funny’ does not change, merely the precise phrasing of its expression.

This was a slightly more aggressive form of the kind of editing that is commonplace in more reverently handled Shakespeare productions. When in Measure for Measure, Pompey announces that “All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be plucked down” this is routinely changed to clarify that brothels are to be demolished.

Set in Soho in 1956, the production updated some character names to make the humour more obvious, so that we had Truly Kidman instead of Frank Gullman and Sir Bounteous Peersucker instead of Progress. More daringly, the Harebrains became Littledicks, while Gunwater the butler was renamed Spunky.

The brightly coloured Flamingo Club filled with guests and staff as Linda John-Pierre belted out one of the many songs that punctuated the production (1.1). Once she had finished, Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) bounded after her and tried to steal a kiss. He and his cohorts Captain Oboe (Harry McEntire) and Sergeant Sponger (Ben Deery) were thrown out of the club, the stage rapidly transforming into dingy Ham Yard. A telescopic street lamp rose suggestively out a tiny trap door, as the riotous crew ended up among the back street bins.

The colour, noise and chaos of this initial sequence, at the end of which one of the characters sat in a dustbin with the lid on his head, seized the audience’s attention, had them laughing and expressed the manic energy of the play before the first proper line of dialogue.

Dick Follywit ended up with some women’s underwear on his face, and remarked that in his present condition even his uncle would not recognise him. This stunning realisation inspired his plan to enrich himself. His relative was “tremendously well-endowed” and a social climber whose so-called friends took advantage of his self-serving hospitality to “gobble him dry”.

He called on his associates to assist him; they responded by saluting him and in their confusion locked their arms together.

Follywit planned to visit his uncle disguised as a lord, with his associates pretending to be his chauffeur and butler.

Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins), as well as having an unchanged name, spoke in phrases that were unmistakably Middleton’s original, saying of Follywit “I tax his youth of common receiv’d riot”.

Having served up some easily digestible modernised English, the production did not patronise the audience by spoon-feeding them throughout. Instead it trusted in their ability to discern meaning in passages of Middleton that a more condescending editor could have rewritten wholesale.

Explaining his love for Mrs Littledick, jealously guarded by her possessive husband, Penitent paused for comic effect after saying that he was “constrained to use a prostitute” but then countered our expectations to reveal that Truly Kidman “corrupts and loosens his wife’s most constant powers”.

The meeting between Truly (Sarah Ridgeway) and Penitent in the alley was observed by the ever-watchful Constable (Dwane Walcott) who shone a torch at them.

Truly and her pimp mother sat outside the Moka coffee bar. Mrs Kidman (Ishia Bennison) presented her daughter with a gift from “her keeper” Sir Bounteous”. Given her profession and the double meaning of the phrase, we were not expected to believe Truly when she said “I’ve never had a pearl necklace before”.

In case there was any doubt as to her line of business, she informed us that “I’ve been spatchcocked , trussed up, boned and basted more times that he’s had hot caudle”. The playful inclusion of “caudle” at the end of that line, invited us to guess that it meant something similar to “dinners”. This was another good example of how the edit both assisted the audience while simultaneously stretching the limits of their understanding.

Her mother gave her advice on how to play the market and maximise her earnings. She described the tactics not as the “politic conveyance” of the original, but as a “cunning stunt”.

Truly made a quick exit as her suitors Masters Whopping-Prospect (Ciarán Owens) and Muchly-Minted (Nicholas Prasad) came a-calling. Her mother modified her common voice and insisted in refined tones that her daughter was busy reading her bible.

Muchly-Minted was keen to know about Truly’s inheritance, asking “She is heir, is she not, to some nineteen mountains?” The seemingly curious remark was in fact a borrowing from A Chaste Maid In Cheapside.

The set changed to show the interior of the Littledick residence where Mr Littledick (Steffan Rhodri) employed a seedy private detective (David Rubin) to keep a watch out for Penitent Brothel, whom he suspected of trying to sleep with his wife (1.2).

During this conversation we could see Mrs Littledick (Ellie Beaven) listening at an invisible wall in what we understood to be the adjoining room.

Truly Kidman arrived disguised as an Irish nun for her regular sessions with Mrs Littledick, which Mr Littledick wrongly assumed to be moral instruction.

Mr Littledick explained that his wife was “stroking at her lute” and that he had deprived her of “wanton pamphlets, ‘Venus and Adonis’, her Health and Efficiency magazine”, the latter substituting for Hero and Leander.

Saying that she would read to her from Revelations (not Resolution), Kidman had Mrs Littledick brought to her. Mr Littledick went to listen in from the neighbouring room as we had seen his wife do earlier.

Truly instructed her to keep up the appearance of a loyal wife, even to the point of excess, raising her voice so that Mr Littledick could only hear her seemingly virtuous utterances and disguising the subterfuge in a quieter voice.

Mr Littledick burst in on them to congratulate Truly on her work, offering her money to slip “quietly into your offering box”, which Truly gratefully received: “You virtually make me moist”.

Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford) was beating a scantily-clad young lady on the bottom with his riding crop (2.1). He compounded his rakish image by stopping to admire one of the women on the front row (“what a cracker”), offering her his card and a rendez-vous in the bar after the show.

Oboe, disguised in an ill-fitting chauffeur’s uniform, announced that Lord Owemuch had come to call. Spunky the butler (Richard Durden) was elderly and slow, with a hearing aid that whined. He got a laugh simply by hobbling in and out of the room.

Follywit appeared in a false moustache and smart Italian suit, spontaneously renaming Sponger as his footman Ballbag. Comically pretending to be Sir Bounteous’ social superior, Follywit broke out of his cool persona when his uncle mentioned his valuables, slowing his confident delivery to ask comically “Oh… where do you keep them?”

Sir Bounteous went over to a statue of David and tweaking its penis upwards, triggered the upward slide of a book shelf on the other side of the room, revealing a safe built into the wall.

The scene ended with the band playing Let The Good Times Roll and dancing as Follywit realised the ease with which he could rob his uncle of his wealth.

Towels

Both Follywit and Sir Bounteous changed on stage behind towels into their pyjamas so that the next scene with them preparing for bed followed on continuously (2.2). When they were left alone, the interlopers looked in their large trunk for their disguises.

The part of the set representing the house interior went dark, while further upstage we saw Truly Kidman giving a handjob to the detective, asking him to inform Penitent Brothel that she had hit upon a plan to bring him to Mrs Littledick (2.3). The session ended with ejaculate appearing to fly up into the air from the detective (who was facing upstage).

Follywit and his men put on stocking masks. One of them got the end of his stocking trapped in the trunk when it closed, leaving him stood bent backwards fighting against the taught material (2.4).

Spunky discovered them stealing the silver and calmly enquired “Thieves?” before confirming the answer for himself. He was knocked out, leaving the men to attempt to open the safe. They tried to operate the penis switch but it would not work. In frustration the switch was repeatedly tweaked, faster and faster without result, creating an obscene visual joke.

Discovered by Sir Bounteous, they introduced themselves as Geordies. Sir B operated the switch enabling them to continue to fill the trunk. They took cash from the safe, as well as a set of golf clubs and a long ladder which was used to remove a painting from high up on the wall.

They were left with the problem of how to appear victims of the robbery the next morning. Hitting Oboe was a good start. Ropes were required to tie them up. The thick piping was torn from a seat, but although just two ropes were thus ripped off, three sound effects overlay the action. This prompted a comic double-take from one of the gang.

Penitent Brothel arrived outside Truly Kidman’s house located at 69 Swallow Street (2.5). Punters called at other adjacent doors and were shown in by their prostitutes, while Truly Kidman spoke to Penitent Brothel in the street and told him her plan.

Firstly, she would feign sickness, something she could do as convincingly as the other pretences she had previously employed, a point she underlined by slipping into her Irish accent.

The other part of the plan involved Penitent Brothel visiting in disguise as a physician.

Back at Sir Bounteous’ house, Follywit practised his pretence at being bound, trying out various positions including crouching bent forward on the bed with his hands behind his back (2.6). Bounteous Peersucker hopped into the room with his feet and arms still tied not realising that Follywit and his men were responsible for the robbery.

As Follywit faked outrage at his host’s lack of security, both he and his associate Sponger repeatedly moved their supposedly bound wrists apart, forgetting the pretence they were supposed to be maintaining, until suddenly realising their error, snapping their wrists together and grinning in embarrassment. Sir Bounteous did not notice.

On a textual note, Sir Bounteous’ exclamation “I’m a Saracen” was updated to “I’m a Muslim” though this verged on the distasteful.

The text was updated so that Follywit explained how the villains had bound him because they did not trust his promises on the grounds that he was an Old Etonian.

Sponger initially said that Follywit aka Lord Owemuch had not lost anything in the robbery, but later lied to Sir Bounteous itemising a list of valuables and one hundred pounds in cash, which Sir Bounteous promised to make good.

Mr Littledick called his wife down from her room to meet with Masters Whopping-Prospect and Muchly-Minted so that he could observe her comportment and test her virtue (3.1).

The Detective sent to fetch her reported that she was ill, prompting the young men to leave, but told Mr Littledick that her ‘real’ reason was that she did not want to endure the company of men. This was exactly what Truly Kidman had advised her to do and Mr Littledick fell for it, taking this to be more conclusive proof of her innate modesty.

Mrs Littledick intended to visit the allegedly sick Truly Kidman and wanted her husband to accompany her, if only to the door. He agreed, saying he would “not penetrate within”.

The interior of Truly Kidman’s boudoir was dominated by a pink four poster bed (3.2). She lay in it pretending to be sick, ministered to by Penitent Brothel who was dressed as a doctor and kitted out with a black bag, white coat and head mirror.

The arrival of Sir Bounteous encouraged Truly to attempt further extortion. She said it would be easy to get him to pay for expensive bogus treatments because “many’s the time he’s blown his wad on me”.

Penitent Brothel introduced himself as a physician and immediately offered Sir Bounteous a cigarette: a neat joke on the state of 1950s medical knowledge.

Sir Bounteous became discouraged by the sight of his mistress ill, which was enough “to make an old man shrink”. The doctor recommended an increasingly bizarre set of remedies, taking strange objects out of his bag to demonstrate them and, desperate to invent names for them, resorted to Italian foods such as “Osso bucco, tortellini, mellenzane parmigiane…”

Sir Bounteous said they would have to be patient, to which Penitent countered “I cannot be patient and physician too”. Some in the audience groaned at this terrible joke, at which point John Hopkins glanced at them and said “Thomas Middleton, 1605” as if to point out that this was part of the original text and not a poor quality editorial addition. This looked like a spontaneous adlib, but on further investigation was found to be an integral part of the performance, presumably provoking similar reactions at most performances.

Another of the suggested remedies was “half a pint of Guinness”, which referenced the fact that this brand of stout was once prescribed by doctors.

Sir Bounteous handed over money to pay for all these ridiculous cures and left.

The two suitors Whopping-Prospect and Muchly-Minted were also concerned. Both of them offered money, which Muchly-Minted described as “the fruit of my bulging pockets”. One of them had brought a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray as a gift, although this was never actually handed over, serving as an element of period detail.

Penitent Brothel needed these two out of the way. Telling them that Truly required an hour’s sleep merely made them wish to stay and watch, so a bed pan was brought over which Truly began to squat, sending the suitors to the door.

Mrs Littledick arrived and Penitent appeared semi-undressed from behind the bed sporting a visible erection as he greeted “the fullness of my wish”.

Mr Littledick appeared on a long promontory high above the bed representing the floor above through which he would listen to goings-on in the room below.

Truly’s task was to talk loudly and provide context for the lovers’ cries to prevent Mr Littldick from becoming suspicious. This she did brilliantly, readopting the accent of her Irish nun character.

Mrs Littledick’s repeated exultant cries of “Yes” became her agreement with the nun’s homilies on chastity. Her moans of pleasure were interpreted as crying at Kidman’s sickly condition.

The uproarious comedy of this sequence reached a climax when Mr Littledick thought that his wife was about to leave. He exclaimed “She’s coming”, at which point both Penitent and Mrs Littledick came at once, which prompted her husband to announce cheerily “Good. She’ll feel better for that”.

He descended while Truly Kidman reeled off a list of her relations she wished that Mrs Littledick would greet, including “Great Aunty Rugmunch”.

The curtain was drawn from the bed to reveal the lovers smoking post-coital cigarettes, Penitent’s tie knotted round his forehead. The arrival of Mr Littledick forced Penitent to dive under the covers to conceal himself, with his arms sticking out beside Mrs Littledick’s head and being mistaken for hers. After this hilarious sequence the interval came.

Interval

The second half began outside the Moka Bar as Follywit and his companions relished their victory over Sir Bounteous (3.3).

But the young man suddenly remembered that his uncle kept a mistress who might inherit a third of his estate. He hit on a plan to further enrich himself and discredit the unnamed woman. He disappeared inside the coffee bar and emerged having swapped his clothes with those of the waitress, taking some iced buns and shoving down his top to fill out his bosom. This requirement for considerably bigger buns might have been a Calendar Girls reference.

Follywit commented on it being “… an Amazonian time. You shall shortly have women tread their husbands” to which the Waitress (Badria Timimi) responded with a laconic “Yeah”. Follywit obviously considered himself irresistible as he was sure all men would want to “circumnavigate my globes”.

Penitent Brothel was discovered frying a chipolata on a hot plate tormenting himself as he read in a book about the evils of adultery. His self-flagellation involved whipping himself with a tea towel and on one occasion pressing his hand into the hot pan.

Eventually the pan caught fire and he held out a large tea towel to cover it. After he whisked the towel over the pan, the Succubus (Ellie Beaven again) appeared as if by magic in his bedsit armchair. She was a vision of erotic delight in her black basque and suspendered tights topped by a red chiffon negligee.

She began to seduce him, inviting Penitent to “twine me” and finishing on an incomplete rhyme:

Where’s thy lip, thy clip, thy pluck?
Let us strip, unzip and ….

She gyrated in front of him, repeating “Fa le la, le la” as she teased him with her erotic allure. He commanded her to leave and this time she complied as Penitent threatened her with the fire extinguisher. Once she had gone, he let the extinguisher off and showered it around as if orgasming. The passing caretaker (Gwilym Lloyd) had not noticed anyone leaving the bedsit.

A brief scene saw Spunky inform Sir Bounteous that Truly Kidman had arrived to see him (4.2).

Spunky showed Follywit, disguised as Truly Kidman, into the room (4.3). He just happened to point out the casket where he kept his savings and the key on the chain round his neck that unlocked it.

Spunky tried it on with the disguised Follywit, taking him for Truly, and he agreed to a later assignation at The Suck And Swallow pub in return for the chain round his neck. He then used it to steal from the casket.

Sir Bounteous entered prepared for his session with Truly, stripped to his underpants and vest, and with a dog leash round his neck. He noticed that Truly’s breath smelt of “wine, beer and tobacco” but that did not prevent him chasing her around the room, with his hand coming dangerously close to discovering that the object of his lust was not a woman.

Sir Bounteous became discouraged and called to Spunky to bring him his “tincture” as “the bald-headed hermit is returning to his cave”. In his absence, Follywit stole some more loot from the room and scarpered. On his return with Spunky, Sir Bounteous took note of the various thefts and changed his mind about Truly Kidman. He decided to cheer himself up by throwing a fancy dress ball.

Penitent Brothel confronted Mrs Littledick, thinking her the Succubus that had visited him and told her about the guilt he felt (4.4). She leant forwards resting her elbows on the desk as he stood behind her, so that when Mr Littledick appeared, they appeared to be in a compromising situation.

However, at that precise point Penitent Brothel was telling her to keep her vows and to be loyal to her husband, a sentiment with which she wholeheartedly agreed. This again gladdened Mr Littledick.

Spunky appeared up in the gallery and telephoned Mr Littledick, inviting him to the fancy dress ball, which would require wearing “Jacobean garb”. This was a nice nod to the original play.

Back at the Moka Bar, Follywit was coming on to Truly Kidman who eventually departed having made plain that she was not interested in him (4.5).

He met her mother Mrs Kidman, who informed him, in her fake posh voice, that Truly was very bashful. She left briefly to fetch her daughter back upon which Follywit made Truly an offer of marriage and mentioned in passing his rich uncle Sir Bounteous.

Mrs Kidman remarked “I know your uncle well; she knows him better” in a joking reference to Truly being his mistress.

The marriage was quickly agreed on and Follywit proposed that they all attend the fancy dress ball, treat it as a free wedding dinner and also surprise Sir Bounteous with the news.

Follywit left the Kidmans who dropped their posh act to wonder how Sir Bounteous would react to the nuptial.

Guests arrived at Sir Bounteous’ house for the Jacobean-themed fancy dress ball (5.1). Spunky announced the arrival of “certain actor-types” who presented themselves with a fanfare as the servants of Lord Owemuch, thus gaining them instant credibility.

A rather tasteless joke was made about the “boys who plays girls” who were said to be “bringing up the rear”.

On the subject of the performance, Follywit announced that “We’ll be giving you The Slip”. Sir Bounteous was sarcastic to Truly Kidman when she arrived, as he now considered her to be a thief.

Mrs Kidman told him that her daughter was now married. Sir Bounteous was convinced that her husband “cannot be but a rascal” and concluded with a Latin saying “Ferter ut opibus abundad maximis” that Mrs Kidman thought meant he was calling her “an old fart”.

This phrase appears to be a modified borrowing from A Chaste Maid In Cheapside, where Tim says “Ferter me hercule tu virgo, Wallia ut opibus abundis maximis”: in English “”It is said, by Hercules, that Wales abounds with great wealth.” The sentence here seems ungrammatical.

Truly denied the theft despite wearing one of the stolen jewels on her finger.

Follywit and his companions appeared with a lot of stolen booty, which they hastily excused as borrowed properties for the performance. Increasingly audacious, he said that they also needed to borrow a chain, a ring and a watch. Sir Bounteous willingly provided them, specifying that the watch was Swiss and chimed upon the hour.

His assistants scarpered with the loot, leaving Follywit to improvise a prologue for the play to present to the attentive audience, now all gathered in a line facing downstage. At the end Truly Kidman said she had fallen for the actor.

There followed an incredibly long pause, punctuated by mild fidgeting by the onstage audience until Follywit dashed back muttering about how their plot had been thwarted.

Mr Littledick noted how sullen Follywit appeared and said that he looked like an angry young man “I ha’ seen such a man at the Royal Court” introducing a neat 1950s theatre in-joke.

Follywit realised that police would soon be arriving and so spoke as if the Constable were part of the play. The Constable had Oboe and Sponger under arrest and Follywit overacted trying to include him in the onstage action. Trying to pursue his enquiries, the Constable spoke to Sir Bounteous, who assumed that this was in the experimental nature of the play. He rebuffed the Constable’s questions, instructing him to talk to his fellow players.

After trying to insinuate that the ‘character’ was drunk, Follywit hit on the idea of tying the Constable to the chair as part of the play. Truly suggested using garters, and got the women to throw theirs on to the performance area.

The Constable was bound and gagged and left struggling as Follywit and his accomplices made a quick exit. The onstage audience guffawed at the funniest play they had ever seen.

But after a while they noticed that nothing else had happened and a servant was dispatched to investigate. He returned shortly afterwards to report that the ‘actors’ had completely disappeared. Sir Bounteous realised that he had been cheated. Once freed, the Constable was furious, but in a comically contained way.

Follywit and friends entered dressed in Jacobean fancy dress and acting like mere latecomers to the party. As Sir Bounteous explained that he had just been robbed by a troupe of actors, the chime of his stolen watch began to sound and was soon discovered to be in Follywit’s pocket along with the chain and jewel that had been similarly stolen.

Ever quick-witted, Follywit assured his uncle that this entire sequence of events was just his joke and that he had amended his life for the better by marrying.

But when he pointed out Truly Kidman as his wife, Sir Bounteous began to laugh; the two suitors cried “Dash it!” The box of Milk Tray was discarded, while Sponger questioned whether Follywit was serious.

Sir Bounteous was ecstatic that Follywit had fooled him only to be fooled in turn to a much greater extent by “a fly-girl, a pole-climber, a fuckstress” whom he gleefully announced was in fact his mistress.

Truly admitted to this but vowed to live better in future.

Follywit sheepishly admitted that he had been bested, using a line borrowed from 3.3 to say that “craft recoils like an over-charged musket and maims the very hand that puts fire to it”. But he proposed a toast anyway, generating a jolly atmosphere for the final moments of the play in which Sir Bounteous, living up to his name, gave Follywit “a thousand mark”.

Follywit spoke to Truly using a line borrowed from Michaelmas Term: “What base birth does not raiment make glorious?” to which she replied “And this raiment, when removed, will give you glory, husband.” At this point came the inevitable romantic kiss between the happy couple.

The performance ended as the cast collapsed in a heap facing the audience to sing Who Will The Next Fool Be? as balloons fell from the ceiling which were thrown out into the audience.

Conclusions

The production was a riotous triumph whose energy was partly the cathartic release of tension for many of the cast who were alternating between this play and the much darker and violent Titus Andronicus.

The approach to the text, neither fully modern, nor wholly archaic, was highly intelligent and satisfying. If this mixture of original and modern can work for Middleton, then the question arises as to whether it could work for Shakespeare too. Or will the RSC continue to consider Shakespeare texts sacrosanct?

This outstanding production has set a strong precedent for future productions of this type, whose repercussions might yet be felt beyond Stratford.

The precise treatment of Jacobean comedies is a question of immediate interest to directors considering working at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre.

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