The Malcontent, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 6 April 2014
The Globe established a children’s theatre company at its new candlelit Jacobean theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in order to explore the repertoire of plays written for the boys’ companies of the Shakespearean era.
The Globe Young Players, boys and girls aged between 12 and 16, were chosen by a lengthy process of elimination in which an initial group of around 1000 were whittled down to a final company of 20. They were introduced to the wider world by Dominic Dromgoole at the end of the final 2013 Globe performance on 13 October.
Echoes of boys’ company performance could be heard in another of the Playhouse’s opening season productions, The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Although the cast were all adults, lines such as Citizen’s comment “The childer are pretty childer” hinted that the original conditions were not being fully replicated. The Globe Young Players company was therefore a very necessary part of the overall Playhouse project.
The pre-show saw the actors confidently fill the stage and silently meet the collective gaze of the audience. Both boys and girls wore breeches and white smocks, which was a subtle reminder of the original performance by a single-sex boys’ company.
They launched into an opening song, an arrangement of Walter Raleigh’s On The Life of Man:
What is our life? a play of passion,
Our mirth the musicke of division,
Our mothers wombes the tyring houses be,
When we are drest for this short Comedy,
Heaven the Judicious sharpe spector is,
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse,
Our graves that hide us from the searching Sun,
Are like drawne curtaynes when the play is done,
Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Onely we dye in earnest, that’s no Jest.
During this meditation on the connection between life and theatre, the boy actor playing Emilia (Benjamin Clarke) stood forward and was costumed in a woman’s dress. This was another direct echo of early modern all-male performance, serving to highlight its artificiality. The Globe Young Players had boys playing women, and also girls playing male characters, most notably the Fool.
The Prologue (Danish Sajjad) cautioned that “Immodest censure now grows wild” and then pointed back at the cast, identifying them as the personified “Innocence” that was “defiled with too nice-brainèd cunning”, in effect a coded appeal not to judge them too harshly.
And so on with the action of the play, in which the deposed ruler Duke Altofronto (Joseph Marshall) lurked in his own court disguised as the malcontent Malevole, observing the iniquities of the new order and plotting the downfall of the bad guys in the form of the usurper Duke Pietro (Ben Lynn) and sneaky Mendoza (Guy Amos), who in addition to being a Machiavel was also after Altofronto’s wife Maria (Amanda Shodeko).
Watching this children’s company performance set in motion a process of adjustment similar to that which occurs when watching all-male theatre company Propeller.
Audiences are accustomed to seeing children on the stage, and in early modern plays, but exclusively in age-appropriate roles, usually as the children of the main adult characters. So the first few minutes felt disconcerting, with an acute awareness that adult characters were being played by children. But once this initial barrier was overcome, it was possible to buy into the performance completely.
In theatre, everything is unreal and therefore anything is possible. Far from being an insurmountable obstacle to the enjoyment of the play, the children’s performance added an extra layer of pretence that heightened its theatricality.
The character of Malevole exuded a world-weary sarcasm, but was played here by a comparatively young boy. Not surprisingly, and indeed rather gratifyingly, the actor did not have within him an experience of worldly bitterness that could be drawn on to make the portrayal of Malevole utterly convincing.
Some critics noted this as a fault, but it was equally possible that this quite predictable aspect of children’s performance was a facet of the original practice and the deliberate intention behind this mode of performance.
Malevole’s childish insults came across as very childish, in other words ideally suited for delivery by a child. Sequential insults like “… old ox, egregious wittol, broken-bellied coward, rotten mummy” delivered by an adult actor would sound very strange, but the same line in the mouth of a child suddenly became entirely appropriate, with the style of language fitting very neatly with the age of the actor.
This legitimising of youthful playfulness was turned to advantage in 3.2 when Malevole taunted Bilioso (Alexander Clarke): the malcontent stood directly behind Bilioso and spoke over his shoulder, first into one ear and then into the other, bobbing alternately from side to side of Bilioso’s head with each new word or phrase, to wonderfully comic effect.
The cast displayed a great deal of professionalism. At one point a chess piece fell from its board and tumbled down into the pit. It was retrieved in two stages: one of the cast waited until they were not required to speak and stood near to it, gesturing at an audience member to pick it up, then a second actor beckoned to be given it once the play’s action had moved to the other side of the stage.
Perhaps one of the most impressive performances was provided by Guy Amos when his character Mendoza had a soliloquy in 1.5. To be completely alone on the stage and to hold an audience single-handed for an extensive soliloquy without backup from other actors is a daunting prospect, even for experienced adult performers. But the way in which he owned the stage and accompanied his comments on women in general with audacious flirting with a particular woman on the front row of the pit was breathtaking to watch. He succeeded brilliantly.
In the next scene (1.6) Mendoza had a spat with Duke Pietro’s wife, Aurelia (Martha Lily Dean), which culminating in another scene-concluding soliloquy. The text’s initial one-word question “Women?” became in performance an eye-rolling expression of sarcastic disdain.
His subsequent condemnation of “these monsters in nature” brought out the humour of having a child actor behaving in a manner beyond his years. But crucially the actor was also aware of this dichotomy and consequently it was possible to laugh with him and not at him.
One character that we could legitimately laugh at was the bawd Maquerelle, played by one of the older boys (Sam Hird). The ribald comedy inherent in the role was enhanced by the fact that this pantomime dame figure appeared to be one foot higher than the two shorter female characters with whom she habitually appeared, making Maquerelle seem all the more monstrous.
The portrayal of Maquerelle and Emilia by boys highlighted two possible results of this practice: sometimes the boys were so young that the gender swap was not noticeable, but is also possible for the discrepancy to be so noticeable that it became comic.
This production’s use of a girl to play the fool Passerello (Freya Parks) introduced some interesting moments: the line “oh that I had been gelded” was thought-provoking when delivered by a girl; the occasion when she played the lute, brandishing it deliberately phallically demonstrated the opposite concept.
But the children’s performance went far beyond simply playing on the gap between their ages and the age of their characters. The performance had genuinely touching moments.
The first of these was the sight of the young Ferneze (Ed Easton) deeply in love with Aurelia. Then in 3.3, Joseph Marshall’s Malevole heard Mendoza speak of his plans for the disguised Duke’s wife, his delivery the heart-rending line “Do you love Maria?” effectively conveyed the convoluted thoughts of a man who realised that he might lose his wife, but wanted some reassurance that the man stealing Maria from him had at least some genuine affection for her.
There was one point where the sheer cuteness of the children’s company created a real moment of theatrical magic. After the interval there was a scene (3.4) that included the song What Hap Had I to Marry a Shrow which was sung as a round by some of the younger actors. What would have been received as a nasty piece of Elizabethan misogyny if presented by adults, became here a thing of beauty when sung by children.
Continuing the Playhouse’s experimentation with the use of candlelight to produce theatrical effects, the staging of this production had several occasions where the impact of the sequence was enhanced by the use of portable candles.
At the beginning of 4.5 there was a moving sequence as Aurelia was going off to banishment on the orders of the new duke Mendoza. The newly repentant Aurelia, who had cuckolded her husband, realised the error of succumbing to Mendoza because he was interested solely in power and not in her.
She wore a long white dress and held a single candle in her hand, all of which indicated a combination of virtue and vulnerability. The youth of the actor made Aurelia’s situation all the more pitiable, and when she ended her sequence by blowing out her candle, signifying the extinguishing of the light and hope it represented, the effect was very powerful.
The production had other moments at which actors blew out candles at the end of potent speeches, such as when Mendoza had an entire short scene in soliloquy (2.1) after Ferneze entered Aurelia’s room and straight into the trap that Mendoza had set for him. After expounding on his vengeful villainy, he blew out his handheld candle as an atmospheric full stop to the scene.
More generally lighting was used to suggest particularly dark moments. The chandeliers were hoisted up to create sombre twilight as the ambush of Ferneze was prepared. The shutters were opened to let in artificial daylight at the start of act three, reinforcing Pietro’s line “’Tis grown to youth of day; how shall we waste this light?” before his party set off hunting.
The play also contained a reference to candle maintenance, which in the Playhouse felt particularly congruous. In 3.3 Malevole described Mendoza as being “like a pair of snuffers: snibs filth in other men and retains it in himself”.
The painted ceiling of the Playhouse with its figure of the mythological Luna served as a chart at which Maquerelle could point as she commented on how the wives of various tradesman became “sociable” and “tractable” in the right astrological conditions.
Mendoza eventually got his comeuppance. The ever-loyal Maria refused to marry him and at the party to celebrate his installation as Duke, he was contemptuously thrown to the ground and surrounded by the good guys who trained pistols on him. Duke Altofronto threw off his Malevole disguise and revealed his true identity to a chorus of comical surprise. Bilioso, channelling the spirit of Falstaff, claimed to have known that Malevole was in fact the Duke all along. The ending was happy, with even the dispatch of Maquerelle “unto the suburbs” provoking audience mirth.
“You can’t expect children to act in a play like that”, said a grumpy man who left at the interval of one performance. He was, of course, wrong in so many ways. Looking aside from his basic error – the play was written specifically to be performed by children – the company in fact succeeded brilliantly in becoming a coherent and incredibly well-rehearsed team with a high standard of performance. It is easy to quote examples of allegedly professional productions of much poorer quality, in some instances where the cast had not even afforded the audience the courtesy of learning their lines properly.
Performance by children in the adult roles is wondrous strange, and therefore as a stranger we should bid it welcome.
The recreation of this mode of performance in an authentic indoor playhouse is an experiment and consequently audiences should have an open mind about the results. In particular, what might appear at first to be faults could actually be integral features of the genre, and its oddities the deliberately engineered effects that original audiences expected and appreciated.
The Globe Young Players will return in April 2015 to perform Dido, Queen of Carthage. This is excellent news, marred only by the fact that the production run has been halved from The Malcontent’s 12 performances to just six.