Galatea, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 26 April 2014
The prologue to Galatea, addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, was turned into a coronation ceremony in which Lyly scholar Leah Scragg was crowned Queen of Lylian scholarship. Some of the boy actors approached her as she sat near the aisle in the rear row of pit seats. One stood on another’s shoulders to place a crown on her head, after which she waved graciously at her subjects.
This was all very fitting for the first performance of an Elizabethan play in the Playhouse.
It was also the last ever performance of Galatea by Edward’s Boys, which rounded off a seminar on John Lyly at Shakespeare’s Globe.
The performance took place in the reconstructed indoor playhouse, but used electric lighting with the chandeliers taken to their highest level. This was partly for safety reasons as the staging at one point involved a pyramid of boys representing a tree.
The basic storyline, two girls disguised as boys fall in love thinking the other to be a girl, resulted in a surprising degree of complexity in its overlapping layers of identity. If Shakespeare took this as inspiration for his own gender-confused plots, then by comparison his look simplified and watered down.
The main weakness with the production was that in order to make the gender confusion look realistic, a decision was made to cast the youngest actors in the two central roles with the result that the most demanding performances were being required of the least experienced and confident of performers. We might call this the epicene paradox.
The difference could be seen in the skill and confidence of the other actors. Playing Diana was a large boy with a mad gaze, who seemed permanently on the verge of ripping someone’s head off, which added certain tension to every scene she was in. Similarly a confident Cupid ranged the stage with bow and arrow making fun of Diana, by exaggeratedly pronouncing her name as “Dian-ah”.
Taking the lead from standard RSC practice, the apprentices were given Brummie accents, their identity reinforced by the Aston Villa football shirts.
There were bright, jovial and enthusiastic performances by boys who seemed to revel in the absurdity of it all. The conclusion of the play with a rendition of The White Stripes’ Fell in Love with a Girl was therefore entirely fitting.
Some questions remain: principally, did the performance fall into the trap of treating the play comically and thus confirming the ‘old’ view of Lyly as a writer of modish trifles?
The other problem with performing Galatea in ‘original’ period conditions is that it is not possible to recreate the prestige status of boys’ performance.
But there is inherent value in the way such performances offer glimpses into an unfamiliar historical theatre culture.