Tipping the doublet

The Roaring Girl, Swan Stratford, 17 May 2014

Moll Cutpurse (Lisa Dillon) lounged in an ornate chair, one leg hooked casually over the armrest as she smoked a cigarette in insolent rebellion, looking very much the lad in her short hair, faded jeans, white short-sleeved shirt and boots.

She addressed the prologue of the play to the audience, explaining that long-awaited plays create high expectations and that based on the title alone, we might speculate about what type of ‘roaring girl’ we would encounter “For of that tribe are many”. Behind her dim figures of women represented other forms of roaring girl, making the point that Moll was just one of many types.

Music was played intermittently by a band called The Cutpurses.

The setting in the Victorian era was astute, as it is near enough to the present for an audience to feel a connection with the now, but also far enough removed for the characters’ dated attitudes to appear realistic.

Mary (Faye Castelow) and Sebastian (Joe Bannister) provided a fairly standard presentation of frustrated love, with the disguised heroine sneaked in by Neatfoot (Christopher Middleton) to see her intended, both of them very decent and wholesome types (1.1). But the choice to have Mary disguised and at first unrecognisable was obviously meant to trigger subliminally our thoughts relating to reality, disguise and true identity.

The parallel between the two principal women was further emphasised by the fact that he also called her Moll.

Sebastian told Mary that he intended to pursue another woman called Moll as a ruse to obtain his father Sir Alexander’s consent to marry her.

The men sat round the large table at Sir Alexander’s house came forward, allowing the man himself (David Rintoul) to look out at the audience in his “galleries”, a reference to his large library of books, of which he said “all of heads the room seems made” (1.2). The Swan was an ideal setting for this theatrical in-joke: it does indeed call its own upper seating areas “galleries”. The very male atmosphere of after-dinner conviviality continued.

Sir Alexander described a clearly invented meeting with another man who bemoaned his son’s dalliance with an unsuitable woman, before openly arguing with Sebastian about his “cutpurse drab”. This false tale, designed to rile up his son, established him as powerful and arrogant, and increased our sympathy for Sebastian when he spoke up for himself.

The text was edited to remove confusing references but this sometimes had the effect of changing the tone and significance of exchanges, such as in this scene the removal of the phrase “I’ll give thee rats-bane rather” from the exchange between Sebastian and Sir Alexander. This removed “rats-bane” but made Sir Alexander less aggressive.

Sebastian stormed off determined to have his desires, leaving Sir Alexander to encounter and recruit Trapdoor (Geoffrey Freshwater).

The reference to “Saints days” was changed to “bank holiday”, which did nothing but create a modern feel to the exchange because Sir Alexander was predicting rain.

Trapdoor looked and sounded like the kind of East End lowlife common in Victorian fiction and his chilling prediction that he, a roaring boy, would put down the Roaring Girl, set up an interesting expectation of conflict.

There was a musical interlude with Moll playing electric guitar as the set was changed to bring in the dinner table for the next scene. Still in modern clothes, this Roaring Girl was a contemporary figure, which created the subtle impression that her appearance subsequently within the action of the play was Moll going back in time. At the very least the shift in attire created a connection between past and present.

A three-part glass cabinet display was brought in for the apothecary shop, this tripartite structure was a nod to the original stage directions to have three shops side by side (2.1). The actual arrangement here was slightly different.

The gallants came across Mistress Gallipot (Lizzie Hopley) who was grinding tobacco suggestively. The text was changed to create a joke about a woman’s husband becoming bankrupt and “shag” becoming her fortune.

The double entendres with the tobacco pipe still worked and she purred as she handed Laxton (Keir Charles) his pipe: he said that he wished it was always handled that way. Mistress Gallipot was characterised by her silly but raucous laugh.

Laxton begged money from her which she handed over under the guise of a supply of tobacco. Even though the cash was in notes, it was still referred to as “angels”. The text editors probably baulked at substituting anything else.

The feather shop was represented downstage by mannequins with feathers, which worked well. “Simon and Jude’s rain” was changed to “bank holiday rain”, substituting a contemporary expression.

The seamstress shop appeared centre stage with the comical couple of Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena & Harvey Virdi). He was a big man and his wife was commensurately buxom.

Moll made her first appearance within the play in a hat, a long skirt with a bustle, and a jerkin type top, looking almost feminine in comparison with her initial appearance in distinctly male gear.

This had the effect of making her first scheduled appearance less strikingly unusual than her previous ones as Prologue and musician. Her attire was comparatively conservative. Although very distinctive, she seemed less out of place than might have been expected. This seeded the idea that she was not as anarchic and unruly as her reputation had been painted, particularly by Sir Alexander.

Given her previous overtly modern male garb, any concession to the dress conventions of the time looked like conformity. They thought that she was the complete rebel, whereas the audience saw something more in line with the conventions of the period of the play’s setting.

She was accompanied by her female Maid (Joan Iyiola) who held an umbrella over her head. Laxton was obviously smitten. She had short hair but the long skirt bottom meant that at this stage she was not so obviously dressed as a man as she had been in her extra-textual appearances earlier on.

Moll visited the seamstress’s shop and Mr Openwork tripped up and fell to his knees in front of her groin, prompting his wife’s comment about him being in the “low countries doing a mischief”. Mistress Openwork touched her body saying she was blessed with “good ware” but complained about her husband’s lack of attention “for when I open it up I take nothing”.

It was interesting that by this point the other characters had been behaving in various underhand and lewd ways, suggesting and acting out all types of impropriety, but Moll herself was simply shopping: her only contravention of accepted mores being sartorial. It was therefore apt that this should be taking place amid clothes shops.

Gull (Tom Padley) – and not the original’s Fellow – entered for the first time and Moll overpowered him with her knife, taking revenge for the slight he had given her. She said she had been “insulted” rather than “abused”. A more warranted alteration was the substitution of “stallion” for “stone horse”.

Laxton was highly impressed and asked her out. The proposed locations were changed to Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common and Stoke Newington cemetery. She agreed and he paid her money, making it plain that this was a commercial transaction. The original locations of their agreed assignation, Holborn and Gray’s Inn Fields, were kept.

Moll gave a hint of her omnivorous appetite by saying she would like to test Mrs Tiltyard’s (Liz Crowther) honesty. This occurred in conversation with Jack Dapper (Ian Bonar), who with his extravagant dress and professed dislike of women was positioned as effeminate, certainly in comparison with Moll.

Goshawk (Peter Bray) tried to work on Mistress Openwork by suggesting that her husband had a suburban whore.

Trapdoor offered his service to Moll and vaunted his strength, but she easily tripped him and proved his boasting empty. Nevertheless she told him to meet her at Gray’s Inn later.

The shopkeepers headed off for Dalston, changed from the “Hogsden” of the original.

Sebastian stood in the rain at a location that was not obviously Moll’s house and spoke his heart, overheard by his father at the side (2.2). Sebastian became aware of the lurking presence and directed some of his comments pointedly at him. The RSC prompt book made it explicit that he spotted his father and tailored his speech to suit his audience, which is not in the original play’s SDs. “Yea, are you so near?” was turned into Sebastian spotting Sir Alexander.

Moll was accompanied by a Porter (Michael Moreland) who carried in a huge double bass in a case on his back. Sebastian was quite touching in his attempt to pick her up and she was very courteous in her response. She had “no humour to marry” and her comment that she liked to “lie on both sides of the bed” could have been taken to have a hidden meaning. As she put it herself, she was “man enough for a woman”.

Moll’s amazingly opaque phrase “Never choose a wife as if you were going to Virginia” was left in, but Sebastian mouthed it again with a puzzled expression. What would have been comprehensible to the original audience, here became a facet of Moll’s mysterious otherness.

Openwork caught up with her and tried to measure her for her Dutch slop. She hoisted up her skirt to reveal her tattooed legs and went along with the lewd innuendo of their exchange.

Sir Alexander came forward and openly challenged Sebastian about his proposed marriage to Moll. The word “ordinaries” became “pubs”. Sebastian defended Moll by pointing out that she was “loose in nothing but in mirth”.

At Gray’s Inn Fields it was possible to take an instant dislike to Laxton who we saw was a regular whore chaser (3.1). Moll now appeared in a top hat and tails with wisps of male facial hair on her chin, a look very reminiscent of the film character Albert Nobbs.

The point at which Moll encountered her most vicious adversary was also the point at which she donned her most fearsome battledress.

She confronted him with his villainy and threw the money envelope back at him. It fell on the ground and they fought over it. They used their canes in the manner of swords, which was a neat use of Victorian conventions. Moll eventually overpowered him and threatened his chest with a knife as she promised to “write so much upon your breast”.

Her attack on him was against lax morals and in defence of girls who wanted to maintain a reputation for chastity. As she put it “Has mirth no kindred in the world but lust?” She continued:

“I scorn to prostitute myself to a man,
I that can prostitute a man to me.”

This would be pretty strong stuff in any age, but taking account of the date of composition in 1611, it begins to look very radical.

Laxton’s phrase “lecherous voyage” became “sexy jaunt”, which was clumsy and probably unnecessary.

He timidly surrendered, leaving Moll to comment that she would like to meet all her enemies that way one at a time.

Disguise

Trapdoor turned up as arranged and Moll took advantage of her disguise to trick him before eventually revealing her identity.

Given her previous hints at her omnivorous tastes, Moll’s line “sometimes I lie about Chick Lane” took on extra shades of meaning. This was originally a reference to a notoriously rough area, but in the context of this staging the expression could be taken as a euphemism for bisexuality.

As they exited Trapdoor picked up the envelope containing the money abandoned by Laxton, but Moll forced him to hand it over.

The order of the last two scenes in act three was reversed, so that 3.3 followed next.

Sir Alexander was walking upstage with Sir Davy (Colin Anthony Brown) when Trapdoor caught his attention. He stepped through the iron gate separating them to speak with Trapdoor, pretending to his companion that this was some business arrangement. Trapdoor informed Sir Alexander that his son and Moll were due to meet at his house. “Your son and her moon” in conjunction was illustrated by Trapdoor poking his index finger in and out of a hole formed by the fingers and thumb of his other hand. They then both pretended to wrangle to provide a pretext for their meeting.

Sir Davy explained that he wanted to have his own son arrested so that prison might teach him a lesson. The character of “Curtilax” was changed to “Cutlass” (Michael Moreland again) but his partner “Hanger” (Ken Nwosu) stayed the same. They received their instructions and prepared an ambush.

Trapdoor now carried the umbrella over Moll’s head in the same way that her maid had done before. They entered on the gallery walkway. They sensed the presence of law enforcement and their references to smelling “carrion” and “I spy ravens” were changed to the more contemporary “something rotten” and “I spy filth”.

The officers took up position behind the metal gate upstage. Jack and Gull entered and were about to be taken, but Moll and Trapdoor shouted a warning to them enabling them to escape. However, the staging of this was a little vague and did not make it clear what was going on.

The final rhyming couplet in Moll’s parting speech was cut so that she exited just saying “I’m glad I have done one perfect good deed today.”

Mistress Gallipot scolded her husband (Timothy Speyer) before retrieving Laxton’s letter and teasing the audience with the trick, involving a delivery of medicinal herbs, by which it was sent to her (3.2).

She read its proclamations of love and stumbled over its references to figures from classical literature, adding “Who are all these people?”

When her husband discovered the letter she tore it into pieces rather than let him read it. At this point the acting style changed to Victorian melodrama, perhaps prompted by the decision to set the play in that era. The style worked very well as the couple comically over-reacted with heightened emotion to the situation. Mrs Gallipot invented a story in which she had been betrothed to Laxton but had married Mr Gallipot once Laxton had been presumed dead somewhere in France.

She managed to convince her husband that Laxton could be assuaged with thirty pounds to cover his expenses in coming to recover her.

The others arrived and Goshawk explained to Mistress Openwork that Gallipot had annoyed his wife, and that she might soon be similarly annoyed if her own husband came home late from visiting his whore. She rejected the idea, caressing herself and praising her “fresher meat” over any “stale mutton” her husband might find elsewhere.

There followed a brilliant sequence in which Laxton met the Gallipots, and Mistress Gallipot had to signal to him that she had “opened all before him concerning you”, a staple of many a farce and sitcom. Laxton had to work out the fake story that Mistress Gallipot had invented and then play along with it convincingly.

Master Gallipot mentioned the precontract, which Laxton had to hastily integrate into his version. Mistress Gallipot fell to her knees in supplication, a gesture which once again looked like a sexual act. But as soon as Laxton realised that Gallipot intended to pay him off he readily accepted the cash, leaving him to make a villainous snarling remark to close the first half: “You are apple-eaters all, deceivers still.”

The second half began with a table set up centre stage above which hung a low chandelier (4.1). This enabled Sir Alexander, assisted by Trapdoor, to prep the room by hanging his expensive watch and other trinkets from it, in order to trap Moll into stealing them.

Sebastian appeared with Mary (dressed in a fetching check three-piece suit, her hair tied up) and Moll who was wearing simple trousers and shirt, her chin seemingly more bestubbled than before.

Moll commented on how her tailor had fitted Mary with her suit and in so doing she seemed to linger by her in an overfriendly manner, hinted once again at her omnivorousness.

Sebastian and Mary kissed and he commented on how he liked her look and how her kisses seemed “worth a pair of two”.

The “viol” that Sebastian asked Moll to play was in fact the huge double bass that had been seen earlier. This was a much better instrument than the rather tame looking viol da gamba.

Moll played a song while strumming the bass with her fingers. The words of the song were slightly altered, but the phrase “those hypocrites” was added and at this point Moll paused for effect, indicating that it was the hypocrisy of those “halfwits… who call me whore first” that vexed her.

Moll passed the bass to Sebastian. She then noticed and retrieved the watch and other jewels from the chandelier. Sebastian recognised a sound made by his father and hastily pretended that Moll was his music teacher. She put on a French accent to add to her mystique.

They also decided that they had to hide Mary, so she ducked under the desk and then hid behind the large double bass, which was then comically repositioned each time that Sir Alexander moved so that Mary could crouch and hide behind it. This visual gag was extended to them letting go completely of the double bass at one point, so that the hidden Mary was holding it miraculously in place. She eventually took flight off one of the walkways.

Sir Alexander paid Moll with coins with holes as a trick: “These will I make induction to her ruin”.

The three mistresses Openwork, Gallipot and Tiltyard sat on chairs and had a gab (4.2). Openwork explained that Goshawk had tried to convince her that her husband was visiting a whore in Brentford, but was only doing so to try to “make me cry quack”, a phrase she explained by briefly flexing her knees apart.

The text was altered slightly so that Goshawk implied that he was running all three of the women and not just the two “mills” and “swans” of the text.

Master Openwork caught up with Goshawk and there was something confidently confrontational about his greeting to him.

Mistress Openwork accused her husband of having a dalliance at Brentford, which led into more melodramatic histrionics which provided some excellent comic relief. With Mistress Openwork saying things like “You have struck ten thousand daggers through my heart” the melodramatic excess seemed completely warranted by the text.

Openwork realised that someone had falsely accused him of chasing whores, which made Goshawk nervous at being unmasked. Mistress Openwork refused to name her informant. But when Openwork asked the other two women if they knew his accuser, Gallipot said no and Tiltyard said yes simultaneously before putting her hand over her mouth.

Openwork demanded that Goshawk tell if he knew, which he denied. This prompted the women to accuse Goshawk and he shamefully confessed. Despite the furious emotion that had preceded, Openwork forgave him and himself admitted that he had led Goshawk to believe that he had a whore at Brentford, but only to see whether Goshawk were as wanton as he had suspected. So peace and tranquillity were restored in an unlikely turn of events.

Goshawk had learnt his lesson and promised not to “deal upon men’s wives” any more.

Laxton entered disguised as a legal official in a wig, with a crutch and holding one leg off the ground to appear one-legged. He issued the Gallipots with a summons for more money relating to the precontract. After some bickering between Mistress Gallipot and Laxton, he was unmasked and the whole truth came out: that the story about the precontract had been a ruse, that Mistress Gallipot had been tricked into procuring him money, but that Laxton had not actually bedded her. She was now fed up with his tricks and constant demands.

Laxton then invented another story, claiming that he had only pursued her to establish if she were as constant as she had made out. Gallipot fell for this, to the extent that he invited Laxton to dinner while castigating his wife for being a tease. The obvious injustice of this tied in nicely with the overall theme of the play of men maltreating women.

Arrest

Jack thanked Moll up on the gallery for saving him from arrest (5.1). From this scene were cut Lord Noland, Beauteous Ganymede and Tearcat. Trapdoor was missing presumed lost after Moll realised he had been working for Sir Alexander.

As Jack was explaining that it was his own father who had arranged to have him sent to prison, Trapdoor entered on the main stage disguised as a Chelsea pensioner/war veteran. He limped in on two crutches, the visual resemblance between him and Dickens’ Tiny Tim prompted his remark “God bless us every one”.

Trapdoor tried to beg from Jack and Moll, who questioned him about his military service. His long rambling list of campaigns and the nationalities of his comrades did not impress. As he itemised the various places in Italy he claimed to have been, Moll repeated his “Montepulciano” under her breath in disbelief.

Moll pulled his eye patch away from his face when she confronted him with his lies.

Trapdoor had learnt beggars canting language and the discussion moved onto this. Jack wanted to learn it also when he heard Moll translating what Trapdoor was saying.

Trapdoor suggested (in cant) that Moll and he go out thieving together and then “wap” and “niggle”. Moll translated most of this but not the last term. Jack insisted on knowing, so Trapdoor demonstrated by referring to it as “fadoodling” accompanied by a lewd gesture.

The canting song was turned into a big musical number. Both Moll and Trapdoor acquired mics and the band came out to play turning it into a rap. Other members of the cast joined them and provided appropriate sassy dance moves. Everyone had a whale of a time as the canting song was blasted out, with the lines shared between Moll and Trapdoor.

However, the actual words of the canting song were indistinguishable so that it was difficult to discern what was being said.

The intended victims of the cutpurses were changed from the minor characters Lord Noland and Sir Thomas of the original text to Mary’s father Sir Guy Fitzallard (Ian Redford) and Jack’s father Sir Davy.

Moll observed the cutpurses and quickly explained their various job titles and tactics to Jack before intercepting stolen the wallet as it was thrown from one thief to another and restoring it to its rightful owner.

The original text’s joke about someone losing a purse “at the last new play at the Swan” worked beautifully here in the Stratford Swan Theatre with Moll giving a knowing look to the audience.

Sir Davy and Sir Guy asked Moll how she knew these people and why she was known as Moll Cutpurse. This was the cue for Moll’s long speech explaining that her knowledge of the criminal world did not make her an integral part of it, summarised with “Must you have a black, ill name because ill things you know?”

She had become known as Moll Cutpurse because of this but she did not care. Crucially, it was now Sir Guy who praised her “brave mind”.

The connection now established between Sir Guy and Moll, facilitated by the change to the cast in this sequence, would serve a useful purpose later.

At his house, Sir Alexander was in uproar as Goshawk told him that Sebastian and Moll were to be married but no one knew for certain where they were (5.2).

Sir Guy and Jack broke in upon them. Sir Jack was unhappy at Sir Alexander’s treatment of his daughter, but seemingly happy that he was now to be repaid by his son marrying Moll instead.

Amid the chaos, Sir Guy said that he would wager Sebastian’s revenues that he could prevent the marriage. In his desperation Sir Alexander similarly pledged that he would give Sebastian half his wealth if he would marry anyone but Moll. Sir Guy justified his decision by saying that he liked Sebastian because he had loved his daughter and thought that more money would make him choose someone of higher status that Moll.

Moll appeared briefly in her man’s clothes and was asked if this was her wedding gown before she disappeared again. She met downstage with Mary, who was holding a wedding veil. This created the immediate expectation that the next person to be seen wearing that veil would be Mary.

Goshawk tried to reassure Sir Alexander that no priest would marry his son to Moll. His comment that “it was never known that two men were married and conjoined in one” drew some murmurs from the audience in the light of recent legislative changes in the UK.

Sir Alexander repeatedly said that he would be happy whomever Sebastian married.

Sebastian entered accompanied by a veiled figure in a white wedding dress together with Mary’s father Sir Guy. Sir Alexander was overjoyed to see such a feminine bride at Sebastian’s side, but when he lifted the veil it was Moll grinning back at him and she proceeded to run amok with much glee.

Moll congratulated Sir Alexander that he would now be a figure of note for having her as a daughter-in-law rather than being the obscure figure he had been to date.

Sir Guy, undoubtedly as part of the general ruse, asked to be freed from his promise to give money to Sebastian, offering in return to accept Sir Alexander’s retraction of his pledge. But Sir Alexander was determined to press on.

Sir Guy took this as the cue to spring the trap and to call in the real couple: Sebastian entered accompanied by Mary in a dark coloured wedding outfit. Sir Alexander was overjoyed and apologised for rejecting her previously.

The fact that it had been Sir Guy who had encountered and praised Moll’s character earlier made it more credible that he had been recruited to Moll’s scheme through that bond of admiration.

Moll pointed out that she had had a hand in the scheme, to which Sir Alexander replied that he could not condemn her. After batting away that remark, she pointed out that Sir Alexander had made the crucial mistake of assuming that she would have automatically consented to Sebastian’s advances.

She riddled when asked when she would herself marry, and Sir Alexander admitted that he had wronged her too. Trapdoor confessed to having worked with Sir Alexander to ensnare Moll, obliging the now very contrite Sir Alexander to apologise once again. Moll returned the money he had give her for her music tuition, but he insisted he would “thrice double” the payment to “make thy wrongs amends”, before he joyfully summarised how happily this eventful day had concluded.

Moll stayed behind to deliver the epilogue, which was altered towards the end, so that she said:

“The Roaring Girl here herself shall hence upon this stage give larger recompense”

instead of the text’s:

“The Roaring Girl herself, some few days hence, shall on this stage give larger recompense”.

This changed the original’s opaque reference to a reappearance by Mary Frith or the actor playing her, into a general statement about the character continuing to live on the stage beyond the bounds of this particular play.

Conclusions

The play that gave its name to the entire RSC season of female-centric drama was made relevant without cutting completely loose from its historical roots. The key was the production’s setting in the halfway house of the Victorian era.

An intelligent change to the casting of one scene improved on the original by giving Sir Guy Fitzallard a credible reason for assisting Moll.

The play teaches a moral lesson about making assumptions.

The Roaring Girl is a good girl really.

Spectre

Arden of Faversham, Swan Stratford, 2 May 2014

The stage was full of action as the audience entered. Arden sat at a desk while his overalled workers packed the novelties imported by his firm into boxes which were then carried aloft by a hoist. The back of the set consisted of a large painting of an English village which was being dusted by someone whom we would later discover was Susan, Alice Arden’s maid.

This anonymous Elizabethan tragedy was played through in 1h 50m without an interval.

After a brief expository conversation between Franklin (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Arden (Ian Redford) about his wife’s infidelity, we met Alice (Sharon Small), the object of his suspicions (1). She was nervously comic and this set tone for the rest of the performance.

The production’s basic problem was that by starting in this comic vein and assiduously maintaining it, the tragic side of the play was neglected so that its conclusion felt extraneous. The mood was kept as jolly as possible for as long as possible for fear of confronting the audience with unpalatable ‘difficult’ drama.

But this clashed with the ending in which Arden is brutally and repeatedly stabbed and the guilty parties, along with one innocent person, are executed.

Characterising Alice as a sitcom-style frustrated housewife did not sit well with her subsequent burning at the stake.

The jokiness of Alice’s explanation of her calling out Mosby’s name in her sleep was on one level patently funny, but served as a pretext to render the entire play as comedy. There was very little indication that this was the “lamentable and true tragedy” of Arden of Faversham.

The characterisation of the other main cast followed this line.

Michael (Ian Bonar), the forlorn lover of Susan (Elspeth Brodie), had been recruited by Alice to kill Arden. But his ominous “I’ll see he shall not live above a week” did not feel like a credible threat.

Alice’s lover Mosby (Keir Charles) was a wide boy in a purple suit. This sub-comical persona positioned him as a figure of fun.

Clarke the painter (Christopher Middleton) was a ridiculous figure whose dull clothes, glasses and red facial disfigurement made him into a laughable misfit rather than a sinister conspirator. His lust for Susan, who was lurking all the while under the table cleaning and overhearing their conversations, was played as ludicrous. Clarke gave Alice and Mosby poison to put in Arden’s breakfast.

Alice’s “See where my husband comes” was funny and was soon followed by the suspicious Arden disarming Mosby by taking, not a sword, but a handgun that was stuffed down the back of his trousers.

Alice brought Arden the poisoned breakfast and she and Mosby sat and watched him eat it out of the corner of their eyes. Arden noticed there was something odd about the food and put it aside. Alice threw the bowl to the ground accusing her husband of suspecting her of poisoning him, a charge she tried to refute by taking a spoon and trying to eat it up herself.

Greene (Tom Padley), one of the tenant’s dispossessed by Arden’s land deal, wore an Adidas tracksuit that identified him as low class. His grudge against Arden made it easy for Alice to get him to procure her husband’s murder.

Mosby criticised Alice’s involvement of too many people in their plans. Susan was produced for Clarke to paw at. Alice’s comment that Clarke had made Susan blush was underlined by the way her cheeks were painted with red blushes making her look almost like a doll. There was also something doll-like about the way she was escorted away, crying uncomfortably.

Greene and Bradshaw the goldsmith (Colin Anthony Brown) met two lowlifes Black Will (Jay Simpson) and Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena) in the street (2). Bradshaw, who was wearing cycling clothes faintly reminiscent of a city commuter, did not want to be associated with Black Will and gestured to Greene that they should continue without stopping to talk to them.

But Black Will helped Bradshaw out by identifying the villain who had sold him the stolen gold plate, which because it had been found in Bradshaw’s possession had led to him being wrongly accused of the theft. Bradshaw’s long description of the villain was cut because of its doublet references.

However, Black Will held back the line to Shakebag about spending the money from the sale of the stolen goods until after Bradshaw had left so that it seemed that he had deceived him. Greene had given Bradshaw a letter to deliver to Alice, which would later be used to prove his complicity in the murder plot.

Greene paid the murderers to kill Arden and they enthusiastically took up the assignment.

Michael, now facing a challenge for Susan’s affections from Greene, read out a pleading letter to her which together with an Arden wind-up novelty was ready to be sealed in a padded envelope to be sent to his love (3).

Arden went into Franklin’s London house and the murderers waited outside. Shakebag produced a large jemmy which had previously been stuffed down back of his trousers. He practised swinging it and accidentally hit Black Will with it. This replaced the original text’s shop window accidentally dropped onto Black Will’s head. Shakebag tried to revive Black Will during which time Arden left the house and passed by them.

Greene and the murderers rounded on Michael and forced him to help them with their plan to murder Arden that night by leaving the house doors unlocked. From this point forth Black Will had a bandage round his head that served as reminder of the previous comic mishap.

Michael’s pangs of conscience, which we had previously seen, now obliged him to change his mind (4). He feared that the murderers would kill him too. His panic woke Arden and Franklin and the doors were found to be unlocked, after which they were secured.

The murderers entered with the stage in a total blackout to find the doors locked (5). The complete darkness was very odd and completely unnecessary. Dim light would have been understood to represent total darkness and the result was simply to create confusion. The sound effect of the door being tried was insufficient. This staging was perhaps made necessary by the set not allowing for the presence of a door, but one could have been set up temporarily.

Arden told Franklin about his dream in which he was captured like a deer (6). The original text’s reference to a “toil” was changed to the more comprehensible “net”. Arden’s description of his dream with its imagery of encroaching danger could have been given greater ominous weight to indicate the darker tone of the end of the play, but it felt like an intrusion into its overall gaiety.

The murderers intercepted Michael and he invented a story to excuse his failure to leave the house unlocked (7). Black Will put his knife to Michael’s ear as if ready to cut it off saying “This shall be your penance” but instead pulled the knife away and, laughing at his own joke, invited him to the Salutation inn.

As if to indicate his ambition to supplant Alice’s husband, Mosby sat at Arden’s desk for his soliloquy (8). This had overtones of Henry IV talking of how poor people sleep soundly and Macbeth’s paranoid desire to kill all his potential foes, but the speech fell flat because the character had not been previously presented to us as someone with that kind of tragic depth.

Bringing out the full comic potential of the initial scenes smothered the first inkling that this play was a tragedy that would end in multiple deaths. The audience was being fed comedy like sugar with the result that it developed a craving for more, to the exclusion of more nourishing dramatic sustenance.

Alice entered reading, not a prayer book to suggest piety, but a gaudily covered Bible: this did not suggest the level of seriousness that the sequence demanded. Alice appeared to have changed her mind about the murder of her husband, and Mosby was angry at this betrayal. When she tore the pages out of the Bible, this and their sudden seriousness looked barely credible.

They kissed and made up just as Bradshaw brought in a letter from Greene informing her of their failure to kill Arden in London. Bradshaw was offered a cup of beer, and he ran off mouthing “a cup of beer” as if really grateful for it.

Rifle

The murderers positioned themselves ready to attack up on the balcony, but fell into a comic fight until Greene intervened to refocus them on the job (9). While Arden talked with Franklin down below, Black Will put together a sniper’s rifle but failed to have it ready in time. Their complete ineptitude was hilariously highlighted by Shakebag consulting the rifle’s instruction leaflet.

Lord Cheiny (Joe Bannister) and his Man (Peter Bray) came running in wearing lycra running gear. The presence of multiple witnesses meant that the would-be murderers had missed their chance again. Their bickering attracted the attention of the men on stage who looked up, prompting the murderers to conceal themselves by standing still like posts or trees.

Lord Cheiny invited Arden to dine with him on Sheppey, which the murderers overheard providing them with their next opportunity for assassination.

Arden set off for Sheppey, allowing Greene to show Alice the poisoned crucifix he had prepared as a device to kill her husband (10). Clarke wore blue latex protective gloves to handle the toxic crucifix and he made Alice put on pair as well when she took it from him.

The stage filled with dense smoke to represent the fog as the Ferryman (Ken Nwosu) escorted Arden and Franklin across to Sheppey (11).

Shakebag and Black Will also became lost in the dense fog (12). After hearing the faint sound of Arden’s party passing by, Shakebag fell into the large open stage trap representing the dank marshy ditch and emerged covered in mud. He was helped out by the Ferryman who informed them that they had once again missed Arden.

Greene, Mosby and Alice discovered that this latest attempt had failed and the murderers vowed to catch Arden on his return. The plot in which Alice and Mosby were to confront Arden arm-in-arm was cut and its setup was therefore cut from the end of the scene.

The character of Dick Reede became in this production a Mrs Reede (Lizzie Hopley), who intercepted Arden to complain of about being evicted from her land (13). She had been previously shown trying to catch his attention, so that her approach here was the successful culmination of her previous strenuous efforts.

The fatal curse/premonition by Reede that the land Arden had taken would “be ruinous and fatal unto thee” was underlined by the back of the set turning dark red to suggest bloodshed and the ominous hand of fate.

But set amid the comedy of the failed murderers, this foreshadowing of the play’s tragic ending felt bolted on, an intrusion of seriousness into the continuing sitcom.

The entire sequence in which Arden discovered Mosby and Alice together and the fight between them, also involving Black Will and Shakebag, was cut. This was possibly to reduce the production’s running time, or perhaps it was felt that the elderly Arden could not take the murderers on in direct combat using modern weapons without killing them. The character of Arden was probably originally conceived as a younger and more vigorous than the man presented here.

The murderers met up with Alice and Michael and a plot was laid to kill Arden that night in the house (14). A dining table was set out.

The reference in the text to “tables” was changed to make it clear they were going to play “cards”. In keeping with the modern setting there was no mention of horses or Arden’s counting house.

Mosby brought Arden back and pretended to have fallen out with Alice with the result that Arden then begged him to stay. They drank champagne and sat down to play cards, while the murderers gathered downstage and watched.

Michael suggested that Black Will should creep between his legs which resulted in Michael sitting astride him and both edged forward to sneak up on Arden. This was inherently ridiculous and showed that even at this late stage, the production was intent of milking every last laugh from the plot.

On the key phrase “Now I can take you” Black Will wrapped a towel around Arden’s head, dragged him downstage and then stabbed him.

After repeated stabbings by the murderers, Alice seized a knife and stabbed Arden too.

This really was the point at which the comedy should have ceased.

Instead of placing the body in the counting house, they put the body in a large cardboard box and used the warehouse winch (no dining room should be without one) to hoist the box up into the air. Susan and Alice tried unsuccessfully to clean the blood from the floor, so rushes were strewn over it.

The dinner guests arrived and were plied with drinks. The asides between Michael and Susan in which he planned to poison Alice were cut.

This was to focus attention on the blood soaking out of the bottom of the cardboard box. This drew excited audience attention as some individuals pointed upwards at it to alert their neighbours.

The conspirators managed to persuade the guests to leave and then brought the box down. As they did this snow began to fall along the edges of the stage so that this zone represented the outside where the body was being deposited while inside represented the house. As the box was lowered, it was tipped on its side and the body dumped on the snow to represent its disposal outside, after which the conspirators moved back inside.

The watch entered the house, prompting Alice to act innocent by asking them if they had brought her husband home, but they had in fact come for Black Will.

Franklin announced that Arden’s body had been found despite the fact that it had just sat at the edge of the stage unseen and undiscovered by anyone else. This was a glaring hole in the staging. Franklin produced the hand towel and knife which would be the main evidence against the conspirators, but these had not lain with the body at any point and their appearance now looked strange.

Franklin pieced together the evidence which pointed towards Alice’s guilt against which she could only offer feeble explanations.

The separate scenes for Shakebag (15) and Black Will (17) were cut so that we then saw Alice’s and Mosby’s confessions (16). The actors picked up chairs and sat on them spread around the stage to rue their fate as isolated individuals rather than as a group conversation (18). A voice announced that Mosby and Susan were to be executed, Alice was to be burnt and Michael along with (the completely innocent) Bradshaw were to be put to death.

The Epilogue was spoken by Alice rather than Franklin. She explained the gruesome fates of those who had initially escaped, setting the final tragic note on proceedings.

Nothing in the previous 105 minutes had suggested this bleak conclusion so that it appeared incongruously tacked on at the end.

Conclusions

The RSC did not know what to do with this not-Shakespeare play. It was scared of putting audiences off with an unfamiliar antiquated work and so tried as far as possible to make it appear modern and ‘relevant’, a process which did not do the play justice. Turned into a semi-sitcom, Arden of Faversham was wrenched completely out of its historical context so that residual faithfulness to the text and story clashed with the production’s tacit desire to do away with them completely.

There is a spectre haunting the Swan Theatre: the spectre of One Man, Two Guvnors.

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.