A Mad World My Masters | English Touring Theatre and RSC

May 2015 | Barbican

The original play written by Thomas Middleton was a satire on London life back when society was very bawdy and at the same time puritan. Creators Sean Foley and Phil Porter re-stage it in 1950s Soho with the notion that this historically unconventional, culturally subversive and morally notorious area was a suitable and not ironically unimaginative setting (and to view the audience with as much dimness as many of the gags in this piece.)

There are two plots to this story, one in which Richard Follywit tries to swindle his uncle’s great wealth and another where Penitent Brothel tries to win sexual access to a married woman with the help of a crafty prostitute. The text has been adapted to apply to a contemporary audience, changing names to sound more familiar and clean up the obscurities of the historical context, although often unnecessarily. For example, Bounteous Progress, the rich snob who wants to gain favour and privilege amongst the political class is renamed ‘Peersucker’ – fair enough, Richard Desmond, (with whom the similarity is obvious) is the owner of numerous Red Top newspapers and a pornography channel and has been funding both Conservatives and UKIP in order to be selected for Peerage. But ‘Shortrod Harebrain’ didn’t need to be renamed ‘Littledick.’ It’s the start of many superfluous changes that underestimate the intelligence of the audience.

The wordplay is pretty dreadful, and I’m sympathetic to the most silly of efforts. Like a Carry On film where every rude joke is followed by a dirty cockney chuckle, all the double entendres were overlaid and flat like the nun commenting on returning to her ‘missionary efforts,’ with our audience, the post-Carry On, post- sexual revolutionaries expected to gaffaw like they were so prude. It wasn’t that the penis jokes were a big deal (geddit?), but they were just childish in a world where it’s no longer unacceptable. At least in Middleton’s world there was some social moral code expected, especially in the theatre which was closely scrutinised for sacrilegious and treasonous commentary (the play was probably written for private showings among the theatre elite.) It’s hardly a satire if what it’s showing is exactly what is happening. It’s pertinent that the Christine Keeler scandal occurred shortly after this play was set as an example of how misplaced the re-staging became despite the very purpose. It was a stretch to have Penitent Brothel flogging himself in a pseudo-religious guilt trip for having sex with a married woman in Soho in the nineteen fifties. Furthermore, all the references to the historical vice of the area are redundant when no one cares. Stratford-upon-Avon maybe, but not Soho.

The play is crafty with plenty of scandal and fun, a commedia dell’arte run of representative characters, full characters and minor characters, all with a vice or a price and it’s open to rich pickings. Fortunately, the company are aware of theatricality of this and play with the rules as much as they like. Slap-stick is used to keep everything unhinged, sadly it’s not explored to its full potential but there are certain examples that are picked out. Constantly head-butting doors became very dry and unfortunately did not return to being funny despite its desperate repetition. However, the skit of a man tumbling around with the loudest bin in london trying to stay inconspicuous just got better the longer it went. The extinguisher that climaxes the ‘devil seducer’ scene deserved a laugh, especially as it blasted the front row of white haired RSC members. Even the little point when Follywit throws a glass off-stage and waits 5 seconds too long for it to smash is a conscious exposure of the theatrical.

Despite this openness it fails to avoid the rigidity of a conventional production. Most of the actors came across as serious Shakespearean performers trying to be funny, which meant that the over-the-top text, situations and characters were being piled on with even more gusto than necessary. The environment is heightened from the outset with jazzy number (brilliantly performed by the band and singer Linda John-Pierre) ‘Big Long Slidin’ Thing’ which does the work of setting atmosphere and place, but everything was delivered with a weighted knowingness and a wink, which felt quite patronising. I’ve seen Pantomime (the height of self-reference theatricality) play gags with less subtlety and more success. None of the actors could sing very well, which was a shame when they could have used the competent band instead. (I can’t sing at all but I wouldn’t let the show be compromised by my efforts.)

Only when they create a semi-postmodern sketch of the characters dressing up in ‘Jacobean Ball and dramatic entertainments’ costumes does it come to making sense to the dramaturgy, which is a shame because the whole concept was to avoid this. Like a nod to the playwright, it’s all very ‘ha ha- it’s placed in its time sake’ but we’re truly more engaged because of it and creates the confusing dilemma of making the metaplay more of the play than the actual play.

It’s good to see period/classical playwrights other than Shakespeare getting attention but not if it’s the usual RSC affair dressed up to be raunchy, edgy and new.

Result: Uproarious (in Stratford-upon-Avon only)

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