A Mad World My Masters
by Thomas Middleton
A Mad World My Masters is the neglected filthiest (and probably flat out funniest) Jacobean comedy. It dates from 1605, so early Jacobean too. Sean Foley has cut it by 20% and wisely cut out impenetrable puns and replaced, according to him, around 3% of the text to modernize jokes, and also modernized some names (though changing Shortrod of 1605 to Littledick of 2013 might not have been necessary).
Not an entendre is left undoubled as full use is made of the Swan theatre’s thrust, with the action thick and fast (she likes it thick and fast) and actors entering from the rear, the sides and below. Not only is it a right carry on, but the Carry On films of the 1950s and 1960s can be seen to fit in a long theatrical tradition. As do traditional seaside postcards, ‘Let me show you my cock … (pause) … and hens.” It’s all innocent, so only in the dirty mind of the beholder.
Reviews mention One Man Two Guvnors every time, suggesting the RSC is attempting to emulate the National Theatre’s West End success by modernizing a Jacobean play to the Soho of the 1950s (rather than the Brighton of the early 60s). The comparison is stretched, I think. 1950s Soho is in the current theatrical collective … Bath’s King Lear, running at the same time, is set in Soho only around five years later. Because One Man Two Guvnors was a translation from Bodoni’s A Servant of Two Masters, they have a completely new updated text in modern English, and also more room for apparent improvisation. A Mad World My Masters is still 97% Middleton’s early 17th century text, and though there are some well-taken bits of audience interaction, especially by Ian Redford’s Sir Bounteous Peersucker, there isn’t the space that James Corden’s character was granted in One Man Two Guvnors to do his own thing. In other words, it isn’t going to pack in coach parties for extended West End transfer runs, because it is still faithfully Middleton rather than ‘inspired by Bodoni’. The play ends with a costumed, or in modern terms, fancy dress, ball, with an entertainment of a play-within-a-play, and this is done delightfully by the ‘fancy dress’ being full Jacobean, so that after mainly Soho 1958, we end up visually back in 1605.
The play starts with a fight at The Flamingo Club
The plot involves Dick Follywit, a con-man and thief and his two sidekicks trying to steal from his rich great-uncle, Sir Bounteous Peersucker. Then there’s Truly Kidman, a prostitute, and her mother who is her pimp. Truly is Sir Bounteous’s mistress. Add Mr and Mrs Littledick. Littledick is a jealous husband, cuckolded by his pal, Penitent Brothel. Penitent is aided in his seduction of Mrs Littledick by Truly Kidman, who disguises herself as an Irish nun, employed to give “moral advice” to Mrs Littledick.
Follywit & friends
In the first half, Follywit masquerades as a lord, Lord Owmuch, and visits Sir Bounteous. He and his pals rob the place in the night, and have to tie up Sir Bounteous, then pretend they’ve been tied up themselves by the robbers. This is comedy that works in any era, and the rapid array of brilliant bits of business is astounding. They hop around pretending to be tied up, while signalling each other behind Sir Bounteous’s back with split-second comic timing. I’ll never forget the robber, with a pair of tights over his head getting the tights leg caught in the lid of a large chest of valuables, nor the lever that operates the secret panel, the penis of a statue, which has to be handled just right to work.
Nun with Mr & Mrs Littledick
In the other theme, Penitent disguises himself as a doctor, first to help Truly, who is pretending to be sick, con money from Sir Bounteous, and her two other suitors, then to get access to Mrs Littledick. They have it off on a curtained four poster bed centre stage while Truly tries to disguise the noise from the listening jealous husband by pretending to have a conversation with Mrs Littledick (who is screaming Yes! Yes! or No! No! in ecstasy).
Penitent and Mrs Littledick enjoy a post-coital cigarette
John Hopkins plays Penitent as the doctor with exactly the right sense of comic remove. It’s always fun seeing a character in a play pretending to act another character. His list of medicines including wasp fart, and as he runs out of ideas, Parmigiano, is clearly a modern addition. He can also step aside after a particularly groaning pun to grin and say, ‘Thomas Middleton, 1605’ to excuse it.
In the second half Follywit has to dress as a prostitute himself, in a further attempt to extract money from Sir Bounteous. Some of the legs apart business is pure Kenny Everett in his role as Cunning Stunt … that one gets used in the script too, and I’d assume it’s a modern addition, as well as the title of an early 1970s LP by Caravan. Throughout, the elderly and totteringly infirm butler, Spunky, is a hilarious character, played by Richard Durden, with a screeching hearing aid.
Penitent is seen in his bedsit with a frying pan and one bar electric fire, beginning to repent of his adultery and is visited by a dream Mrs Littledick in full sexy gear as a devil, and he punishes himself by putting his hand in the frying pan. This is a superb comic performance. In the fancy dress section at the end, he appears dressed as a puritan in black. Middleton would have known about puritans and self-flagellation.
Then Follywit meets Truly under a lampost, believes her to be a virgin (as she says, she has been fifteen times), and proposes marriage. All go off to the fancy dress ball. In yet another attempt at robbery, Follywit and pals pretend to be travelling players to entertain the guests. The rest of the cast forms a tableaux as the ‘audience.’ The Police Constable arrives to arrest them, and they incorporate him in their play and tie him up, claiming it’s experimental drama, ‘as at the Royal Court.’ In the end all is revealed, and Follywit ridiculed for marrying a prostitute, but as she’s so charming, he’s happy.
There’s live music, and Linda John-Pierre is “the singer”, either singing classic 50s R&B, or accompanying cast members when they sing. I noticed the actors had mics which came on when they sang. Lots of dancing, fighting, leaping, laughing, jiving, singing, falling over, filthy jokes, first rate music. Of course Truly’s front door is # 69, in Swallow Street. Sarah Ridgeway, as Truly, has to do cockney tart, Irish nun, and ladylike accents in fast succession. She is hugely appealing in the role, and you can see why Follywit would be happy with his eventual lot.
Sir Bounteous’s house. Statue far right
I’d guarantee this play has never been better done, with every part milked for maximum comedy by a boisterous and brilliant cast. The play-within-a-play and jokes about other companies comes from much the same time as Hamlet. The Kings Men must have liked doing that.