Comus: A Masque in Honour of Chastity
by John Milton
Additional material by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Composer – Paul James
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Saturday 5th November 2016, 2.30 pm
Andrew Bridgmont – Sir John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater / Monstrous rout
Paul Bullion – Monstrous Rout / Head stableman
Rob Callender – William Egerton / Elder Brother
Suzie Chard – Mrs Brown, housekeeper / Monstrous Rout
Theo Cowan – Thomas Egerton / Younger Brother
Philip Cumbus – Henry Lawes, the composer / Attendant Spirit / Thyrsis
Emma Curtis – Lady Alice Egerton / The Lady
Danny Lee Wynter – Daniel, the stable boy / Comus
Natasha Magigi – Marjorie, Lady Alice’s Maid / Sabrina/Monstrous Rout
Phil Snowden – Daffyd, a local sheep farmer / Monstrous Rout
Paul James – composer; border bagpipes, saxophone, flutes, shawm, percussion|
Fiona Barrow – musical director, violin, viola
Chris Green -Mandocello, virginal
Steve Tyler – hurdy-gurdy
AN ASIDE (Skip direct to the review if you can’t wait)
November 5th. How strange it is sitting in the hotel typing this, in this most WW2 bombed part of London on Guy Fawkes’ Night. The fireworks and explosions are continual outside.
Me and John Milton. I’ve told this story many many times in teacher training, and it will be in some of my teacher training articles.
It was the first day of Sixth Form A-level English. Eager faces around a table, rather than behind desks. We were young adults now. The teacher, a Mr Smith (his real name) walked in. The man looked like Tony Hancock, but much glummer. He had a strange stride, and schoolkid rumour had it that he was shell-shocked from the Korean War.
He had a pile of books. He stared at them gloomily, then began tossing them around the table to us. Tossing sounds too exciting. Languidly dropping. He sucked air in through his teeth, looked down at the table and said, “This is Samson Agonistes. It’s by John Milton. It’s the most boring book I have ever read. It is the most boring book you will ever read. Jones! Start reading aloud …”
He over-praised. It was worse than that.
Poor Mr Smith also had Alexander Pope’s The Rape of The Lock, and Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. An unappetizing teaching burden for two years for anyone dealing with 16/17 year olds. For years I gave him as an example of how NOT to start any lesson.
There was a sequel, several years later. We’d just had the postgraduate Tuesday evening seminar, and it had been my turn to present a poem. I’d chosen William Carlos Williams, and then had to endure the sneers of my fellow post-grads, who divided between a group on Milton, and a group on Henry James. None of them thought it was poetry. My thesis was on writers in Hollywood, so I was somewhat isolated. My tutor, Malcolm Bradbury, took over the defence of Williams, much to my relief. So I got in the lift with a senior lecturer … staff had to attend these postgrad evenings. He asked what my thesis was on. I told him. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘The Last Tycoon. Ernest Hemingway.’
‘Um, it’s by Scott Fitzgerald,’ I said.
‘I think you’ll find it’s Hemingway,’ he replied snootily, and wrongly.
‘Um, what’s your special area?’ I asked.
‘John Milton,’ he said.
‘Phew. That must be boring for you!’ I replied.
Icy silence. So that’s why I’m not at all precious about Milton’s original text … but my son collects copies of Paradise Lost (for the illustrations), and I have quoted L’Allegro in a Dart Travis novel, Music To Watch Girls By. That’s a characters’ discussion on where “skip the light fantastic’ comes from in Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale.
In this production, as they start the Morris dance, they call out “Tread the light fantastic.” I don’t think it’s in the original.
Emma Curtis as Lady Alice
So after all that, what are we doing in the Wanamaker Playhouse? Partly trust of a Globe production. Partly the lure of anything directed by Lucy Bailey. Partly because I’ve never seen a full production of what is actually a masque, rather than a play.
Masques were performed in the great houses of England by the inhabitants, and Comus, first performed in 1634, had Lady Alice, the 15 year old daughter of Lord Bridgewater in the role of “The Lady.”
Lyn Gardner’s review says:
Commissioned by John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, Comus was first performed in the Great Hall at Ludlow Castle in 1634. Egerton’s daughter Alice, soon to be of marriageable age, took the leading role of The Lady who, after being separated from her brothers in a dark wood, is kidnapped by Comus, a sorcerer … The performance was important to the Egerton family. An uncle had been executed for sodomising the servants, and if Lady Alice was to marry well, her virtue had to be assured.
That dirty old uncle also had his servants rape his wife. The Globe website also notes that it is the oldest play performed at the Globe where the original performance had a woman in the cast. Also, five pieces of music by Henry Lawes survive from the 1634 masque.
Rob Callender and Theo Cowan as the brothers.
What Lucy Bailey has done is add a frame play, with the assistance of Patrick Barlow, before these aristocrats perform the Masque. All credit to Patrick Barlow here. I feel he created much of what we see, but he is only credited with “Additional material by …” while Matthew Dunster, doing less in Imogen this year credited himself as Shakespeare’s co-author. We were disappointed that Barlow’s version wasn’t on sale as a playscript at The Globe. My wife reckons they should have put Lady Alice’s fine closing speech on a poster and sold it in the shop. She would have bought and displayed one. Also a fabulous delivery from Emma Curtis, who struck the perfect note of horrified innocence throughout.
The frame play has the aristocrats and servants practising their opening dance, when Lady Alice (Emma Curtis) decides she will not take part. It’s the prospect of that awful chair, and the attentions of Daniel the lustful stable boy (Danny Lee Wynter) who will be playing Comus. She also does not want to be (only) a political pawn in their game. The Earl (Andrew Bridgemont) comes in and orders her to do it. Lawes, the composer and producer (Philip Cumbus) is having kittens, as the audience is due. Much confusion over “My Lord” and “Lawes”. It’s a delightful scene, very funny, as the older brother lets slip the family secret about Uncle Gilbert, the sodomite, or sodomizer. Younger brother and Alice didn’t know. The Earl has just been appointed Lord President of Wales. Shakespeare got a laugh at any mention of Wales, and it still works in the Wanamaker Playhouse today.
The Earl goes up on high to watch the masque, disconcertingly for me as his seat / throne was right in front of me blocking my view, not that he was there long. There’s an Alice down the rabbit hole transition where the whole cast except Alice are sucked into a blue-lit hole beneath the stage (other blogs complain that this was out of vision, but we could see it),
Then Philip Cumbus as “the attendant spirit” descends from on high and we’re into the actual masque. In the programme they said they did not intend to send it up. Mm, not so sure, but I don’t care as we adored the sending up … if it was.
Philip Cumbus has marvellous phrasing and timing, constantly finding comedy between the words. He has that skill of stepping just a tad outside the play and getting comedy. Few can do it and achieve the balance. A tour de force performance. I have to say that some of the alliteration reminded me of Shakespeare mocking the amateur production in Pyramus & Thisbe. I thought a lot of it deserved sending up, actually. The servants all become a team of “Monstrous Routs” and the brothers doing their serious bits have to work through having their privates fondled while delivering Milton’s lines. While it might relieve the tedium, it can’t help concentration!
Comus (Danny Lee Wynter) and the Monstrous Routs
The three siblings get lost in a wood, and The Lady gets separated from her brothers. She is lured by a shepherd, Comus in disguise with a Mancunian accent, and finds herself under a spell, legs akimbo in a 17th century version of a gynaecologiocal examination chair (with gilt bits on the side). Comus wants her to drink the magic and seductive drink, but she defends her virginity and refuses. She is then frozen in a spell, open mouthed, feet more or less in delivery stirrups, for a long time.
The brothers arrive with swords, plus what looks like a grey cotton lump of ginseng, given to them by the attendant spirit. They defeat Comus and his spirits. We slide back into the frame play and Lady Alice gives her stirring feminist closing speech.
The Lady in the chair surrounded by the Monstrous routs. Brothers to the rescue.
We loved every minute of it. I never thought I would laugh so long and so loud at Milton … and really, it was NOT just a send up. The verse did have (some) room to make its point.
As mentioned, five songs survive from 1634. There are additions from other productions and original music by Paul James. You can’t hear the joins. Music was a vital ingredient … in the early 19th century they were complaing that Milton’s text interfered with the music in productions. Comus was very popular in the8th ad early 19th centuries. All have to sing, and the brothers (an excellent pairing) get a lot of humour from their renditions.
Given the furore over Emma Rice’s premature departure as Artistic Director of The Globe, it’s worth considering what innovations Lucy Bailey & Emma Rice made at the Wanamaker Playhouse. They did not go for “authentic practices” but they hit a very good compromise. They had an underlit lighted rectangle replacing the trap. Electric. I’m not sure what the purpose was. When we got that underworld tunnel, blue light (electric) and smoke were there. There were three tiny flashes of white light (electric) punctuating the speech, at a very relevant point. I’m sure the ten seconds of birdsong were recorded. The lights on the inner stage beyond the door were almost certainly electric, but they could have lit it with candles.
Does it matter? Not at all. Against that, we had 1630s costumes with no modern additions, and authentic music on authentic instruments played by real musicians in 1630s costumes. Though electricity was convenient, we were still 95% candle lit, and the little touches were practical rather than intrusive. There wasn’t much they couldn’t have managed in 1634, though modern smoke is certainly better than what they might have used.
As the Wanamaker Playhouse enters its third season, it was something of a relief to skip all the candle lighting, and candle quenching, then relighting of other productions. Apart from a little lowering and raising, they left the main candles pretty much alone. It is a point – the true magic of the Wanamaker experience is the first time you see a candlelit play. As theatres expand their network of Friends (and The Globe is one of the best deals) it’s more difficult for people outside the “club” to get good seats. Inevitably the audience contains fewer first-time Wanamaker visitors, so there will be less need for the novelty of the candle lighting activity. The “club” might be a strong anchor on change.
If Emma Rice’s regime had all been like this with “modernization-lite” (rather than the plastic curtained proscenium transformation of Imogen with recorded music), I can think only the most pernickety might have complained.
Comus was superb. Five stars.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, ****
Chris Bennion., The Telegraph ****
Paul Taylor, The Independent ****
Sam Marlowe, The Times ****
LINKS TO REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
Richard III, Trafalgar Studio 2014 (Earl of Richmond)
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, Wanamaker Playhouse 2014, (Vasquez)
The Importance of Being Earnest (with David Suchet), 2015 (Algernon)
First Light, Chichester 2016 (Max Henderson)