Thomas Middleton, the Jacobean playwright, joins Evelyn Waugh in the ranks of Oxford-educated literary figures who matriculated but never quite made it to graduation. T.S. Eliot deemed Middleton second only to Shakespeare and some argue he even had a hand in All’s Well That Ends Well. Given that his name will forever follow that of the Bard along the corridors of history, it is fitting that the Royal Shakespeare Company will stage Middleton’s city comedy A Mad World My Masters for the next three months (sadly the Royal Middleton Company does not exist and thus is in no real position to perform the farce itself).
The play is a bawdy romp through a debauched 17th century London, but it has been brought up to date and recast as a bawdy romp through 1950s Soho. My 88-year-old granddad, who was born in Soho in 1925, was interested by the extent to which the far the West End of his youth had been romanticised for the purpose of the production. The programme describes Soho as possessing a ‘Technicolor vibrancy that could either delight or repel’. An outsider may well have been repulsed or perhaps delighted by the ‘prostitutes who prowled the streets’ amidst ‘exotic aromas’ and ‘fragments of jazz and blues’. For my granddad, though, a prostitute was a slightly sordid everyday detail, a lady hanging around outside the school gates whom they learned to know by sight (and hopefully sight alone).
In A Mad World, the lead is a hooker as beautiful as she is wily, and her ruses to make an honest – and rich – woman of herself bring the play to a head. Her name is Truly Kidman, and she is both mistress to Sir Bounteous Peersucker, a rich and impressionable old fool, and lover to his nephew, Dick Follywit. The names hint at the characters’ roles but mainly draw on the proud and venerable English tradition of smut for comic effect. Middleton named Sir Bounteous’ old and sexually frustrated butler ‘Gunwater’, but he has been here rechristened as ‘Spunky’ in a less-than-subtle updating of Jacobean slang.
The play is an extended farce filled with dirty Jacobean jokes, some of which have faded into obscurity with time: these gags were coupled with inventive and often hilarious staging to keep a modern audience entertained. The men’s knowing looks and saucy references to female characters became a little wearing after a while, but were counter-balanced by Truly Kidman’s complex and absorbing lead prostitute (played with aplomb by Sarah Ridgeway). Her most captivating solo was a rendition of ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, in which she circled slowly round foggy London streetlamps and told us charmingly that she really didn’t care what society thought of her ancient profession.
The astute audience member may suspect that ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’, a classic blues number, was not included by Middleton in his 1605 script. The vigorous and sustained musical departure from Middleton’s original vision, though, is for me the highlight of the show. A singer with an impressive coiffure in a purple sparkly fishtail dress sashayed around to a live jazz band as the show started: the addition of musical (and sequinned) numbers would revitalise the text throughout, especially at points where it had lost some of its original bite. The production was kept light on its feet by the irresistable pull of showbiz and the glamour of trombones. A Mad World My Masters is a triumph of theatrical experience, a visual spectacle and an aural delight.
A Mad World My Masters is on from 6 June – 25 October 2013 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon