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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

The National Theatre of Brent proves finally that as it used to claim, ‘all the world’s a Globe’. Patrick Barlow’s supplying a prologue, epilogue and needling a little of Milton’s core text in praise of chastity renders this production unique. Lucy Bailey’s revival at the Wanamaker Globe of Milton’s Masque Comus is a rare event. Designed by William Dudley with Paul James arranging and composing music, and lighting as ever by beeswax candles.


Lucy Bailey’s revival at the Wanamaker Globe of Milton’s Masque Comus is a far rarer event now than the piece enjoyed in the 18th-19th centuries. Then this essentially un-dramatic piece was buoyed by spectacle, here so thoroughly supplied by designer William Dudley with Paul James arranging and composing music (the original Henry Lawes, Gibbons, Dowland, James himself), and lighting as ever by beeswax candles.


But it’s Patrick Barlow’s supplying a prologue, epilogue and working a needling farcical thread through a little of Milton’s core text in praise of chastity that renders this, like the Wanamaker candles, unique.


This must be the finest ever revival, based not only on the production and uniformly fine acting, but in particular the rationale behind Barlow’s text working with Bailey’s conception to render family anxieties and desires into a wild wood of misrule where like A Midsummer Night’s Dream they’re somehow made conscious. The whole honours Milton, it doesn’t guy him; his text’s nearly complete, his argument isn’t subverted but taken seriously.


We need to remember that as we’re treated to the spectacle of the Egerton household with the three children busy rehearsing a masque for their father’s inauguration as President of Wales at Ludlow Castle. Fifteen-year-old Alice, the central character, is matched to dance with Thomas the stable boy who plays Comus her would-be-seducer in the masque. She suddenly refuses to take rehearsals further, just forty-seven minutes before curtain-up. Henry Lawes, composer and master of revels is ‘shredded’ like the composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos but Egerton himself appears, orders Lawes’ un-shredding and his daughter to obey. Andrew Brigmont relishes Egerton’s heavy-handedness: all orotund blandishments and icy fiats.


Alice’s discomfort is taken by her brattish younger brothers as proof she’s illicitly attracted to Thomas. Just as the masque begins Egerton’s upended from the central seat he has in the audience and he, and others of his household are thrust down a blue-green rivulet running under the stage and out through a main door – literally Alice in Wonderland though Alice doesn’t get sucked in. Some in the theatre wouldn’t be able to see more here than dry-ice marsh gas from other angles, but we’re now into the masque proper.


Boys William and Thomas (Rob Callender with a fine counter-tenor, and preppy Theo Cowan), decide on berry-picking thus lose their sister and bump into Lawes transformed as Attendant Spirit Thrysis. This is Philip Cumbus who now takes a commanding hand with a droll knack of hitching lifts up through the rafters and occasionally finding he’s not obeyed, left dangling. That and breaking up Milton’s dialogue with the boys by their repeating it in confusion makes light comedy of what might be a dull stretch of Miltonic process.


But it’s Danny Lee Wynter’s Comus discovering Emma Curtis’ Alice that rivets attention, not least for wondering how this might play out. In fact, since it’s wholly Milton now it doesn’t develop Barlow’s sexual subtext – at least for Alice – except a wandering eye from Curtis who sings well in a light soprano; though only in the epilogue can she show more than affronted arguments against the glint and swerve of Wynter’s lips and hips. The audience at least are seduced by his superb command of the verse, sexy, sophistical, wheedling, menacing, he deploys it like one of the phallic lances of his followers.


The sex goes to these devils with dirty faces aka Monstrous Rout times four, Egerton and servants of the household transformed Circe-like into snoutish lust buckets. Circe’s in fact Comus’ mother begotten with Bacchus: he’s like both but more her Milton says. Having let herself be deceived Alice is finally pinned to a sticky chair legs akimbo like some Caroline version of the Barbarella pleasure machine, so when the heroic trio finally rush in and (with difficulty) put the riot to rout (almost forgetting their magic amulet, what else?) Attendant Spirit Thrysis has to call on Natasha Magigi’s magnificent Sabrina, sacred Nymph of the Severn to unstick Alice.


There’s a delicious moment when after sprinkling libations she’s thanked as ‘fair’ and Magigi’s frown, almost thrown away, underlines how this production underscores even bland moments with true theatre.


Barlow’s framing helps again in the epilogue, allowing Alice the chance to mirror her father’s fiat with a bonding dance (which includes Lawes in contrast to her father) but now completing her mother’s death-bed admonitions. It becomes ultimately an empowering text for a girl sold as unsoiled goods with unwarranted emphasis even in 1634 on virginity, seeing how her maternal uncle Gilbert was executed for sodomizing a servant and horrifically having his wife raped by several men.


Milton would have been aware of this, just as he was of a trial of Lancashire witches found innocent of child abduction. This and Milton’s awareness of lavish court masques in an increasingly disconnected Royal court fed not simply a mild risk-taking but a moral connect to his own Puritan values. It’s a masque like no other, less dramatic than some no doubt but the only one revived.


The truth and integrity of this production change the original text, act upon it as a quickening agent: it rings in the mind like very few, and alters the piece’s tradition. Because it’s not a dramatic piece of the order of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this won’t be as iconic a shift as say Peter Brook’s visionary rendering of that play, and Bailey is just one of two generations of directors influenced by such post-war breakthroughs, realised through Barlow’s framing brilliance. Nevertheless, the ground’s shifted just as much as the Severn’s liqueous-seeming tunnel burrowed under the stage.


Spectacle, costumes and use of machinery are outstanding, even by Wanamaker standards, and unlike the Shakespeare productions here in 2015-16, there’s no unevenness, particularly vocal that marked a few of the younger characters then. Granted there’s a lower dramatic threshold in Comus, and it’s a shorter piece, with little competition from any production. It doesn’t mask as it were the fact that this is the most outstanding production of Comus we’ll ever see. Barlow’s material should be published alongside it for future performances. The finale’s in good verse, adroit, sensitive, and never pulling too much focus from Milton’s core ambivalence over his rather ardent concept of restraint and chastity, and brilliantly jejune effronteries.