FringeReview UK 2018
Perry Mills devises and directs this first revival in 430 years of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon. Consult website above. Into this 1590s proto-psychedelia 1967 period music is realised by Olly Harvey-Ball, Toby Ollis-Brownstone, Jamie Mitchell and Pascal Vogiardis. In costumery balloons play a large part, with costumes, make-up and wigs attached to a particular luminary (Brenda Leedham, Bella Musgrove), and props (David Troughton, Louisa Nightingale). It’s a touring production ere seen at St Mary-at—Hill, but returning the Edward VI Stratford home before a single performance at the Playbox, Dream factory Warwick, on the 28th March. And on to France April 3rd-5th .
Even in John Lyly’s emerging canon, The Woman in the Moon from 1590 has been regarded as vestigial: till now. The Edward’s Boys perform several invaluable things at once. First, putting on the play to prove it’s an extraordinary Janus—faced amalgam of court entertainment and forward-looking play, and crucially so much more. Secondly, bringing an authenticity to the original boys’ troop that even a few years ago would have seemed unimaginable.
Perry Mills devises and directs this valuable adjunct to the Globe series of Read Not Dead and staged performances at the Wanamaker. It ought to be staged there, as so many Edward’s Boys performances have been – including Summer’s Last Will and Testament in September 2017. Much care and attention has gone into this road-show arriving here at St Mary’s-at-Hill before returning to Stratford and other venues including three around Montpelier in France in April.
Set in a 1590 dream of Pandora-struck Gods, it’s perfectly logical to set it in … 1967. In fact Perry Mills’ dramaturgy proves as impeccably apt as it does hilarious. The Summer of Love not only rainbows out a smorgasbord of rainbow choices – and we really do get Lucy in the sky with Diamonds to prove we really were there – the fluid aesthetic of both periods anchors itself in one great trip. It presages not simply a trip but naturally the dream world about to be accessed by Shakespeare five years later in a Midsummer Night’s dream.
It’s enhanced by the musical verve slotting perfectly into this 1590s proto-psychedelia. Olly Harvey-Ball, Toby Ollis-Brownstone, Jamie Mitchell and Pascal Vogiardis provide the brashest band to irradiate the church. In fact they’re superb, and often underpin choric moments when the ensemble sings, again from period songs. ‘Would you like to fly in my beautiful balloon?’ gifts us one highlight. There’s others. The Kinks (‘You really got me’), Stones, Beatles get blasts. ‘We are the walrus’ seems a natural progression. There’s wit and pointed hilarity to the felicities they underpin. It’d be dizzying to itemize them; impossible too.
Where to start with the costumery? Balloons play a large part, bouncing aloft colour-coded to represent ruling planets, as with costumes, make-up and wigs attaché dto a particular luminary (Brenda Leedham, Bella Musgrove), and props (David Troughton, Louisa Nightingale). The relatively Spartan surround of the altar can barely have seen such technicolour bravery as strutted and occasionally popped on and off. It’s pure Elizabethan psychedelia. Boys are brightened in hippy costumes and where the text indeed says ‘peace, man’ you can be sure it’s given its full 1967 potential. It’s such details as these that convince you it could hardly have been done any other way.
What we receive is innocence on the cusp of its own discovery: late Elizabethan drama and a darkening exuberance with infinitely greater self-knowledge – think Hamlet. And from 1967 the portal to wind-swept years of revolution: Les Evénéments and 1968, and the souring of hippydom through glam rock, suede-heads, punk and the withering of the post-war welfare state that helped cushion it all. Both in 1603, and 1979, the world seemed darker than it used.
Lyly’s fluidity naturally raises questions through exploring routes not taken later on. Lyly himself retired in the 1590s and died in 1606 though his plays went on being reprinted. One of these routes only partially taken up (notably by Marlowe and particularly Shakespeare) is indeed gender fluidity. Lyly goes further and refuses to stereotype and fix women as prime misogynist targets: inconstancy, variety, promiscuity and lust as well as a lack of intellectual capacity. In other words many misogynists’ dark dream of women.
Lyly refuses such categorisation and side-steps Christianity by first allowing Nature, a creator, to be female; then to create a perfect analogue to rather bereft men who seem to have been fashioned without their other half. So there’s a clutch of pining shepherds with something missing. Nature promises them:
a female you shall have my lovely swains,
Like to yourselves but of a purer mould.
This is Pandora. And her existence troubles both female and particularly male gods who seek to hijack her psyche. They determine to sway Pandora in turn like a bunch of constellating planets around her Sun: or in fact play her like a talking horoscope. Thus Saturn imparts heavy melancholy, Jupiter a certain pride and so forth. Pandora thus enacts robotic pirouettes whilst influenced by this or that tug of god, which doesn’t promise to be that much fun.
Lyly’s point is not just that gods are responsible for any perceived failings in women through subjecting them to a gallimaufry of planetary influences; but that women are indeed more human because more various. It’s a profoundly feminist and humanist point of view, though served up as soufflé-light, or balloon-bouncy: it has to be, it’s subversive. By setting up Nature as creator too, Lyly shifts patriarchal notions of creative power. Its only agency – and permission – lies in this: Elizabeth I is still queen and briefly, you can get away with such heterodoxy because Gloriana also radiates a kind of creation.
But with the help of Edward’s Boys The Lady in the Moon also highlights challenges in sexuality and gender, the rare confusion of sexual desire and sexual object, the metamorphosis of someone through planetary influence (here personified) and metamorphosis of character through pulls and finally self-assertion. As James Wallace points out in his essay, Pandora also gets more percentage of lines in her play than any other early modern source.
The play proper lurches into focus after Jack Hawkins dispatches his Prologus – he’s back as factotum Gunophilus in the most prominent blaze of back-chatting you’d countenance, but one whose journey is longest. Nick Jones’ regal Nature is as you’d imagine in feminine garb and gardening hat a target for producing Joe Pocknell as her spring collection, Pandora.
Whilst Jones remains amusedly off-hand and dignified, Pocknell’s subjected to so many wig changes you’d be forgiven into surmising that it’ll be a wig act, each identical style a different colour signifying which planet’s Pandora’s under. In fact Pocknell along with Hawkins suffer the greatest mutability and subtle shifts before Shakespeare. They’re superb. Hawkins starts out skirling with laughter at the tricks he’s asked to devise or connives at himself. He begins serving Ritvik Nagor’s stentorian and testy Stesias, after long wrangles the husband chosen by Pandora. He ends though after conniving at cuckoldry by proxy, hopelessly in love with Pandora himself in her final planetary assumption. There’s sad realisations for this mercurial avatar, a kind of Autolycus without travelling portfolio, and typical from Terence onwards as cleverer servant than his master. And like some servants, he gets slapped by Stesius.
He’s not the only one. The trio of other suitors from whom Pandora makes her choice also receive lashings – Felix Crabtree’s soft seductive Iphicles, the most plausible, Pascal Vogiaridis as a musician appropriately the diminutive Melos with a crotchet bar on his cheek; and Charlie Waters’ hippyish Learchus. It’s because they’ve all connived to seduce Pandora as soon as Venus’ encourages her libidinous wanderings. So everyone gets as it were a bite of the cherries.
That is, as it were, to anticipate. Partly at least. In a masque-like processional we’re subjected to balloon and wig shifts as Pandora is acted upon by each planet in turn as vengeance on nature for so creating a paragon party outside their remit and wholly so far out of their control. Dominic Howden’s leaden Saturn bows down with lugubrious melancholy, lead-lining Pandora’s demeanour. Jupiter takes the blue-grey off as Adam Hardy regally dispenses clouds in cerise, and Tom Lewis Sol brightens in a burst of orange sunshine with a kind of vernal confidence. There’s a saffron balloon trailed here…
Mars in 1880s parade-ground drill-sergeant red parades a trumpery of military absurdity as Yiannis Vogiaridis stomps with ringing conviction straight out of the CCF. It’s ben Clarke’s green Venus that softly steals quite a bit of the show and provides all the extra-marital fun after a brief respite of marriage where we’re invited to pause. It seems the drama’s ending, Venus starts it again. This is a highlight. and Sebastian sevens’ Mercury out-gunning Gunophilus in knavery struts and connives with a swagger suggesting a little afflicted Jupiter and Mars have got into Lyly’s Mercury.
But of course there’s a long gallery of farcical plots with obbligato cuffings: a fantastic one with Gunophilus briefing everyone to lie as jealous Stesias huddles under a table, various written pleas and love-tokens to play lovers off against each other. All designed of course to discredit Pandora. But after she’s enjoyed sampling her lovers and the routes not taken (at least not for long) Pandora too steadies into mutability. It’s musician Jamie Mitchell’s silver-headed Luna who provides Pandora’s true home, and gives the play its title. Just as she’s been invited to choose a husband, so does Pandora choose a planetary influence. Luna absorbs light from all the others, is the most mutable and thus universal of the lot. Like Milton with Il Penseroso, Pandora might say this is where she’ll choose to live. Gods and men must live with this, as Nature regally draws the agon to a close, and we get that eternal dance of the spheres from Hair ‘When the Moon is in the seventh house/And Jupiter Aligns with Mars’ with the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. I rather wish director/choreographer Johnny Worthy, one of Hair’s original cast and still very active, could see this. He’d love it. I can think of no higher praise.
But this is Mills’ creation, and with a suite of fine essays by various scholars in the programme to curate a permanent sense of this production’s occasion (as well as possible film archiving at the King Edward VI School Stratford), one can only hope to see it revived.
It’s shifted our sense of Lyly’s pre-eminence still further. Lyly hugely influenced Shakespeare like no other writer (more than Marlowe or Nashe), and his theatrical genius can only be appreciated in performance. As James Wallace also says, Lyly remains the Globe’s Read Not Dead greatest rediscovery, and this production underscores that more fully and emphatically than even before, with last year’s Sappho and Phao leading unexpectedly to this bold, necessary reading.