FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Perry Mills this production of The Malcontent is lit by a trio with arc lamps at each end of the traverse (by John Cherry, Connor Mitchell, Dominic Howden). Amanda Wood and Perry Mills opt for contemporary: school uniforms and sports-gear, a OTC, dresses. Brenda Leedham’s and Emma Benton’s wigs top a spectacular display. The music, Tom Waits-inspired with a capella invoking the 17th century to pop and tango. Toby Ollis-Brownstone’s direction is aided by Joe Webb, Orla Reid, Jacob Hoban, Oliver Feaver. Finishes at Trinity College Oxford, March 30th.
The Malcontent is one of the best-known non-Shakespearean plays of its time. Unlike last year’s Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon at the same venue we’re on repertoire ground.
Perry Mills devises and directs this valuable adjunct to the Globe series of Read Not Dead and staged performances at the Wanamaker including the troupe’s 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 from Stratford before finishing at Trinity College Oxford.
This time the production’s viscerally staged in traverse – you’re inches from actors leering faces or get squirted by malevolent sprites. Audience engagement is required.
Directed by Mills it’s lit by a trio with arc lamps at each end of the traverse (by John Cherry, Connor Mitchell, Dominic Howden). Amanda Wood and Perry Mills opt for contemporary this time: school uniforms and sports-gear as well as OTC infuses some of the costumery, but it’s richer. Dresses for a start. Brenda Leedham’s and Emma Benton’s wigs top a spectacular display: a congruent Italianate dolce vita sense suffuse the colours and choices.
The music, Tom Waits-inspired with a capella invoking the 17th century and pop and tango is one of the production’s glories. Mills suggests Marston invites it and it certainly enhances this experience. Toby Ollis-Brownstone’s direction is sparky, inspired, inventive. He’s aided by Joe Webb, Orla Reid, Jacob Hoban, Oliver Feaver.
Mills has opted for the fullest Quarto version (the third and last, all from 1604) cutting passages attributed to Webster. It’s still a chunky near three hours’ with fifteen minute interval. It flew by.
It’s a play that’s already had a children’s company perform recently: at the Globe in April 2014. Children’s companies grew out of boys’ choirs connected with cathedrals. Peaking in the early 1600s they only died out when theatres did in 1642. Some like John Marston (1576-1634) wrote exclusively for boys’ companies. The Malcontent (1603) was first performed by the Children of the Chapel at the Blackfriars Theatre. (The chapel was the Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace.)
Being first staged around 1603 furnishes a clue. Malevole is Marston’s riffing on the recent Hamlet, a young black-edged wit hesitating the perfect moment to revenge. Hamlet may don ‘antic humour’ as disguise, where Altofronto changes his name too, donning a physical disguise as a noble bastard – as he suggests.
He might almost have said with Edmund ‘now the world stand up for bastards’; that was a few years from coining but it situates his disguise socially. You can incidentally see where Thomas Lovell Beddoes quarried the mainsprings for several plots in the 1820s; the Edward’s Boys would relish him.
Altofronto (the mesmerizing Jack Hawkins) has been banished from the dukedom of Genoa by a coup staged by Mendoza (and excellently sneering then frighted Ritvik Nagar) to put Pietro (anxious Ben Clarke) on the throne since he’s married to Aurelia (scheming then shuddering Tristan Barford), daughter of a powerful Florentine leader.
Altofronto, however, returns to court disguised as jester-like Malevole, the malcontent, who sways Pietro’s affection by refusal to flatter and scathing contemporary morals. I mean it helps wearing a filthy lab coat emblazoned with cadmium: ‘This is What a Malcontent Looks Like’ just so we don’t miss it. And taking fashion slashes to tramp-chic levels. Meanwhile Altofronto’s beloved Maria (dignified Felix Crabtree) awaits his return in prison. We only see her late on. Only Altofronto’s friend Celso (Dominic Howden, a nicely taken steadfastness) knows his identity and keeps him up with court plots.
It’s all in play at the outset. The action begins when Malevole tells Pietro that Aurelia’s cuckolding him with Mendoza to drive a wedge between Mendoza and Pietro. When Mendoza thwarts Pietro’s plan to discover him with Aurelia, apparently killing the luckless Ferneze (a kind of Cherubino in Seb Steven’s hands) Mendoza and Aurelia plan to murder Pietro so Mendoza will become Duke of Genoa. Fortunately, Malevole – who’s found Ferneze breathing and rescues him – learns of this plot and arranges a counterplot to reveal Mendoza’s villainy and return himself to the throne.
This involves consenting to kill Pietro, who’s then disguised by the disguised Malevole as a friar; great ginger beard. Mendoza suggests to each they poison the other but luckily they declare their intentions – Pietro all the time thinking Malevole is just a fashion-victim in a lab coat. Pietro expresses remorse, as does his wife Aurelia separately (well she had her fling) and more, Pietro would rather Altofronto were back in power. Cue reveal. Not quite yet though.
Because Mills unleashes his jaw-dropping act of reveal. Hawkins relishes this one: he starts singing (to Pietro) ‘Two little boys’ by… yes Rolf Harris. Not content with this, two little boys, about five years younger than the two actors leap up and leapfrog over each other enacting their younger selves. It’s mesmerising and the audience understandably goes utterly silent. It’s of course utterly Marstonian – if there isn’t such a word Marston’s the one who’d have invented it first. And laughed rancorously.
All this time loyal Celso with Rhys Duncan’s stentorian Captain bide and now they facilitate. Duncan’s the one guarding Maria all this while, in neat OTC uniform. Miss Prism might have dictated the rest including Mendoza’s interrupted coronation as poppers explode and the audience are showered with confetti.
And the dance routine. Mercury – Yiannis Vogaiardis – appears in white and gold garb, sardonic as Hawkins with a light touch, he makes of his brief role an edgily beneficent facilitator.
Overall it’s dizzying and consummately like one of those dances of death that isn’t, at the end of a Middleton tragedy from some years later. But no-one’s killed. At the end Hawkins presides in hissing state on a stately chair, like something out of Francis Bacon. Happy?
There’s been much fun though. And along the way the three ladies – Jamie Mitchell’s Fleabag-look Emilia, Felix Kerrison-Adams’ elegant blonde Bianca, and particularly Will Groves’ riotous Frenchified blonde Maquerelle in an appropriate scarlet woman number. Groves’ performance in pinched nasals and pointed heels mind-set is a twirling study in Court bawd behaviour: a superb mix of fashion, lust and conniving. Groves coquettishly revels in such a vocal transformation, though occasionally the accent’s so trowelled you can’t quite catch it. But this is a magnificent comedic act, up there with Hawkins. When the two finally play off each other it’s uproarious.
There’s very fine work from Nick Jones as fawning old courtier Bilioso, replete with bald and silver-haired wig, towering and tottering by turns. Ewan Craig’s Prepasso, a fop who might be mated with a madam, manages a neat bathos. Abhi Gowda’s minion Ferrardo similarly, Johan Valiaparambil’s warm Equato, Ted Jowett’s more dignified Guerrino also double other roles.
The young pages – often twitting (Pietro for instance about a dream for a knife) – are stunningly effective: Tom Howitt, Callum Maughan, Jamie Jones, Jed Trimnell. Guards Jude McMahon and Tom Lewis complete a flawless cast.
What layers the title character is seeing how much of Malevole’s skirling one-size satire of humanity is informed by Altofronto’s local bitterness. Hawkins’ magnificently rocky horror Malevole has to draw a vocal knife between the rasping cynicism of Malevole and Altofronto’s game’s afoot approach.
The Malcontent being so chocked with Hamlet, directors can try to force Pietro into vicious Claudius mould. That doesn’t square with Pietro, particularly befriending scabrous Malevole.
Clarke’s nervously twitchy Pietro feels like a cloak too big just dropped on him; someone bowed by the guilt of usurpation – a bit Henry IV. This helps point to Pietro’s later decisions to quit the court for a secluded life. Well the hermit friar’s garb looks a little like a trial run. But at least he and Aurelia are together.
All the leads are strong, Hawkins and Groves the most uproarious and energetic. Clarke, Nagar, Howden, Jones, Barford and Vogiardis are also particularly memorable. Verse speaking is uniformly excellent. More than that it’s adapted to the flexibility of contemporary feeling but not contemporary speech. The Edward’s Boys know their iambic, and many have acted up to seven years in this company.
The palm though rightly goes to Hawkins not just for his two voices, but unflagging energy, witty uptake on even a tiny mis-footing (a nonchalant ‘oops’) or when someone misses a throw: such a look. Hawkins is born to this and bestrides this production like a tatty colossus. Every production by Mills’ treasurably troupe makes you think it’s the best. Perhaps it just goes on excelling itself. Outstanding theatre.