Edward’s Boys have quickly established themselves as one of the hottest tickets around. The ensemble is the brainchild of Perry Mills, Deputy Head at King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is the school Shakespeare himself probably attended. Since 2005 Mills has been directing students from the school in rarely-seen plays originally written for the Early Modern boys’ companies. Their work has generated considerable interest in the academic community for the unique insights it offers into this material and its performance conditions, and for the extremely high quality of the productions themselves. Edward’s Boys have performed not only in Stratford but at the universities of Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge, London and Montpellier, and at the RSC Swan Theatre and at the Globe’s Bear Gardens and Inigo Jones Theatres. In March 2011 they played Middle Temple Hall in London.
The impetus for this work grew initially out of the school’s involvement with Michael Wood’s BBC series In Search of Shakespeare and subsequent workshops on the Elizabethan boy Player developed with Carol Chillington Rutter. Mills then turned his attention from apprentices within adult companies to the boys’ companies themselves. A term’s sabbatical as Fellow in Creativity at the University of Warwick CAPITAL Centre facilitated continuing experimentation. Between 2008 and 2010 the ensemble presented extracts from Lyly’s Endymion and Mother Bombie with casts of younger boys (aged 11-12) and full productions of the early-seventeenth-century city comedies The Dutch Courtesan, A Mad World MyMasters and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, which used large casts drawn from across the school. In 2011 the company turned to tragedy for the first time, with Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge.
Pressed to define the company’s guiding philosophy, Mills suggests: ‘always something different’. This perpetual pushing at boundaries applies to every aspect of their work, not merely playwright and genre. Productions have varied in presentation style from the Early Modern costuming of Mother Bombie to Mad World’s 1976 punk rock and the twenty-first-century emo culture of Endymion, while staging has ranged from end-on to thrust to traverse.
Mills’ rehearsal approach is pragmatic, directing via anecdotes rather than Stanislavskian motivation, focussing heavily on the language, exploring in depth what the words might mean in performance – and emphasising the importance of experimentation and play. The boys have become adept at handling meta-theatre, experts in channelling comic energy, undaunted by dated jokes or complex language. Mills is more likely to emphasise than cut the bawdy (happy for the production to be ‘very funny and very filthy’) and rarely modernises dialogue. K.E.S. continues to teach Latin and has a strong musical tradition, enabling the boys to do justice to the challenges in these areas.
The actors display a high degree of initiative and ownership of their work. They have considerable input into set and costume choices and in re-blocking productions when away from their home base. Mills casts according to a range of criteria, more on the capacity to be part of a company than on sheer talent alone. For many Edward’s Boys may represent their first experience of being in a play of any kind. However, there are significant levels of repeat involvement and the opportunity to watch the boys develop their skills across productions is illuminating. Those who have performed in previous productions are active in passing insights and technical skills on to the newcomers, so expertise and confidence have snowballed. Post-show ‘talkbacks’ are an integral part of most performances and the boys are articulate and enthusiastic in sharing their experiences. Their development is particularly striking given the contribution made by interaction with an audience and the limited times each play is presented (a maximum of five performances– actors at the RSC or NT would still be in preview).
The issue of gender and cross-dressing has inevitably attracted most academic attention, though the boys themselves repeatedly claim that playing women is no different from any other type of acting. Those who have performed in multiple productions do not specialise. There is a clear distinction between the productions using pre-teens[iii] only, in which uninformed audience members frequently fail to realise the ‘girls’ are boys, and the full-school productions in which Mills has constantly experimented with casting, even very non-androgynous senior boys in the female roles, making no attempt to hide the actors’ gender. Both approaches have served the plays equally well.
Clare Smout – Magdalen College, Oxford