Review of The Malcontent by Dr José A. Pérez Díez

A play for the moment: an urgent Malcontent for 2019

The Malcontent is often praised as John Marston’s supreme accomplishment as a dramatist in what was otherwise a very short career. When he was just in his early thirties, he sold his share in the Children of the Queen’s Revels, the company that occupied the Blackfriars playhouse, and became a priest—never to write a single line for the stage. When he composed this play for that company, he was just 27, and it always strikes me that his deeply cynical, claustrophobic take on power and the corruption of rulers is an incredibly dark and pessimistic piece of work for a young man about to get married and with the best part of his life still ahead of him. This play, as Perry Mills wrote in his programme note, is ‘bitter and twisted, weird and sick’. It speaks about ambition and the abuse of power, about personal gain and disregard for good government, about cruelty and selfishness, about the violent subjugation of women to men’s unreasonable whims, about scaremongering stirred against foreigners for political gain, about the fate of nations being decided by narcissistic, incompetent rulers—in a nutshell, a strikingly urgent play in the political and social contexts of 2019. Mastering Marston’s knotty, visceral language is the key to making sense of this densely plotted work where so many individual stories intermingle. Mills and Edward’s Boys know this well, as they are the world’s pre-eminent Marstonian company, the only theatre group to have mounted three plays by the Middle Temple satirist (out of his total canon of eleven) over the last decade or so. I have watched almost every show that Edward’s Boys have produced since my years as a postgraduate student at the Shakespeare Institute, including their atmospheric take on Antonio’s Revenge in 2011. But I will never forget that evening in 2010 when I saw the most inventive, dynamic, and sophisticated production of Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside that anyone could pull off. I thought I was just in for a hopefully decent amateur show by the students of the local school, and what I got instead was by far the best show in town that season—including the rather larger theatres around the corner. Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength, implementing that really effective system of apprenticeship by which younger boys learn from their elders and finally take on the leading roles as they near the end of their time at school. It is slightly weird that academics working on English Renaissance drama have got to know by name some of the stars of Edward’s Boys, and have been following their progress year by year, but such is the power of their unforgettable performances. 

In July 2017, during the workshops that the Boys took part in at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Shakespeare’s Globe) as part of the Oxford Marston project that I work for, Martin Butler invited Perry Mills to produce a full-scale Marston production for our conference in Oxford in 2019. The scenes that they prepared for those workshops left our academic team, most of whom had not seen Edward’s Boys in action, literally speechless. We were overjoyed when Perry kindly accepted the invitation, and the rest is history. I had the immense privilege to sit in on one of the rehearsals and see their work-in-progress weeks before the opening night, and I already knew it was going to be a very solid show. But the final performance in the Hall of Trinity College, Oxford was not just solid, or even very good. It was an exceptional chance to engage with such an uncomfortable, gut-wrenching play. It is, I think, the most mature and insightful production that Edward’s Boys have ever staged. To a large extent this is due to the infinitely detailed, narratively clear, and verbally acute direction of Perry Mills, who, as my colleague and friend Dr Will Sharpe (University of Birmingham) has stated, is ‘one of the most vital and original directorial voices in British theatre’. 

But a play such as The Malcontent cannot survive without a strong cast, and, above and beyond, a leading actor who can carry the play on his shoulders. Like with the eponymous prince in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play that shares many themes and preoccupations with Marston’s masterpiece, The Malcontent is very much Malevole’s play—the disguised Duke Altofronto who infiltrates the Genoese court intending to avenge his deposition and regain his throne. When the play premiered around 1603—in the middle of the uncertainties brought about by the change of political and dynastic regime heralded by the death of Elizabeth I and the ascent to the English throne of the King of Scots, James—a boy from the Children of the Queen’s Revels would have played the role. But when Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, revived the play in the same playhouse with an adult cast, Richard Burbage, for whom Hamlet was written, took to the stage as Malevole, and you can see why the most accomplished actor of the age felt that this is a part he wanted to play. You need an actor with an enormous dramatic range to capture all of the character’s nuances: the betrayed ruler, the affronted husband, the ambitious revenger, the grotesquely funny, sharp-tongued courtier. Jack Hawkins, in his last starring role with Edward’s Boys, was all of the above and more. With his long, shaggy wig, his thick-rimmed glasses, and his white laboratory coat covered with stains and the motto ‘This is what a Malcontent looks like’, Hawkins dominated the play—physically, vocally, and psychologically. Although the upstairs gallery is only called for in the opening scene in the 1604 printed text, this Malevole haunted the production by often watching scenes that he was not in from above, adding a sinister sense that, almost as a puppet master, he was in total control of the plot and the fate of the other characters. What was overwhelmingly clear from Hawkins’s performance is that the grotesque persona of Malevole, which the banished Duke plays with such verbal relish, has come to dominate Altofronto almost to the point of taking over his entire personality. At the end of the performance, the audience could get the impression that the rightful Duke, far from being a benign statesman who comes to reinstall decency and righteousness on the Genoese throne after the corrupt reigns of Pietro and Mendoza, is just as bad as them—or maybe worse, as he happens to be fiendishly cleverer and has managed to beat the others at their own game. Hawkins’s Malevole spoke with a shrill, harsh voice, and trod on the stage with sinuous moves, almost like a snake. His recurrent props were a pair of drumsticks with which he had been playing the drums in the ear-splitting noisy opening scene, and which he had been using throughout the show to signify anything from cuckold’s horns and erections, to a useful physical pointer to manipulate the other characters. In the final image, Hawkins sat on the throne at the centre of the stage, at last the Duke of Genoa again, holding the two drumsticks crossed in front of his face and hissing through them like a snake—the image on the production’s poster—before throwing them down in front of him at the final blackout. 

From the rest of the cast I would highlight the deliciously evil, verbally dexterous performance of Ritvick Nagar as the villain Mendoza, a perfect foil to Hawkins’s Malevole in many ways. Ben Clarke’s understated Pietro showed the progression of the Duke from the despot to the repentant hermit with great coherence. Nick Jones played the bumbling old courtier Bilioso with panache and excellent comic timing, giving the role as well the required gravitas when dealing with the old man’s opportunism. Dominic Howden’s Count Celso, played with heart-warming loyalty and honesty, was the perfect support to Malevole’s scheming, even if the poor man hardly ever manages to get a word out beyond ‘My honoured lord—’. The female roles were, as always, particularly strong and interesting to watch. Will Groves’s was a gloriously Frenchified Maquerelle, accompanied by the two superbly frivolous ladies in waiting—Jamie Mitchell as Emilia and Felix Kerrison-Adams as Bianca. Tristan Barford was a peevish and sophisticated Duchess Aurelia, and Felix Crabtree played Duchess Maria as a fragile and modestly dressed woman who has almost lost all hope, and who was particularly moving in her brief reunion with her lost husband Altofronto. 

The choice of music, inspired by Tom Waits and directed with precision and great intensity by Toby Ollis-Brownstone, was the perfect soundscape for a production that grabbed the audience by the scruff of their necks to make them reflect about so many hugely current topics that Marston wrote so vividly about in his own politically unstable moment. What an absolute privilege to witness it!

Dr José A. Pérez Díez, University of Leeds