Review of Wit and Science by Dr Sasmita Sinha

Watching a performance by Edward’s Boys is always a wonderfully multi-layered experience. The productions are simultaneously historical and contemporary; thematically-sagacious dramas startlingly delivered by fresh-faced schoolboys; amateur performances that dazzle with their thespian virtuosity. So, where to begin? Generally, beginning at the beginning is a useful point of entry into any discussion, but it gains a particular relevance when discussing the recent production of John Redford’s Wit and Science by the company.

The performance kicked off with the marvellously-talented Jack Hawkins in his final performance with Edward’s Boys, professorial clothes and manner suitably worn, notes in hand, walking to the front of the auditorium, to lecture the audience. Hawkins’ professor consulted his notes often while surprisingly droning out facts about the very play the audience had assembled to watch: informing the assembled that Redford’s manuscript is MS no.15233 at the British Library; that the play is a rare example of a ‘school play’ from pre-Elizabethan times… written to be performed by the choirboys of St. Paul’s under Redford’s care… that it was evidently successful as it was followed later in the century by two imitative offshoots… and that the surviving manuscript is missing the beginning… though no one can be certain how many leaves have been lost to the ravages of time…

While he spoke, there were a few yawns and the odd jeer, sounds of dragging feet from within the ranks of the audience prompting others to turn around to glare or shush the inconsiderate ones. Quite suddenly, though, the staid, quiescent atmosphere of the hall erupted into movement: a disgusted cast member – till now sitting in the audience – walked out of the lecture; a paper plane was thrown, and then another, followed by a sponge tennis ball. The professor yawned uncontrollably, the real audience began to laugh, the professor slid rather astonishingly to the floor, he slept. A group of school children in uniform ran over to his table, swirls and eddies of delighted movement centre-stage indicated clearly that fun- at-the-expense-of-the-unaware-educator was to begin in time-honoured fashion, when a new authority figure, looking strict and purposeful, appeared as ‘Reason’ (Abhimanyu Gowda) to deliver ‘Instruction’ (Nilay Sah) to ‘Wit’ (a boyishly insouciant Felix Kerrison-Adams). As the audience took in this change and prose gave way to verse, imperceptibly and utterly seamlessly, the extant part of Redford’s original play slid into gear. The director, Perry Mills, assisted by Medieval scholar Elisabeth Dutton, having thus replaced the missing pages, put their authorial quill down.

Edward’s Boys specialise in bringing to the stage English plays written for boys’ companies in the early modern period. As such, many of their previous offerings have had to interpret complex adult motifs around gender, politics, corruption and morality, for which the boys’ companies, rather controversially, became vaunted vehicles during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. Wit and Science, originating from just before this period – dated between 1531 and 1547 – is, by contrast, a far more innocent play. Structured as an allegorical Morality Play, the plot of the drama revolves around the journey of a young man, Wit, through moral trials and tribulations, brought on by the weaknesses of human nature, to ultimate salvation. He is guided on his journey by the personified virtues of Reason, Instruction, Diligence (Yiannis Vogiaridis), Study (John Cherry) and Honest Recreation (Ritvick Nagar), assisted variously on different occasions by Confidence (Ritvick Nagar), Comfort (Johan Valiaparambil),Quickness (Yiannis Vogiaridis) and Strength (Nilay Sah). Wit, however, must first overcome the ranting giant Tediousness (Jack Hawkins) and the alluring harlot Idleness (Will Groves), who manage successfully for a while to divert our hero from the path of virtue. All is resolved happily in the end, when, with Shame (Jack Hawkins) whipping him and the Mirror of Reason showing him his degraded reflection, Wit ultimately listens to Instruction, slays Tediousness and completes his journey of salvation by marrying the fair Lady Science (Tom Howitt), the daughter of Reason and Experience (Johan Valiaparambil). 

What makes the play different from most others of its genre, and brings it in direct line with one of our contemporary debates, is that Wit’s journey is a secular – rather than religious – journey of education. The question at the heart of the play examines the nature of successful education, the perils that may lie in its way as well as the factors that make for its success. The current production, as a result, became an interesting conversation between a twenty-first century educator and his sixteenth-century professional ancestor. 

The humorously-reimagined beginning to the performance foregrounds elements in the play that suggest that Redford took a more sceptical view of the teacher’s role in education than is immediately obvious. Most discernible in his portrayal of Idleness as both a teacher and a ‘harlot’ (carried off with astonishing ease by Will Groves). This scepticism is underlined in this production by Hawkins’ sleeping professor waking up unexpectedly to roar and stomp as the giant Tediousness, hindering, rather than helping, the learner Wit in his journey to win Science. In the programme the director also asserts that the script may be read as containing ‘pen-portraits of different teachers’. This is, in Hans Kellner’s phrase, a delightfully ‘crooked reading’ which upturns traditional expectations of a Morality Play. Instead of unambiguous exhortations to obey the virtuous characters, the production is laying bare a more nuanced Humanist understanding of the roles of both teachers and students and subverting the power dynamics between the two groups in the process. The possible fluidity of meanings is hinted at in other contexts too, as in the final scene where Reason seems to shift to his father-of-the-bride role, shooing away Instruction, Diligence and Study perhaps as hangers-on, while Confidence remains in character, cheekily examining Experience at very close quarters. This is a salutary reminder of the fecund and sophisticated nature of the intellectual ferment of the early modern period.   

As is their hallmark, the boys made the early modern speeches eminently accessible through remarkable diction, projection and inflection. The pleasure of hearing these children make lucid such words and emotions as are ordinarily considered abstruse never diminishes. The consummate nature of their acting and stage-presence is made even more striking by the minimal props and settings that the company normally works with. For Wit and Science, the only prop on stage was a table. It served variously as the professor’s lecturn, the giant’s home Mount Parnassus, Idleness’s seat while she had her wicked way in the temporary degradation of Wit, as well as a rock for Confidence to stumble against and go falling over in a most fluid, cartoonish manner reminiscent of Disney or Pixar animations. This last was of a piece with the exuberant energy of movement and gesture from all the players throughout that melted the neutral space of the stage and recast it into the allegorical world of the text. 

Though pulsating just underneath, the serious message of the play, was nevertheless competently overlaid by a constant sense of innocent joy, implicit in the idea of a ‘school play’. The barbershop quartet singing to a desolate Science made up of Fame (Abhimanyu Gowda), Favour (John Cherry), Riches (Nilay Sah) and Worship (Yiannis Vogiaridis), dressed as Italian waiters with glasses and trays in hand, only to be abruptly spurned by her, or the hilarious lesson given by Idleness to a suggestively-named Ignorance (Jyan Dutton), said something meaningful while avoiding a dour didacticism equally possible in a play of this kind. This difference between appearance and reality, for example, in Idleness’s dressing Wit and Ignorance in each other’s coats, was another weighty theme of the play, though rendered with a deft comic touch by the players on stage. The ‘costumes’ casually thrown over the school uniforms worn by most players suggested yet again that this was a ‘students’ eye’ view of school and that the traits of various authority figures – whether the pomposity of Reason or the misguided enthusiasm of Diligence – are always readily apparent to the students.

The atmosphere, whether of playful joy or of menace on Mount Parnassus, was further built up with the aid of music. Redford himself, better known as a musician than a playwright, included four songs in the script, though the scores have been lost. Doubtless, this was to entertain as well as to showcase the creativity, discipline and sense of moral purpose engendered by his music-centred training of the choirboys – an education-through-art approach admirably exemplified by Edward’s Boys too. This company’s own accomplished musicians, Felix Kerrison-Adams, Johan Valiaparambil, Nilay Sah on fiddle, Abhi Gowda on guitar, as well as Will Groves, Jyan Dutton, and Tom Howitt with mixed percussion, ensured most wonderfully that the show did indeed go on unfettered by any missing information.

As the final song faded, and the company accepted their well-earnt ovation, the audience missed two experienced educators, separated by a distance of several hundred years, gleefully winking at each other in deeply shared sympathy…

Dr Sasmita Sinha