Review: Summer’s Last Will and Testament

On 30th September 2017, forty-two boys from the King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon filled the Great Hall at the Old Palace School in Croydon with colour, music and laughter. Directed by their English teacher, Perry Mills, they revived Thomas Nashe’s sole-authored play-cum-pageant in the same venue for which it was originally written and where it was first performed to entertain John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, in autumn 1592. 

This extraordinary all-boy company, who have been staging plays from the repertory of early modern boys’ companies to great critical and popular acclaim since 2005, had already performed Nashe’s play at their school in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26th and 27th September and at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, at Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside, on 29th September. But their final performance in Croydon proved especially moving, insightful and funny because it revived not only Nashe’s versatile prose and verse but also features of the play that were conceived with the place and time of the original production in mind. 

The layout of the venue, with the audience sitting in facing rows of chairs along the entire length of the hall, brought out the more feisty and muscular courtroom-drama qualities of Nashe’s play: positioned near the main entrance into the Hall and flanked by Autumn, Winter and his trusty assistant Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasonal change, Summer summoned various allegorical characters to pass judgement on their service. Ver, Solstitium, Sol and Orion, among others, filled the middle of the Hall with their followers, entering from the opposite end of the Hall, where the musicians were stationed. The “defendants” tried to win the audience over to their side of the argument and often succeeded, therefore upending the overtly didactic function of the medieval morality play, which Nashe simultaneously celebrates and pokes fun at. 

Nashe’s witty humour was also enhanced by the specific location of the play’s original venue. When Ver’s followers perform a Morris dance with a hobby horse, Will Summer, Nashe’s Chorus, mocks them by describing them as ‘the finest set of Morris-dauncers that is betweene this and Stretham’ (B3v; Streatham is in South London, and therefore not far from Croydon!). Then Nashe adds another fine touch of local colour to Will Summer’s lines, by having him warn the actor with the hobby-horse to ‘goe not too fast, for feare of wearing out my Lords tyle-stones with your hob-nayles’ (B4). The Great Hall has survived unscathed in all its magnificence since the fifteenth century, and yet one can imagine the apprehension of the presiding Lord, John Whitgift, as a company of boy actors bounded about the Hall, boisterously showing off their best rustic dancing routines.

This production brought to the fore other aspects of Nashe’s play, which might go unnoticed on the page. The costumes highlighted intriguing and potentially subversive affinities between Summer, who, although fading fast, is still the highest figure of authority in the play, and characters who refuse to acknowledge his desperate attempt to hold on to power. Sol sported a luscious, bright red wig which made Summer’s own red wig, visibly thinner and unkempt, suggest a disparity of strength rather than a legitimate entitlement to lead; Sol’s impertinence, who claims to be as mighty as Summer (D1v), therefore resounded all the more threatening because the two characters were visually linked by their costumes. 

The music similarly ensured a deeper appreciation of the play as an ambitious and experimental form of musical theatre and of the intrinsic aural qualities of Nashe’s own style. Sam Bridges and Joe Woodman, who composed eleven songs, along with arrangements and all incidental music, specifically for this production, chose to use the rhythm of the text of the songs as their starting point and main source of inspiration. Their music in turn emphasized the extent to which Nashe’s verse and prose lend themselves to being performed, in line with one of the aims and objectives of the Thomas Nashe Project, whose general editors partnered up with Edward’s Boys to revive the play.

Much to the credit of Perry Mills and the talent of his company of boy actors, this production also showed that Nashe’s distinctive blend of styles and registers can produce exciting theatre. On the page, a play peppered with plenty of Latin and recurrent allusions to classical mythology and structured around long speeches by allegorical characters, can indeed come across as ‘dry sport’ (D1). However, the boys successfully tapped on the humour and the meta-theatrical features that lend lightness, pace and playfulness to the play as a whole. 

The ghost of Will Summer, played with great panache and a delightful Northern accent by Dan Power, regularly punctures even the most heartfelt invectives with witty asides to the audience, including Ver’s opening gambit about the need to consume the world to nothing, since everything in it is transitory. Will Summer is unimpressed: ‘I promise you truely, I was almost asleep; I thought I had been at a sermon’ (C1v). Power often added an impeccably timed, non-verbal commentary on well-meaning earnestness as much as on outright pomposity, most memorably when he scoffed, as Winter announced that he would end the longest speech in the play by summing it up ‘in briefe’ (G3). Power’s Will Summer also took great care to ensure that the audience would grasp all the different roles he plays, both within the fictive world of Nashe’s pageant about seasonal change, death and rebirth, and dearth and plenty, as he interacts with characters like Bacchus, and as Chorus, Prologue and the speaking part that he delivers in ‘the person of the Idiot, our Play-maker’ in the framing device. Power’s confidently switched roles, thus showing how Will Summer effectively defies any straightforward distinction between theatrical fiction and the ‘real’ circumstances of the theatrical event.

Overall, this hugely entertaining production confirmed that Edward’s Boys can simultaneously produce great theatre and lend fresh insights into the material conditions of production on the early modern stage. Especially revealing, given their growing repertory, was how the boys have grown in skills and confidence over the years and how type casting allows memories of former productions to feed into, and affect our appreciation of, specific roles. Rory Gopsill, for example, who played the old businessman, Walkadine Hoard, in A Trick to Catch the Old One earlier in 2017 was cast as Summer in this production, channelled some of the cantankerousness of the former into the haughty superiority of the latter, thus inflecting Summer with comic and profoundly human traits. In short, this production was an unconditional triumph, and one can only hope that Perry Mills and his boys will continue to entertain and enlighten us all with their unique exploration of the early modern dramatic canon.

Professor Sonia Massai, King’s College London