Review: The Malcontent by Amaryllis Barton

The Malcontent has been sitting on my shelf next to The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Duchess of Malfi for several long years. As for many former English undergraduates, it’s a play all too briefly studied, or studied in tandem with other plays. Rarely is it studied alone, and more than most is theatre unequivocally important to understanding its true power.

Marston has been dismissed as ‘flawed’ and several notable critics have sniffed that The Malcontent’s structure is ‘defective’. For Edward’s Boys, the gauntlet was thrown down – though in his programme, Perry Mills makes no denial of the labyrinthine structure of the play. While the first half sets out the play’s premise, that the Duke Altofronto has been wrongfully deposed and presumed dead, taking on the disguise of a malcontent to regain his crown, the second half is decidedly more complicated. Through a series of theatrical twists and turns, it courts deaths, and takes some very near it, to put Altofronto back on the throne.

But the play is not content with such a simple reading: for all Altofronto/Malevole’s vituperous criticisms of the society which banished him, it is clear that he epitomises all it represents – and this is the paradox which sits at the dark heart of the play. This production is so stunningly successful because it exposes the contradictions and hypocrisies which lead to this circle which can’t be squared.

As with nearly all boys’ company plays, a key contradiction is present when pre-pubescent boys discuss worlds of biting satire which they cannot possibly have experienced. Perry Mills brings this into sharp focus in this production. A daring soundtrack brought Rolf Harris into a scene with two twelve year-old boys leaping and skipping to ‘Two little boys’. The scene provokes deep-seated unease – not least because its significance is missed by many in the audience, allowing it to partially obscure its true nature. Later, however, there’s no hiding the sordid underbelly of the play. When Hawkins as Malevole horrifically reaches below his throne to examine his own shit, we’re left with no doubt that this play is plumbing deeper depths than simply court satire: it is a damning indictment of humanity as a whole.

And it’s at this point that the snake imagery, woven into the fabric of the play, becomes so significant. From David Troughton’s production poster, the audience is strikingly sensitised to this visual motif and it is underscored by Jack Hawkins’ disturbing tongue flicks. Though clearly aesthetically important, the snake imagery serves a far more significant role: it points up the contradictions in the play. If Malevole is to be the snake in the grass, then it’s a very twisted version of Eden the play is set in – one with no redeeming features. What’s so intriguing in the play is that the malcontent himself doesn’t react against the corruption he sees; he manipulates it, twists it and ultimately becomes a lightning rod for it. He absorbs it, as a snake imbibing venom.

In Hawkins’ final majestic scene, in a kind of ‘hissing fit’ he rises out of his seat and throws down the drum sticks. The implication is that the ‘act’ is over.

Crucially, though, in this final moment, the scene makes us aware that what we’ve seen is Malevole’s play: the features of tragi-comedy have been his artifices and deceptions. It’s the workings of theatre and acting which put him back in power at the end: nothing ‘real’ has happened. Where other malcontents ‘act’ in the literal sense of the word, scheming, plotting and ultimately murdering, Malevole is simply an actor, and wins because he’s a better one than his rival Mendoza, memorably played by Ritvick Nagar. Sometimes Malevole’s more than that, though: he’s a director. Indeed, Malevole shapes and reshapes what we see, most strikingly turning the superb Will Groves as Maquerelle from outrageous courtesan into allegorical lust, and Nick Jones as Bilioso into corruption itself, transforming this renaissance satire into a medieval personification allegory.

So Malevole positions himself as the hero of the play, and in doing so ‘tests’ how much we have absorbed his viewpoint. Many audiences will unthinkingly side with him as he uses his malcontent’s insight to unveil corruption. The power of this production, as characters return from the dead seemingly at the drop of a hat, is to question how preposterously comic twists of fate can have such a nefarious purpose. It pushes the boundaries of what we can take seriously in a play which ironically seems to be asking so many gravely serious questions.

But a consideration of the nature of theatre lies at the heart of any Edward’s Boys production. Recently, Perry asked me to change the company’s Twitter cover photo to a box of fake blood and a ‘bloody’ t-shirt – despite my protests to the contrary. He claims that this is what the company is all about. But sometimes it’s all plays are about too. The Malcontent gains its power from using the simple props of theatre itself, from allowing audiences a backstage look at a character powerfully acting his way to the throne, but then from cruelly closing the curtains on them at the end as the real ‘production’ begins. By the end, The Malcontent is pointing to a darker abyss of performance beyond. In this respect, it’s a mise-en-abîme in the true sense.


Amaryllis Barton

King Edward VI School