Edward’s Boys, under the direction of Perry Mills, might well be said to be victims of their own success. Their series of productions of early modern plays designed for performance by juvenile troupes have consistently delighted audiences with their inventiveness and panache, while affording academics and theatre practitioners a range of insights into a largely neglected body of work. The success of each production, from The Dutch Courtesan at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2008 to Summer’s Last Will and Testament at the Sam Wanamaker theatre last year, have raised ever higher expectations with the passage of time, and the pressures upon both cast and director were heightened on this occasion by the work they had elected to perform. Whereas many of their previous ventures revisited material rarely seen on the contemporary stage, the piece chosen for their current production has been performed, in recent years, on two occasions by a professional adult troupe (The Dolphin’s Back), and memories of those critically acclaimed productions, directed by James Wallace, would inevitably colour audience-response to any subsequent performance, inviting potentially adverse comparisons to be made.
To compound the difficulties faced by the director, the part of the central figure, Pandora, is by far the most challenging female role devised by any dramatist for a boy actor prior to the emergence of Shakespeare. Endowed at her creation by Nature with the gifts of the Olympian gods, she is subjected by the outraged deities to their planetary influence, becoming successively melancholy, proud, martial, poetic, lascivious, subtle, and lunatic, before embracing mutability as her chosen state. The actor is thus required to embody a whirlwind of rapidly changing moods and to retain audience sympathy while moving from an unblemished condition into sexual intrigue and deception.
Predictably, Edward’s Boys rose magnificently to the challenges with which they were faced. Rather than setting the piece in the timeless, mythical arena of previous productions, the company elected to root the action in the 1960s, allowing the popular music of the ‘Age of Aquarius’ (brilliantly performed by Olly Harvey-Ball, Toby Ollis-Brownstone, Jamie Mitchell and Pascal Vogiaridis) to evoke the simultaneous innocence and sexuality of the play-world. Visual effects, notably the psychedelic costuming of the shepherds (played by Ritvick Nagar, Felix Crabtree, Charlie Waters, and Pascal Vogiaridis) sustained the aural effect, reinforced by the representation of Sol (Tom Lewis) as a ‘pot-head’, benignly relaxed and promoting speaking in tongues. The translation of the action into a specific arena served to liberate the director from the need to look over his shoulder at previous interpretations of the play, while enabling Pandora to undergo her successive transformations in a context with an immediate resonance for many spectators.
The power dynamics of the drama, central to the meaning of the work, were realized with characteristic inventiveness by means of a table and chairs, variously assembled to denote the gods rising in succession to exert their influence over the human sphere, and readily disassembled into the setting for the banquet of Act III, with the cave in which Stesias (Pandora’s jealous husband) conceals himself represented by the space beneath the table itself. The mental state induced by each of the planets during his/her period of dominance was denoted by an equally simple and effective species of colour-coding, linking the covering of the seat positioned ‘aloft’ with a large balloon (suggestive of a planet) of a colour appropriate to the deity by which it was held, and matched by a wig of the same shade worn by Pandora, signalling, in a striking visual effect, the control exercised by the god over her mind.
In a close attention to textual detail characteristic of the company’s work, the declaration by the Prologus (Jack Hawkins) that the play is ‘but a poet’s dream’ was accompanied by a procession of strangely shrouded figures across the stage, the meaning of which was literally unfolded in the opening scene set in Nature’s workshop, and furnished with her unfinished creations, one ‘clad and some partly unclad’. The unshrouding of Pandora, deftly executed by Concord and Discord (Johan Valiaparambil and Will Groves), formed the prelude to an astonishing performance, both physical and vocal, by Joe Pocknell as the central figure, here gradually mastering the use of her limbs, registering the presence of others, and finally gaining the use of her tongue. Subsequent scenes confirmed an extraordinary ability on the part of the actor to project a variety of mental states, from the violence that she exhibits under the influence of Mars to her slurred articulation of Latin prophecies in the drug-induced condition effected by Sol.
The projection of the dream-like instability of the play world through visual effects, body language, and shifts of tone was not confined, however, to the figure of Pandora. The seven planets (Dominic Howden, Yiannis Vogiaridis, Adam Hardy, Tom Lewis, Ben Clarke, Sebastian Steven and Jamie Mitchell) all adopted a style of speech and physicality appropriate to the state of mind they induced, while the four shepherds responding with pathetic zeal to Pandora’s moods, and Gunophilus (Jack Hawkins), her servant, reeling between her instructions and those of Nature while seeking to win her love, captured the instability flowing downwards from the terrestrial to the mundane sphere. Though the still dignity of Nature (Nick Jones) at the close of the play, appeared to represent the restoration of order, the imaginative staging of the final scene, with Pandora circulating the planets as she chooses her ultimate home, served to reinforce that awareness of mutability central to Lyly’s work, denying the audience any sense of finality or closure.
From the outset Edward’s Boys’ productions have been marked by a highly imaginative use of stage spectacle, combined with a pitch-perfect delivery of the lines, and this latest venture was firmly in that tradition. If Lyly was looking down over Luna’s shoulder at this production, he must have been very pleased.
Professor Leah Scragg