Review: A Mad World My Masters

A Mad World My Masters

Thomas Middleton is a theatrically democratic dramatist, as all writers for Renaissance boys’ companies had to be: the Children of Paul’s in 1606 was not the place for epic roles of 600-plus lines, taxing the vocal stamina of youthful performers. Middleton would be delighted to find himself so well served by Edward’s Boys’ production of A Mad World My Masters, for every performance is a gem. Harry Lesser’s Rafe, for example, is as much of a comic highlight as are the plot’s protagonists; his sequence of servant-cameos, epitomised by Marigold gloves, silver-cleaning, shoe polish and a long-suffering intelligence, deftly shows us life below stairs in Sir Bounteous Progress’ country house.

City comedy is a satiric genre which excoriates the sexual and financial immorality of Jacobean London. Mad World is a benignly affectionate example of the genre; indeed, much of the action takes place in the country rather than in London. The complex plot follows the three tricks played by Dick Follywit on his grandfather, Sir Bounteous – tricks designed to gain his delayed inheritance and thus finance his riotous life. Tripling the tricks serves not to expose Follywit’s greed but to foreground his ingenuity; and his ingenuity is explicitly theatrical as he adopts disguises, changes roles and improvises plots with self-consciously theatrical vocabulary. A Mad World celebrates the inventiveness of theatre rather than chastising the behaviour of its audiences. Jack Fielding’s Follywit embraces the challenge from the opening scene onwards, with command of quick-fire dialogue, changes of costume and some desperate on-the-spot thinking in Act 5.

Sir Bounteous, like his grandson, is a prodigal overspender, but his open-house generosity is less irresponsible than simply outmoded. In Oliver Hayes’ delightfully flamboyant portrayal, with equally flamboyant salmon pink trousers, expansive body language and lip-smacking ecstasy at the prospect of a aristocratic visitor, he invites affection not derision. When robbers (in reality, Follywit and friends in disguise) bind him, he invites them back to dinner and initiates a hilarious discussion as to whether they hail from Lincolnshire or Bedfordshire.

The parallel subplot of immorality/reformation concerns Penitent Brothel’s attempt to seduce the wife of the neurotically jealous Master Harebrain (played by Tom Adams in a domestic cardigan and severely-parted hair with his eyes in a constantly suspicious swivel). This plot is equally meta-theatrical: Penitent’s ally and go-between, a Courtesan whom Harebrain trusts as a pious friend of his wife, uses technical theatre terms and offers props as she ‘directs’ Mistress Harebrain in deception (just as the Courtesan’s Mother uses theatrical vocabulary to advise the Courtesan). Tom Sharp’s Courtesan relishes his/her multiple roles and provides a comic tour de force in the central scene of sexual deception when Penitent Brothel and Mistress Harebrain consummate their affair in the Courtesan’s lodgings. This they do (according to Middleton’s text) offstage while the Courtesan holds a conversation with the absent Mistress Harebrain centre stage and Master Harebrain eavesdrops stage right. Tom Sharp brilliantly incorporates the lovers’ sexual utterances into his/her monologue-masquerading-as-dialogue, ingeniously turning ecstasy into vocabulary.

In staging this scene, Perry Mills goes one better than Middleton in theatrical inventiveness. He places Mistress Harebrain and Penitent Brothel on stage, visible to the audience. They are visible as actors, however, rather than as Middleton’s characters: sitting motionless on plastic rehearsal-room chairs, staring rigidly offstage, they act only verbally, punctuating the scene with noises of passion and a climactic cri de joie.

The upright chair, in all shapes and forms, is a prop employed by Perry Mills throughout to great effect. Plastic, wood, slatted, wicker, it could be overturned to suggest a riot; upended (singly) to suggest a moneybox safe or (upended in sequence) a curtained bed under/in which the bound Follywit lay; arranged in a square to suggest a waiting room for the aimless conversations of characters coming and going in Act 4, or set in rows to seat the theatre audience for the play-within-the play in Act 5. Above all, the chairs indicate a wall without blocking the audience’s view; thus we could see Harebrain as he overheard the auditory deception of the adultery scene. Overjoyed in one eavesdropping scene at the evident fidelity of his wife, Tom Adams gymnastically used the wall/chair as a seesaw to approach the audience, overturning the theatrical illusion and reminding us that sometimes… a chair is just a chair.

Mills’s use of chairs as see-through walls foregrounds Middleton’s alertness to voyeurism in this play. Indeed, Mills adds another example when the two “elder brothers” (Alex Lucas and James Locker), delicious caricatures throughout, pretend to read waiting-room magazines as they eye up the room’s occupants. The flexibility of Mills’s chairs also highlight the only sedentary – and central – prop which Middleton’s text indicates: the commode to which the Courtesan rushes urgently (as the Oxford text tells us) to ‘feign farting and excretion’ to get rid of visitors and clear her room for the adulterers’ tryst.

The comic stage action is only one half of the production’s exquisite attention to detail. The cast deserves equal praise for their textual care, with every line, phrase and word spoken with consummate clarity and understanding. Among such uniform excellence it is invidious to single out specific performances but space must be given to the Welsh accent which Tom Adams gives his Harebrain, enabling him to savour the character’s multi-syllabic vocabulary and repetitions. The thoughtful line delivery of Jamie Huyton’s Penitent Brothel highlights his uncertainty about his role as seducer; he is as conflicted as his character’s name suggests.

1970s music accompanies the production throughout from the punk tastes of Follywit’s riotous music to the surreal appearance of a succubus of Mistress Harebrain (Alex Mills) before the tormented Penitent Brothel: Mills does indeed (as the text suggests) sing and dance lasciviously – but also malevolently, aggressively. Dancing replaces the final curtain call with the actors still in character, and even Rafe, initially reluctant to come off duty, finally, joyously, succumbs to the merriment. Along with the rest of us. For this production is a total triumph for all concerned and is, without doubt, one of my best nights out in the theatre.


Professor Laurie Maguire
Magdalen College, Oxford