Review: Endymion

A Tale of the Man in the Moon: Actors from King Edward VI School at the Globe

Long neglected by the academic community, the work of John Lyly (1554–1606) has undergone a considerable resurgence in recent years. Critical interest has burgeoned with the publication of the majority of his plays in fully annotated, modern-spelling editions, while all but one of his comedies have been performed under the auspices of Globe Education, the educational branch of the Globe theatre. Contemporary productions have established beyond doubt that Lyly’s plays, which had a profound influence on the work of Shakespeare, are still capable of entertaining audiences today, but they have failed to recreate the totality of the experience originally afforded by the works in that they have been performed by adult companies, whereas the plays were designed to be acted by boys. Far from constituting an amateur and occasional branch of theatrical activity in late sixteenth-century England, boy actors represented the cream of the histrionic arts, and were regularly called upon to entertain the Queen, frequently reflecting on her situation in their plays. Given that the majority of Lyly’s court comedies turn on this interplay between player and monarch, the performance of his work was an obvious choice for the culminating event at a conference on ‘Role and Rule: History and Power on Stage’ at Globe Education in February this year.

Selections from two plays were commissioned for the project, Sappho and Phao, to be performed by a company of professional actors under the direction of James Wallace, and Endymion, acted by a troupe from King Edward VI School under the direction of Perry Mills – and though the former delighted the audience by its inventiveness and panache, it was the latter which proved by far the more remarkable event. Lyly’s plays are notorious for the length of their speeches, their deployment of a highly elaborate prose style, and the complexity of their meaning, and their enactment requires a reach of both mind and memory seemingly well beyond the capacity of a twelve year old boy. Remarkably, this production returned the audience to a world in which learning by rote was the educational norm, and a classical education was assumed. Beautifully paced, and immaculately delivered, the lines were spoken with a certainty that conveyed an absolute understanding of their meaning, and a total involvement in the intellectual arena of the work. It was not merely the assurance of the performance, however, that made this a truly notable event. Rather than seeking to inhabit their roles in the character-orientated acting style familiar to audiences today, the players recaptured the mode of the sixteenth-century boy companies, working together, from the outset, as troupe, and delivering rather than enacting their lines. The Prologue, for example, was divided between two speakers (David Fairbairn and Felix Marot), while the emphasis in lengthy speeches fell on the patterned elaboration of complex ideas rather than the communication of emotional states. The visual images engineered in the course of the production similarly contributed to the projection of the concepts explored in the course of the work (e.g. the positioning of Cynthia ‘aloft’ to denote the social distance between herself and Endymion), while the plangent timbre of the boys’ voices, combined with the relative slightness of their physique, ushered the audience into a type of theatrical experience wholly at odds with the naturalism of today, recreating a type of drama in which choristers entertained their aristocratic audiences with a highly patterned, quasi-musical exploration of ideas.

Though it might seem invidious to foreground individual performances, given the the group nature of the enterprise, and the excellence of the production as a whole, the exceptional demands made of a number of the actors call for particular note. James Wilkinson as Endymion, George Protheroe as Eumenides, Will Lindsay as Cynthia, Elliot Tawney as Tellus, and Tom Ormsby as Dipsas were all required to master speeches daunting in their complexity and length, and succeeded in delivering them in a manner that not only engaged the audience in their situations, but conveyed the aural pleasure afforded by the language of the work. Seemingly wholly unselfconscious, they surrendered themselves to the other-worldly conditions of the play world – James Wilkinson to the ‘emo’ nature of the central figure, George Protheroe to the sixteenth- century prioritization of male friendship over sexual love, Will Lindsay to an ambivalent position between monarch and celestial body, Elliot Tawney to destructive jealousy, and Tom Ormsby to the possession of supernatural powers, analysing their roles, particularly the performance of the female parts, with an impressive perceptiveness in the round table discussion that followed the play.

The support offered to the principles by Joe Toogood (Pythagoras), Gus Freeman (Gyptes), George Mitchell (Geron), Sam Murray (Corsites), Sam Young (Panelion), Joe Harris (Bagoa), and Will Halliwell (Epilogue) should also not pass unremarked. As the delivery of the closing lines demonstrated, the audience was returned, in this production, to the theatrical experience afforded by the private playhouses of late sixteenth-century England by the co-ordinated playing of a highly disciplined troupe, and the fact that one member of the audience commented that it was invidious that panel members placed so much emphasis in the round table discussion on the achievement of the boys, and passed over the contribution of the girls, clearly unaware that this was an all-male troupe, is indicative of its success in the recreation of a wholly unfamiliar theatrical mode. There is no doubt that this was an occasion when the boys of King Edward VI School lived up to their humanist heritage.


Professor Leah Scragg

University of Manchester