Unlike previous plays performed by Edward’s Boys, Galatea is a play which is itself about boyhood. It is difficult to think of another play from this period in which the two central characters are young children. When Shakespeare reprised Galatea‘s themes, as he frequently did, he tended to stage cross-dressed encounters in which at least one partner was an adult. One of the things this production taught me is that this is a play interested in how boys learn to behave as adults.
Though he was the best-selling literary writer of Shakespeare’s time, and an early and highly influential playwright, Lyly’s work has never been professionally revived. His work offers further challenges to performers, in particular its many differences from what we might call, if we were feeling cheeky, the “average” early modern play. Unlike most other plays of the period, it is written in prose, and prose which is interested in exploring what it means to speak in prose: hence those strange scenes in which the pageboys encounter jargon-spouting masters. Unlike other plays of the period, Lyly’s work is full of women, and women often dominate the stage. It also tends to explore non-normative sexual choices, such as virginity, non-heterosexual unions or forced marriages in which the women promise to be terrible wives in revenge for the marriages they are forced into. Lyly’s plays tend, too, to be much shorter than the average early modern play. This may not seem immediately significant, but it means that his plays have a different sense of pace and timing that can unsettle performers used to working with Shakespeare, Middleton or Marston. Edward’s Boys were not unsettled.
The boys handled Lyly’s language – so often described as fussy and complicated by scholars – with ease and panache. This is the first time I have seen Lyly performed by actors who are not distracted by their characters’ tendency for wordplay. Professional actors, trained to treat everything as naturalistic, are often deeply embarrassed when their characters start to pun, and often seem to deal with this problem by pretending it isn’t happening. Edward’s Boys delighted in the language their characters delighted in, allowing the wordplay to lead them as they spoke. The gender demographic of the play was of course no problem for a boy company able to don costume signifiers for either gender (not just dresses for women but beards for men). But perhaps the greatest revelation in terms of the boys inhabiting the parts in this play was to see the way gods, played by older boys, towered over ordinary mortals, played by younger members of the cast.
The production also brought its own deeply theatrical language to the play. The company came together to represent the tree, twisting into different shapes for difference scenes. Movement, posture and tableaux were carefully used for characterisation: Diana and her nymphs, in particular, raced across the stage, suddenly froze in haughty ownership of the world around them, and raced off again for the hunt equally as fast. Costume was used to signal character identity but also to refuse the audience any sense of historical time: Galatea and Phillida in period dress, page boys in football shirts. This enabled the play to honour its Elizabethan questions in a modern context. This meant that the play dazzled with its sense of spectacle, the boys as much a part of the set as they were individual characters. Perhaps the greatest moment of stage confidence was the preparations to execute Hebe. This is a long scene, in which Hebe indulges in hysterical histrionics, and the temptation is for the actor to do the same. Instead, this production insisted on a quietly matter-of-fact sacrificial victim, thinking through her predicament, not terribly happy about it but not inclined to make a fuss. Rather than seeking to be funny themselves, the boys let the scene become funny through its sheer length. It was this brave characteristic – the willingness to take the play seriously and see where it led them – that made the boys’ performances so exhilarating.
As I have said, Lyly’s work is fascinated by unconventional sexual choices, and Galatea has been understood by scholars as a play exploring female homosexuality. Perhaps this production’s most radical decision was not to foreground this aspect of the play. Sexuality was simply not an issue, and in many ways the greatest challenge that seemed to face Galatea and Phillida was how to become an adult, rather than how to deal with the possible gender of the person they loved. This was an unusual and unexpected reading of the play, and it was unexpectedly convincing. This is an example of how much performers have to teach academics about the theatre, but it is perhaps also an example of how much boys can teach adults about plays that explore childhood.
I have taken the decision not to name individual performers in this review. This was a truly company performance and every member was needed to create the world of the play. I cannot express enough my congratulations to all members of the company for this bravely honest staging of a forgotten but exciting text.
Dr Andy Kesson
University of Roehampton