A Mad World My Masters – June 2013

Experience: 9/10

By Thomas Middleton, edited by Sean Foley and Phil Porter

Directed by Sean Foley

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 12th June 2013

This was absolutely fabulous. I didn’t hear all the dialogue and missed a few bits of the action, but by the end of the evening my hands were sore with clapping and we left the theatre with happy hearts. One to see again (and again).

The set descriptions alone will take some time. At the start we were in the Flamingo club; the word was spelled out in pink light bulbs on the sign towards the back of the stage. There were three café tables with red cloths and wooden chairs, and centre back there was a microphone. Behind all this hung a purple satin curtain. The musicians were on the right side balcony, and that level didn’t go all the way across; instead there was a stubby projection on each side with additional railings at the balcony level. The one on the right was supporting the band, so didn’t move, but the one on the left showed great versatility.

Facing us at the start, each projection had a door, and I could see another door facing across the space. As the left hand section moved around, we could see another door on the far side, and round the back of the trapezium shape was the Moka Bar; the door to the bar required some repairs during the interval as it wouldn’t open and close properly. The first door was sometimes replaced with another piece of set dressing, such as the bookcase which hid Sir Bounteous Peersucker’s safe, and it may have done other wonderful things which I was too bedazzled to spot.

For the street scenes, the left section often made its way across the stage to join its colleague on the right, creating a lovely mews effect, and there was a slot above the right hand door for assorted street signs – Bridle Lane, Swallow Street, Ham Yard etc. A lamp post rose up from underneath the stage in the front left corner from time to time, while another lamp post was more mobile, appearing in various positions towards the back of the stage adding to the effect, especially as it often had a lady of the night propped up against it and, on one occasion, a client. Dustbins were also present, especially in the first street scene, and a fire hydrant popped up now and again, a suggestive shape given the material in the play.

For Mr Littledick’s home, a desk and chair were brought on towards the front right, and they indicated another room to the rear by acting – that wonderful but sometimes overlooked skill. A 50s style curtain came across the stage to meet the rotated section, and a chair with a lampstand, which matched the curtain, became the other room. They were careful to make it all as visible as possible; I’d be interested to know what the view from the left of the auditorium is like. By the actors leaning over and listening at an invisible wall, we soon knew this was two rooms, which made life easier all round.

Sir Bounteous Peersucker had several rooms in his vast mansion. We’d learned from Sean Foley at a pre-show talk that the original name of this character, Sir Bounteous Progress, was a reference to ‘progress houses’, luxurious houses built by wealthy commoners who wanted to impress and attract the landed gentry, the nobility and even the monarch during a royal ‘progress’. Since this was the intention of the satirical jibe, Sean and his co-editor changed the surname to Peersucker, which carries the same intention but is hopefully more intelligible to a modern audience.

Anyway, the only character to need more than one set for his house was Sir Bounteous. The first we saw was a vast reception room, with a huge fireplace at the back, the bookcase on the left, a statue of David on the right (more on that story later) and several flunkies about the place to fetch and carry. A short while later, after the robbery (be patient), the bedroom was set up by screening off the back (I think) and bringing on a bed and a trunk. For the cosy little love nest, a sofa replaced the bed, and it was a different trunk in the room, along with a small table in the left corner.

For the remaining locations they used the trapdoor. Penitent Brothel had a little bedsit which came up in the middle of the stage. The ‘door’ was on the right – they used some sound effects later on, which were amusingly out of sync – with a chair in front of it. To the left was a hotplate with a frying pan gently smoking, and a two bar electric fire and a standard lamp completed the set.

Truly Kidman’s four poster bed also came up through the floor. One of the side flaps held her bedside table, while the bed itself was as big as Penitent’s whole bedsit – very appropriate as it turned out. There was a chair in Truly’s room as well, and to help us see Mr Littledick eavesdrop, a short platform dropped down at the upper balcony level showing him listening by the door. That’s pretty much it for now. The cast themselves wheeled furniture off and on at a frantic pace, covered by dancing, which is why I missed so many of the changes.

Before the start, a nice young lady who appeared to have forgotten to put on her dress and her shoes came on with a tray of drinks (we’re in the Flamingo bar at this point) and after putting it down came and chatted to various people in the audience, including us – we were sitting by the right hand walkway. Having exhausted the social possibilities of the Swan audience, she sat back down at the table and may have done her nails. We were a little distracted by the noises of a drunk or two making their way round the back of the seats towards the right stalls, where they ended up sitting in row C – you have been warned. Our experience with RSC productions left us in no doubt as to the nature of these drunken debauchees.

With the doors shut, two more waiters, both men, also came on stage carrying drinks trays and along with the waitress we met earlier, started handing them out amongst the audience. Don’t get excited – this is a play. After a few moments, the customers arrived as well, and soon the stage was crowded with people having a good time. They included the characters we would meet later on; now I know who they are and their relationships I’ll pay closer attention next time.

The singer came to the microphone to sing her song, a raunchy number whose title I don’t know. It was greeted with loud applause, after which the drunken rowdies we’d seen earlier decided to join in the fun. Clambering over the seats in front of them (and presumably over the people as well) they took the stage by storm, menacing the club’s clientele with their rowdy antics. Fists flew, and soon there was a major bar room brawl going on which led to the three young men being chased off stage.

The next thing I knew (don’t ask me how they did the changes) we were on a street (Ham Yard) with one of the young men, Oboe, being shoved in a dustbin by the bouncers. The lid was put on his head and he wore it for much of the following scene – it had been suitably adapted so it would stay there, and as it was well padded they may even have considered the actor’s comfort for once as well. The second chap, Sponger, was also the worse for wear but not as bad as their leader, young Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding). He gave a marvellous performance as a completely sozzled Hooray Henry type. He took out a cigarette and asked around the audience for a light; fortunately Sponger had his lighter handy. At one point Dick took a pair of pink ladies’ knickers out of his pocket – he’d clearly forgotten they were there – and put them on his head. This led to his comment about his uncle not recognising him, and that triggered the grand idea; to fool his uncle by pretending to be a Lord and thereby take advantage of the old man’s generosity to members of the peerage. Oboe was to be his chauffeur, Sponger his manservant.

As this was being explained to his cohorts (and us) Oboe, who was still sitting wedged into the dustbin, turned around to follow the speaker, using the tips of his toes to rotate the bin; this was very funny to watch. Later a policeman walked across the back of the stage and the three men all said “sorry” several times; Oboe got out of the bin and placed it to one side, while the other two smartened themselves up and stood to attention, even saluting.

With the plan laid, they left the stage to Penitent Brothel, played by John Hopkins, who told us of his need for a prostitute (we laughed). He was hiring her to play a nun (more laughter) whose assumed purity would allow her access to the object of Penitent’s lust, Mrs Littledick, whose husband kept her locked away from other men. When Penitent offered money to the prostitute, Truly Kidman, she refused, not because she was an honest whore as he assumed, but because she’d glanced behind her and seen the policeman strolling along at the back again, patrolling his beat. Not wanting to be caught on the job, especially when she wasn’t, she made the prudent choice and withdrew. Penitent was pleased, and we could see that his desire for Mrs Littledick was pretty strong; he had to fan his nether regions with his hat during the scene.

At the Moka Bar there was a table with three chairs outside on the street (Bridle Lane). Truly dropped her posh accent when talking with her mother (played by Ishia Bennison), and the nature of their scam soon became clear. Mrs Kidman was getting a good price for Truly’s virginity, which she’d ‘lost’ at least fifteen times according to Mrs Kidman’s account. But it was all for a good cause – making enough cash to ensure a good marriage for Truly. Mrs Kidman was looking forward to her daughter’s wedding (when she would no doubt be a virgin again, one last time).

At Mr Littledick’s house, he was in the process of hiring a private detective to keep a watch on his wife. A creaking door puzzled him, but we could see it was Mrs Littledick arriving in the other room. She listened in to their conversation, and then Truly turned up as an Irish nun. Husband and wife changed places, with Truly giving Mrs Littledick good advice on how to have an affair under her husband’s nose, but upping the volume for certain lines so that Mr Littledick, eavesdropping next door, thought she was telling his wife to behave herself and be true and faithful to her husband.

Off to Sir Bounteous Peersucker’s house next, to witness the tail end of a lavish party. With the guests all being helped off by the staff, the drunken host staggered around a bit, commenting to one audience member – “You’re a corker, aren’t you” – and generally making it clear that he enjoyed a good time. Oboe arrived, and asked if this was the house that Lord Owemuch would be arriving at shortly. To find out, Sir Bounteous went through a long list of the magnificent features for which his house was renowned; this would have been funnier in Middleton’s day, I suspect.

Convinced that Lord Owemuch was heading his way, Sir Bounteous started calling for servants and one finally arrived, very, very slowly. This was Spunky, a marvellous performance by Richard Durden and one which reminded me of the extra waiter in One Man, Two Guvnors. Spunky was very old, had a hearing aid which was constantly whistling every time he came through the door, and he moved slightly faster than a tortoise. The contrast between the name and the man caused a huge laugh, while the rest of the physical and visual humour just got funnier and funnier.

When Lord Owemuch (Dick Follywit in disguise) arrived along with his servant (Sponger), he had trouble keeping his moustache on, and was regularly stroking the right side of his mouth. Sponger was making hand signals to him as well, as there was a large label hanging down Dick’s back – clearly the outfit was a new purchase. Eventually Dick got the message and discretely backed towards Sponger who removed the offending price tag.

Meanwhile Sir Bounteous was talking about his nephew and how he wouldn’t give him anything during his, Sir Bounteous’, lifetime. To impress his lordship however, Sir Bounteous showed him where he kept his valuables. When Lord Owemuch had asked about the valuables, he spoke his lines slowly, taking a slow and deliberate step with each word or two. Sir Bounteous, ever keen to copy his betters, did the same with his reply, ending up beside the statue of David. To lift the panel which revealed the safe, he flipped the statue’s penis into an upward position, and a panel in the bookcase slid open. It was hilarious to watch. With all the information he needed, Lord Owemuch was ready to go to bed, and as he and Sir Bounteous were changed into their pyjamas by their servants, Sir Bounteous expounded his philosophy of life in the song Let The Good Times Roll – great fun.

A quick visit to the street again, to see a man in a raincoat being tossed off by Truly at the back of the stage, he with his back to the lamppost and his trousers round his ankles. From the text, this is the private detective, and she gets him to fetch Penitent Brothel to her, but I didn’t register any of that tonight.

With Sir Bounteous gone to bed, the moustaches came off, the stockings went on (over their heads) and Dick Follywit and his men began to pile all the loot they could get their hands on into a trunk. Or rather, his men did all the work while Dick himself stood on the trunk, preventing them from stashing the goods in there. Any servants who happened by were attacked, but when the robbers tried to open up the safe, the penis wouldn’t work. Dick tried lots of times, wiggling that statue’s appendage up and down so fast it was a blur, but no luck. Eventually Sir Bounteous turned up, looking for something, and they forced him to open the panel. The safe was pretty huge, judging by the stuff that came out of it: money, golf clubs and a ladder, which came in handy for taking down a picture. With the valuables safely stowed, the trio just had to tie themselves up so as to appear to be victims the next day.

Penitent Brothel visited Truly at her house in Swallow Street, and they talked outside her door. She explained her plan to get him and Mrs Littledick together, and despite being a bit slow on the uptake, Penitent was soon looking forward to the assignation. When he left, Truly sang Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do, assisted by the singer above. She was flirting with the audience, and nearly kissed one gentleman, but didn’t go through with it.

Sir Bounteous hopped into Lord Owemuch’s bedroom the next morning to apologise for the burglary the night before. Sir Bounteous was still tied up and in his underwear, while Owemuch and his servants were just pretending to be bound. They had to hide various items they’d stolen, so Sir Bounteous frequently turned round to find Owemuch or his men in completely different positions – very funny. He promised to give Lord Owemuch some money to compensate him for the loss of a valuable jewel, and after he left, the three young scallywags did a little dance to celebrate.

Mr Littledick was laying plans of his own, setting a trap to test his wife. He had invited two young men, Master Whopping-Prospect and Master Muchly-Minted, to spend time with him and his wife, hoping to catch her in some indiscretion, but she sent word that she was sick and couldn’t join the company. When the men left, the detective told her husband that she was actually fine, but didn’t want to be in the company of anyone but him, since her only companion, Miss Kidman (the nun), was ill. Mr Littledick was so taken with this display of wifely faithfulness that he happily insisted she go and visit her friend. After she left, he sang a song; according to the text it was Please Love Me.

Truly’s sick bed came up through the floor for the next scene, the last before the interval. Penitent was a reluctant doctor to begin with, worried that he’d be recognised by Sir Bounteous, Truly’s first visitor, but he soon got into his stride and was stuffing wads of cash into the pockets of his white coat while spouting all sorts of gibberish as the ingredients of the medicine he was preparing to treat Truly’s condition. Truly threw herself from side to side on the bed, coughed and spluttered as required, and occasionally spoke with a very weak voice to back him up. One of the puns, a play on the word “patient”, was funny enough, but they added “Thomas Middleton, 1605” afterwards which got an even bigger laugh.

The two young men (Whopping-Prospect and Muchly-Minted) were more of a problem, as they were determined to stay with Truly while she rested. Cue the chamber pot and an enormous fart, and they soon left her alone with her physician. This left the way clear for Mrs Littledick to enter the room, and soon she and Penitent Brothel were going at it hammer and tongs on the bed, while Truly sat on a chair and kept up her side of the conversation for the ears of Mr Littledick, above. The curtains were drawn on the four-poster, so we didn’t actually see the two lovers, but there was plenty of noise to keep us informed of progress. When the curtains did finally open, they were sitting back on the bed, each smoking a cigarette, and Penitent had his tie round his head.

It was a very funny scene, and the aftermath was entertaining too. Mrs Littledick had to stuff her red knickers quickly into her handbag when her husband turned up, and the first half ended with Penitent standing with his left leg up on a chair and beating his chest like Tarzan while the singer did a final “oh yeah”.

The interval was perhaps a little longer than usual, as the workmen had to fix the Moka Bar door before the restart; I didn’t keep an eye on the time, so I can’t be sure. Dick Follywit and his cronies met up here to celebrate their success at robbing his uncle, and all was going well until Dick remembered that his uncle had a mistress. Unable to get her name, he decided on a plan to blacken her reputation with his uncle while getting more money for himself. He disappeared into the bar and soon returned, wearing a black dress and high heels. With a wig, scarf, sunglasses and two iced buns strategically located in his blouse, he looked remarkably attractive; Oboe was definitely smitten.

Dick left to carry out his plan, and the next location was Penitent Brothel’s bedsit, where Penitent was regretting his descent into adultery. After lashing himself with his tea towel and burning himself by pressing his hand into the frying pan, he sang a gospel style number, Yield Not To Temptation – too little, too late. The frying pan began to produce lots of smoke, and while Penitent fought the fire, a succubus in a red dress, looking suspiciously like Mrs Littledick, leapt from some place of concealment and draped herself provocatively in the armchair. (We decided she had probably come up through the cabinet under the hotplate – will pay more attention next time.)

Penitent had a hard time avoiding the succubus’ seductions, even holding the two-bar electric fire up on the line “I do conjure thee by that hellish fire”. He stopped her from completing a rhyme with the word “fuck”, and later he took the fire extinguisher to her, causing her to disappear, but not before she’d called him a “cunt tease”. A character in a brown coat (according to the text, he was a caretaker) arrived, asking what all the noise was about, and this was where the door noises came in, with at least one of the sounds being out of sync with their movements. It was a very funny scene, and with this design it took a matter of seconds to clear the room away again.

In Sir Bounteous’ sitting room, the white sofa reminded me of the previous production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – was it the same one? Spunky ushered in the young lady (Dick Follywit in disguise) thinking she was Truly Kidman recovered from her illness. After fending off Spunky’s advances and taking his gold chain on the promise of an assignation at the Suck and Swallow Inn the next day, Follywit stole his uncle’s jewels. But before he could leave, his uncle arrived in his underwear, dog collar and lead, ready for action. After one kiss, Sir Bounteous found himself in need of his “tincture”, giving Dick time to slip away. Disheartened by the theft, Sir Bounteous was still determined to have a good time, and decided to throw a ball.

Penitent Brothel paid a visit to Mr Littledick’s house to find out whether Mrs Littledick had indeed been in his room or if a devil had taken her form to lure him from the straight and narrow path (the one he’d so willingly strayed from a few hours before). Finding it was the latter, he started beating himself again with his own belt, and Mr Littledick arrived just as Penitent was telling Mrs Littledick to be a good and faithful wife. Delighted with his friend’s attitude, Mr Littledick had no hesitation in inviting him along when the call came about the masked ball being thrown by Sir Bounteous, and we all heard the “Jacobean costume” part at the end – very appropriate. When the men left, Mrs Littledick treated us to Cry Me A River, sad that her one chance of happiness was gone.

Back at the Moka Bar, Follywit was trying to chat up Truly, but she was playing hard to get like she meant it, even leaving the stage. Her mother, spotting another rich gullible young man, soon had Follywit believing the story of her daughter’s extreme modesty and virginity. She brought her daughter back on stage, and as Truly perched provocatively on the fire hydrant, she made faces at her mother as they went through the routine, mother persuading, daughter reluctant but finally giving in to Dick’s proposal of marriage. With the deal done and the priest sent for, Follywit had the idea to use his uncle’s masked ball as their wedding feast, hoping that the news of his marriage would be too much for the old man and he, Follywit, would come into his inheritance sooner rather than later. His jubilation came out in the song You Upset Me Baby, and then we were off to the ball.

The final scene was back in Sir Bounteous’ hall. The other characters turned up as guests, with Penitent Brothel dressed as a puritan and Mr Littledick having a huge codpiece. However Dick and his two chums were up to their old tricks again. Wearing loose white shirts, black tights and face masks, they pretended to be an acting company, sent by Lord Owemuch for the evening’s entertainment. Intending to grab some more booty and leg it, Dick found himself having to give the prologue to a non-existent play, The Slip, before he and his accomplices were faced with the arrival of the policeman. Improvisation was clearly their speciality as they used the context of the play to tie up the policeman, who was being cruelly ridiculed by the guests, and make off with the loot. When the truth was discovered, Sir Bounteous was mortified, though the guests seemed to be having a good time.

It only remained for Dick Follywit to turn up in his own person along with his two companions. Unfortunately, he kept his uncle’s watch in his pocket, and when it began to chime his subterfuge was revealed. He tried to regain his dignity by telling his uncle of his marriage to Truly, but that backfired as well; Sir Bounteous thought it the funniest thing he had ever heard, his nephew marrying his mistress in the belief she was virgin! With balloons falling onto the stage, the play ended with the song Who Will The Next Fool Be?, and as they took their bows, they gave us a reprise of Let The Good Times Roll. It was a great way to end the performance, and we left feeling uplifted by the energy of the evening.

The director’s talk with Sean Foley was before the performance. This is his debut with the RSC and his first encounter with A Mad World My Masters. He talked us through the studio process which the RSC is using to select plays to put on. He liked this play very much – it’s irreverent, filthy and a witty comedy – so he pitched it to Michael Boyd who turned it down. He offered Sean a different play, which Sean turned down, and finally Michael came back with Mad World.

The play’s themes are sex and money; getting money with sex and getting sex with money. There are lots of scams going on (very true). They chose the 1950s setting to help the audience relate to the characters and the social situation, and updated the language a bit, with the justification that there’s no point doing a comedy if the audience can’t get the joke. He gave the example of Sir Bounteous Progress becoming Sir Bounteous Peersucker, which I’ve mentioned above. A lot of the script was ready beforehand, though bits changed during rehearsals, and overall Sean thought about 5% of the lines had been altered. They did cut out a lot of fart jokes though – too repetitive.

They used a lot of songs from the 1950s by singers like Dinah Washington – murmurs of recognition amongst the older generation – with the characters taking on some of the songs to reflect their own situations. The show is very physical, and uses a lot of visual comedy. A lot of the humour in those days was based on Commedia Dell’Arte and employed the same themes, such as adultery.

He didn’t want to give too much away for those of us who hadn’t see the production yet, but there are lots of locations with the actors doing most of the set changes themselves (and dancing while they do it). There are lots of characters too, and a number of interwoven plots. Apparently not a line was changed during the scene between Penitent Brothel and the succubus, and none of the characters were changed as there was no need. Some of the topical stuff was dropped, as there was no way to reproduce it for a modern audience.

The usual question about his views on the Swan produced the usual response: it’s a fantastic theatre which allows for a great connection between the actors and the audience. The RSC have been very helpful in the development of the production, and they had Marcello Magni for a few days to help the cast ‘think through their bodies’ to express their characters’ passion. None of the studio actors were available for this run, e.g. Lloyd Hutchison was in the studio version but was busy with Boris Godunov and The Orphan Of Zhao. It was a very informative, relaxed and entertaining talk, and set us up perfectly for the performance.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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