Eugenia is a frustrated woman. Even atom of her body aches to be free of her aged husband, to throw herself, with his money, into the gay life of youth that is hers by right of her birthdate. He, however, is destined to die soon, on a set date, the date that he turns four-score years of age, for that is the decree of an absolute monarch, Duke Evander of Epire. Women get only three score, and those of no further use can be bumped off even earlier, should their relatives so request.
That’s the scenario that guides A New Way to Please You, written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley in about 1618. Then, a scholarly essay in the programme indicates, there were all sorts of issues around conflict over the Common Law; indeed its original subtitle was The Old Law. Now, while that’s all history, the central clash of the play – between young and old – is still fresh, and ensures that this modern dress production seldom seems anachronistic.
The Royal Shakespeare Company production is part of Gunpowder season, marking the anniversary of that monumental plot. Yet this is a play that today is less about politics on the big stage than the personal politics within families. Eugenia – gloriously played by Miranda Colchester in the midst of a typically fine ensemble cast – made her pact with her bank balance in marrying the old man, but thinks she’s paid an adequate price.
She, at least, has done something for her money, but Simonides (Jonjo O’Neill), who begins the play by delivering his angry and bewildered old-colonel-style father Creon (Geoffrey Freshwater) to the executioner with slimy, unashamed enthusiasm, has done nothing but be born. All he aches for is the latest wardrobe, which will give him entree to the foppish young men prancing ingratiatingly around their Duke.
And the wardrobes are indeed a highlight of the show. The young dandies, who mix fake fur and neon nylon with spectacular eye make-up to unforgettable effect are one thing, but Eugenia’s husband Lysander (James Hayes), the old man done up in a sequinned bright blue and orange disco suit, who “proves” his “health” by out-dancing, out-fencing, and out drinking the young sparks, definitely takes the costume prize.
His desperation to live, and betrayal of his principles horrifies his nephew, Cleanthes (Matt Ryan), the one young man who retains his honour and goes to the length of hiding his father on the deadly date, at the potential risk of his own life. The only other person in on the secret is his wife Hippolita (Evelyn Duan). Her betrayal of the secret to Eugenia is written in the play as a typically “weak woman” act, although our age might be more prepared to recognise humanity, combined with an unfortunate streak of gullibility.
Yet this was and is billed as a tragi-comedy, and lots of the latter comes from the cheerful cockney Gnotho (Fred Ridgeway), who plans – after a sneak bit of work by the parish clerk – to bury one wife, Agatha (a spirited portrayal of a sexy old bat by Ishia Bennison) and marry the next within half an hour. The clowning by him and his mates – the dismissed staff of the dead Creon – almost, but not quite, rivals Lysander’s duelling scene for pure belly laughs.
This is, however, more than a joke-fest – there are layers within layers of the behaviour of the individuals and the state, that must still have carried a punch when the play was first printed in 1656. So it is the utterly untrustworthy Simonides, who makes the apparently patriotic statement that “if princes/Be called the peoples’ fathers, then the subjects/Are all his sons, and he that flouts the prince/Doth disobey his father …” Even today, you can see Middleton and Rowley dicing not just with the need for entertainment of the rough crowd of the Red Bull in Clerkenwell, for which this play was written, but also with the censor, and indeed, the risk of a treason charge.
And if it is a stretch to make the politics relevant to today – you could make a stab at the growth of tyranny in the recent anti-terrorism laws – the play itself doesn’t need the over-extension. For this is a funny, emotional, gripping show, beautifully produced. I might grumble that the play starts rather slowly – lawyer jokes might still have sounded early in the 17th century but sound rather tired now – and I found some of the sound effects – church record books thumping down with much magnified echoes – rather tiresome, but the sheer joyous enthusiasm of the production overwhelms all such quibbles.
The play continues at the Trafalgar Studios until December 31. Links: The RSC site, other reviews, from Stratford – the Guardian’s review and view of the play and the Telegraph ‘s overview of the Gunpowder season.
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