In John Webster’s Induction to the 1603 King’s Men production of The Malcontent Henry Condell makes a charming reference to adult actors as folio sized, and children’s actors as decimosexto sized. It’s an allusion to the growing competition developing between child and adult companies in early seventeenth-century England. Child companies were influential, and they performed some of the finest plays of the period, but they had a chequered history: the first set of boy players performed in the 1570s and 1580s before closing down; the second set started up around the turn of the century but were closed down by the early 1610s and although there were Caroline boy players in the late 1630s, they didn’t last long either. Lately, however, there’s been something of a revival of interest in children’s players and the plays they first performed. A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a magnificent children’s company production of a rarely performed play. As I suggested in a blog post (which you can read here) the Edward’s Boys Galatea was a triumph for both the company, and the playwright, John Lyly. On Saturday, I saw another talented group of young actors take on another Renaissance classic, John Marston’s The Malcontent (first performed by boys, but later appropriated by the King’s Men). The Globe Young Players, comprising boys and girls between 12 and 16 years old, did a sterling job and will bring the first season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to a successful close.
At the play’s core is the deposed Duke Altofronto who disguises as the malcontent Malevole. It is an enormously demanding part. In the early stages especially, Malevole frequently shifts from verse to prose and the coarse invective he spits is often conspicuously repetitive (consider, for example: ‘as gum into tafetta, to fret, to fret. I’ll fall like a sponge into water to suck up, to suck up’). It’s also a part which demands numerous tonal shifts. Malevole is playful and comic, but also angry and he can emerge as a disconcerting figure, especially when, after playing the malcontent role so well, he ascends to the power he had, through his own professed naivety, earlier lost. Malevole is a shapeshifter who puts on many faces throughout the play: he rails at corruption, but he also ingratiates himself with the corrupt court; he reveals his real identity to his friend, Celso, and to the audience, but he hides it from almost everyone else. In a review of the production, Luke McKernan compared the role of Malevole to Blackadder, noting the similar comic discontent of the two characters, but while I can see the comparison, Malevole is arguably a more complex part. Blackadder aspires to a higher social position, but part of the joke is that he never gets it; Malevole, on the other hand, makes a final transformation into the political leader he had been before the play began. It requires yet another tonal shift. Considering these challenges, I thought Joseph Marshall did a fine job, but it was also apparent that the play offers a terrific variety of roles, many of which were exploited with real confidence and verve by the young actors.
Several actors distinguished themselves with particularly impressive performances. Alexander Clarke nailed the role of Bilioso (described in early texts as ‘an old choleric marshal’) with a mannered, but well-judged performance and Freya Parks played the fool Passarello with aplomb, striking up an instant comic rapport with Clarke’s Bilioso. Ben Lynn as the weak Duke Pietro was a good comic patsy, and Martha Lily Dean played the Duchess Aurelia with poise. More wonderful still, was Guy Amos, who delivered a playful and confident Mendoza, communicating every twitch of villainous intent to the audience with an appealing cheekiness. On the one hand, Mendoza, the scheming villain, is a dream role, but there are some difficult speeches here and lots of comic opportunities which are easily missed if the performer fails to acknowledge the playfulness of the villain (a point I made in relation to The Jew of Malta here). As in Edward’s Boys’ Galatea, the young actors showed a mastery of comic timing, and the incredulous question Mendoza addresses to Aurelia at the end of the play – ‘Who let her in?’ – was rightly rewarded with appreciative laughter. Last, but certainly not least, I must acknowledge Sam Hird’s extraordinary performance of Maquerelle, the old pandress. I’m slightly suspicious of giving away prominent female roles to males when, in Renaissance drama, most of the best parts are usually reserved for males (though, admittedly, in this production, Passarello was played by a girl), but Hird, who cross-dressed for the role, was astonishing, finding rich comic potential in almost every line. I had a feeling Hird may be older than the other actors, but I’m amazed to find out that he’s fourteen. Incidentally, the newspaper report from which I learned his age also reveals that he took part in a school production of Nathan Field’s A Woman is a Weathercock: this is wonderful to hear!
I would have liked to have seen a more literal interpretation of the brilliantly contemptuous stage direction ‘he kicks out Mendoza’ (in this production, he was simply carried off stage) but that’s a tiny indulgence on my part: this was a remarkable performance of a brilliant and vibrant play. It proves, as if proof were needed, that younger actors certainly can get to grips with the complexities of Renaissance drama and that the Globe are fully justified in continuing their exploration of the wider early modern repertory. I look forward to seeing the Globe Players in future performances. It would be great, too, to see how Edward’s Boys use the same space when they stage Galatea at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the end of the month. I won’t be able to make it, but am sure it will be spectacular.
NOTE: In my last blog post, I moaned a little about my experience at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. For The Malcontent I sat in the pit, from where I got a full view of what really is an enchanting playhouse. That I did so for almost half the price makes me feel justified in the complaints I made about sitting in the Lord’s Room.