I managed to miss A Mad World My Masters when it played at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in 2013 but was grateful to get to see it in London, at the Barbican, where it enjoyed a short run. I’m pretty pleased to have seen it and the more I think about it, the more I like it. At first, I found it hard to get past the often ineffective modernizations – of these, the most irritating is the substitution of ‘Littledick’ for the funnier ‘Shortrod’, but there are other annoying examples too. But while it seems to me that, on the whole, the production struggled with the verbal intricacies of Middleton’s text, it scored highly for visual inventiveness. The visual jokes often had depth and richness with the cruder verbal puns did not (and by crude, I mean unsophisticated, not salacious – there were plenty of salacious visual jokes). The production’s distrust of Middleton’s language was flagged up by Penitent Brothel’s interpolated admission that his pun isn’t very good. ‘I cannot be patient and physician too’ he says, before turning to the audience to add ‘Thomas Middleton, 1605’. The RSC have, of course, placed faith in Middleton by staging his play, but still, this isn’t the worst pun in the production – plenty of the newer additions are equally groansome. As Emma Smith noted in the TLS, the production betrays a ‘surprising lack of confidence in the play’s original language’.
To Smith’s list of examples of unsuccessful modernizations I’d add the unfortunate decision to excise the potentially knockout line ‘I am the constable i’th’ common wealth’ and replace it with ‘I am the constable in the very tragedy’. I’ve heard the ‘common wealth’ line work wonderfully in play readings and it works better rhythmically, to my ear at least. Furthermore, it makes more sense: the Constable is trying to point out what we know and the onstage ‘audience’ do not – that they are not watching a play – but it includes a further metatheatrical joke as we also know he’s not actually in a common wealth but is, in fact, in a play. But while these updates usually seem botched, the visual updates do not. The fake play-within-a-play involves Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Sir Bounteous Progress in Middleton) hosting a Jacobean fancy dress party, so we get a gesture towards original staging arriving, with wonderful incongruity, in the middle of a consciously updated production.
What to make of the gap between the way the production treats the visual and the verbal? I’m cautious about claiming that theatre producers should ‘trust the text’ and it may be that the irreverence shown to the language allowed for a more playful approach to be taken, but it’s not a bad thing to use the words either – many of them are pretty good.