As the first play of the Wonderland Noir season, Comus draws audiences into the winter solace of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. In this wooden-walled setting, John Milton’s poem-cum-masque, first performed in 1634 and throughout the 18th century, remains fun, engaging, and – yes – contemporary. The story is based around a young Lady who is separated from her brothers in a dark, tangled wood, and is lured into a house of sin and temptation by a seemingly innocent shepherd. The shepherd is none other than Comus, son of Cerses and Bacchus, who draws lost creatures into his lair where they consume his wine and succumb to their base, wild desires. Yet even when the Lady is magically bound to a chair she holds onto her reason and keeps her body under the control of her mind.
Whilst chastity and virginity are today commonly understood to relate directly to sexual experience, Milton’s work reminds us that chastity’s original definition extends beyond sexuality to include holding onto reason, exercising free will, and knowledge as a form of power. This message is not lost on the masque’s protagonist, the stubborn and bold Lady Alice, who heroically holds onto her reason in the face of Comus’ temptation. In Milton’s world, virtue and chastity are good not because they are repressive, but because they are part of being free. While this is still a source of unending philosophical debate, it is possible to read the image presented in the Wanamaker of a young woman holding onto her free will as an Early-Modern gesture of feminist empowerment.
Interestingly, the more deliberate dramaturgical moves to contemporize the text feel largely unnecessary, and jar with Milton’s (admittedly long-winded) poetic language. The masque is framed as a play-within-a-play, complete with in-performance historical contextualisation. This is helpful for getting everyone in the audience on the same page, yet also feels too much like overt justification for putting the show on in the first place. This includes the self-aware and comically poor deliveries of Milton’s awkward rhymes, nods to the audience when theatrical devices seem transparent and silly, jokes about characters taking too long to make their point, and plenty of pauses to make sure that the Attendant Spirit’s harness is safely secured before he is lifted dramatically upwards for his final exit through the ceiling.
This imbedded argument for the play’s performance in all of its dated glory feels repetitive and partially detracts from the merits of the production and original text. Furthermore, whilst the sentence ‘We women are sacred’ is never a wholly unwelcome addition to a play, here the Lady’s actions have already demonstrated the same point and it doesn’t strictly need reiterating. After all, it is from Milton that we get the Lady’s beautiful and defiant declaration, ‘Thou canst not touch the freedom of my mind.’
Despite the additions – which I critique not because they are contemporary but because they are dramaturgically redundant – the show often joyfully lets the language breathe and thrive through this clever staging. The Lady wanders in unending forests created by Comus’ Monstrous Routs who hold wooden rods in different formations, making an ever-changing obstacle course of props and bodies to clamour over. The graceful choreography of candles being lit, extinguished and passed from character to character feels intimate and vulnerable, and the horrifying scene in which the Lady is magically bound to a chair makes the skin crawl, as her feet are secured into pedals on either side of the baroque equivalent of an OBGYN’s examination table. Candles, harnesses, smoke, verse and all, this is Milton in both nuanced and entertaining form.
Comus – A Masque in Honour of Chastity is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 11th November 2016. Click here for more details.