There are some shows which have you spitting with disgust and others which have you gagging with laughter. Oftentimes, a play can make you so full of fire that you just need to let of some steam. Elsewhere, a production gives so much joy that you just can’t get enough. Sean Foley’s production of Thomas Middleton’s 1605 play A Mad World My Masters falls firmly into the latter of these categories, knocking you back with its oral dexterity and making the audience howl with ecstasy with its relentless barrage of innuendos and double entendres.
Middleton’s play doesn’t have the most sophisticated of plots – it’s a tale of bed-swapping, disguise and silly-named individuals never getting what they want – but every line serves its orgiastic intensity, as laughs rise to multiple climaxes. In the updated version of the play, updated by Foley and Phil Porter to be set in 1950s Soho complete with new names (Mr Littledick and Master Whopping Prospect) and contemporary allusions (including a reference to the Royal Court), everything is at the service of the laughs, and they come thick and fast.
The comedy is undoubtedly purile, cheap and bawdy, but its so tongue-in-cheek and knowing that this all becomes part of the fun. They range from the minute to the massive, from detailed to broad and slapstick to puns – there’s even a dig or two at the “musty-visaged critics” – and though not everyone will find every joke funny the production is so unashamedly an homage to mid-twentieth century comedy that we easily fall for it – anyone who doesn’t find the name Sergeant Ball Bags funny can’t be my friend.
Foley’s attitude towards the Jacobean text is one of the reasons it gives so much pleasure. Rather than stick religiously to the text and make things fit where the hole isn’t the right size, he simply chops and changes, meaning that part of the fun is working out what’s new and what’s old. And the actors are completely aware of this too; at one point, a particularly bad doctor/patient joke is immediately followed with “Thomas Middleton, 1605” in response to the groan from the audience.
Alice Power’s moveable, versatile design is also one of the best I’ve seen in the Swan, with set pieces rising from down below and turning street signs so that we are never in the same place twice, allowing for suggestive scene changes which only enrich the humour. Even the music is sordid, with Ben and Max Ringham’s score offering up sultry songs which sometimes go even further than the text itself, crooned beautifully by Linda John-Pierre. It also acts as an excellent accompaniment to comic-book style fights and brawls, with victims getting their meats minced and bottoms bludgeoned.
The cast is also far more watchable and exciting here than in their earlier Titus, as the pitfalls they faced then (not quite enough conviction and a lacking clear engagement with the text) become useful tools here for the creation of comedy. Sarah Ridgeway’s effectual, quick-witted Truly Kidman is more than a match for her various lovers, and has been cast well opposite Richard Goulding as a bumbling but clued-up Dick Follywit who subjects himself to more than a few cock-ups (and cock-downs in the case of the mysterious statue). Steffan Rhodri and Ellie Beaven are suitably pathetic as the dysfunctional Mr and Mrs Littledick and Ian Redford as Bounteous Peersucker (told you these names were good) demonstrates that a big part of playing the put-upon buffoon is being able to go red-faced for long periods of time. The masterful comic turn of the night, however, comes from John Hopkins, looking like an English Ty Burrell and offering on-the-nose timing throughout, his casual charisma being the perfect bedfellow to complete cluelessness.
A small part of me wonders to what extent this was a cynical move on the RSC’s part to create a show to rival One Man, Two Guvnors, but Foley’s clarity of direction and his cast’s forcefulness in performance make for a production which is sublimely rendered. The anarchism and irreverence of A Mad World My Masters are completely welcome, and go some way to proving that in order to keep these plays alive we must continue to play with them. Let’s hope more people pluck up the courage to try this with Shakespeare.