Thursday 17 April 2014

Theatre review: The Malcontent

Shakespeare's Globe has for the most part been in the true spirit of the playwright it celebrates, but the conclusion of its first indoor season would probably have him spinning in his grave as it resurrects one of his pet hates: Grumbled about in Hamlet for their annoying tendency to steal his punters, the boy players were a popular feature of the Jacobean stage, and particularly associated with the indoor, candlelit playhouses the Swanamaker recreates. John Marston wrote The Malcontent for one such boys' company, which makes it an apt - and peculiarly enlightening - choice for their own version: The Globe Young Players aren't an all-male troupe, but they do use gender-blind casting, so there's still a few boys playing girls, alongside the odd girl playing a boy. And they're all aged between 12 and 16, even if their characters and what they get up to - not just in sexual shenanigans but also in cynicism - are much older.

Pietro (Ben Lynn) is Duke of Genoa, following a coup where he was assisted by Mendoza (Guy Amos.) But that was just one step in the ambitious Mendoza's plan to take power for himself.

Plots and counter-plots ensue, all observed and, where necessary, helped along their way by the titular malcontent Malevole (Joseph Marshall,) who is in fact the deposed rightful duke in disguise (one of those deposed rightful dukes who soliloquises about how ghastly courtly politics is, but spends all his time plotting to get back in charge of it again.) Marshall has to spend an awful lot of time on stage and is as confident a performer as you'd need for that. With the weight of the Globe's education department behind them, the young actors have clearly mastered an admirable understanding of Marston's language, although their verse-speaking could sometimes be clearer.

Caitlin McLeod's production features some unabashed performances of material that it seems amazing to think was actually written for children to perform - a line about a lover's faithfulness only lasting as long as "one spurt" particularly comes to mind. Elsewhere the adult content is a bit sillier, as with Sam Hird's ageing courtesan Maquerelle who has fun flirting with the audience (and a great reaction to her "banishment" at the end.)

The young company undoubtedly do well, and there's an interesting novelty value here, but I've got to side with Shakespeare in not knowing why anyone would choose this full-time over adult casts. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of some of these actors when they're older, but the Swanamaker's uncomfortable seating makes it an incredibly unforgiving theatre, and I sometimes wished for a more experienced cast to glide over some of Marston's creakier comic business.

The Malcontent by John Marston is booking until the 19th of April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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