Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Theatre review: Comus

It's a strange time to see the start of a new Globe season, given all the current sound and fury over Emma Rice's premature departure (personally I'm sure the situation is far more complex than it initially appeared, but I think the board's official statement suggesting they're now interfering directly in artistic policy was disastrous, whether that's literally true or just a badly-worded press release.) Still, for the couple of remaining seasons we will be seeing Rice in charge, it's starting to look as is there's a theme to what'll end up on the Swanamaker stage: Weird shit, possibly involving Philip Cumbus. For the first time the venue attempts to recreate one of the elaborate masques that were a private treat for the upper classes, with John Milton's Comus: A Masque in Honour of Chastity. As the subtitle suggests, this is a rather po-faced morality tale, but that's not quite what director Lucy Bailey puts on stage.

Milton's poem is the story of the virginal Lady (Emma Curtis,) who gets separated from her brothers in the woods, and attracts the attention of literal sex god Comus (Danny Lee Wynter,) who is attracted to her chastity and desperate to get rid of it for her.

Cumbus plays the Attendant Spirit who disguises himself as a shepherd ("I'm not doing the accent") to help Elder Brother (Rob Callender, who would probably tell you he's best known for getting good reviews in Another Country*,) and Younger Brother (Theo Cowan) find The Lady before Comus gets his way with her. It's a pretty basic story filled with speeches about how The Lady's pure chastity is like a protective force field around her muff, so Bailey has enlisted Patrick Barlow to write a framing device (as well as tinkering with the masque itself by the sound of things - there's a couple of moments of babbling wordplay that are very distinctively in his style.)

Milton was commissioned to write Comus for the investiture of the Earl of Bridgewater as Lord President of Wales, and to a modern sensibility it seems bizarre that the Earl would have had his own 15-year-old daughter play the central figure who's constantly threatened with rape; Barlow bases his framing scenes around the fact that Bridgewater (Andrew Bridgmont) was probably using the "chastity" theme to distance his branch of the family from a relative who'd recently been executed for sodomy, and gives us comic scenes of his children refusing to go on stage. It's a lively and funny opening that really draws the audience in, although I have no idea what happened when the framing device transitioned into Comus itself because it was blocked from my view and, I would have thought, from that of most of the theatre (I think most of the cast suddenly got sucked into a sewer because of reasons.)

The light touch continues into the masque itself and, while I've got no expertise in the matter to comment on whether this is authentic, it certainly doesn't feel like it because of the way the tone conflicts with the script itself. As that script largely consists of speeches about how The Lady's chastity will be protected by the fact that she has her chastity (I... stopped trying to find any logic in it pretty quickly to be honest,) and some dark scenes of The Lady being glued to a gynaecological exam chair, the addition of some silliness is probably all for the best. It mostly comes from Cumbus' matter-of-fact response to the heightened goings-on, and his interactions with the two dim-witted brothers, while Wynter finds a dangerous charm in his villain. Unarguably entertaining in parts, but it doesn't come close to holding together as a whole.

Comus: A Masque In Honour of Chastity by John Milton with additional material by Patrick Barlow is booking until the 19th of November at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Sheila Burnett.

*He's not though. He's best known for that extreme closeup shot of his foreskin in Game of Thrones. For such are the vagaries of the acting profession, sorry 'bout it.

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