Theatre Review

‘Comus’ at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (2016). Review. ★★★★

What happens when you combine meta-theatrical humour with a seventeenth century morality play? A dramaturgical masterpiece, courtesy of director Lucy Bailey.

Photography © Sheila Burnett

Raunchy, witty and satirical, Bailey’s interpretation of Milton’s playtext brings the didactic theme of the protective sanctity of chastity to the twenty-first century with no small accent of modernist humour. Period appropriate clothing situated the scene in the authentic era, while the knowing looks and exasperated sighs of the Attendant Spirit brought the audience into the action with a very modern narration of events. Plays within a play, themes within themes: there was an undoubtedly presentist flavour to this production, suggesting that more than mere entertainment, the audience was witness to a very postmodern examination of societal values. Now it is rash to even suggest that this is an isolated consideration, as indeed meta-theatricality has provided social, political and cultural commentary for generations- however, it must be underlined that this modern twist landed crosscultural hot topics of consent, confinement and childhood trauma in the audience’s laps with a perfect bull’s eye. Oh we laughed at the discomfort of the three siblings under the unswerving severity of their father’s desires, but did that mean we were by our laughter agreeing to his totalitarian command over the fate of his daughter? We found the beguiling of the ruffians and servants hilariously raunchy when Comus made them drink from his enchanted cup, but were we really enjoying the forced physical and mental domination of innocents? We were positively clutching at our sides during the ad-libbing prologue when we discovered the darker past of the children’s uncle, so did this also mean that we found the shattered innocence of a child so hilarious in the face of his traumatic realisation?

It must be reinforced: ‘Comus’ was written not only to entertain, but also to educate. In Bailey’s modernized adaptation, the relevance of social judgement  upon semi-fictional events was as alive in that archetypal playhouse as it was in the authentic era. The trigger-word here is “relevance”, and though it is the dirge of historians and literary scholars alike (how many times have I had to battle with the query of Shakespeare’s relevance in this day and age?!) it is nonetheless the pivotal theme of this play. Not chastity, not hosiery, not comedy: relevance. It is the relevance, it is the accessibility and current state of these themes which maintains the vim and vigor of this text some four hundred years later.

Photography © Sheila Burnett

But let’s move away from the darkness of this production: ‘Comus’ was also a text about finding the light, and my goodness did they provide light-hearted humour in this play! Innuendos of every kind, slapstick tomfoolery, sarcasm, the simplicity of misunderstanding- you name it, there it was.

The grim gremlins of Comus’s company were as vulgar as they were rampant: smothered in dirt and clothes in various states of disarray, they thrusted, gyrated and drooled their way across the stage in a never-ending quest for debauchery and adult entertainment. Humping, snickering and licking their way around the stage and walkway, the audience had to keep their hands inside the galleries if they didn’t want to be fondled unnecessarily. What made them as humorous as poignant was their transformation: lost souls seeking succour, they sought refuge in the kindness of a stranger and fell victim to the fae’s dark magic. They did not appear to suffer for it, indeed the transformation verged on the sexually-climactic, but the metaphor was clear: darkness isn’t the way, no matter how tempting the offer may be. Or, in common parlance: STRANGER DANGER!!

The eponymous spirit of darkness, Comus, presented himself as a host of wayward souls, a fond parent to his attendant minions: bare-foot, his doublet undone, he padded around the stage in search of the best angle to gaze upon his desired virginal target. This wouldn’t be too humorous as a standalone device, but the extra grip his bare toes gave enabled him to nimble along the lower gallery balconies for the perfect voyeuristic perch behind a pillar. “Invisible” to mortal eye Comus was overcome with desire, and proceeded to treat the somewhat unresponsive wood to the pole-dance of a lifetime. Or was that the gentleman sitting just to the side of the pillar? The gent, who had previously enjoyed the in narrative intimacy his stage-side seat had provided during the performance, was suddenly rather distracted by a stubborn smudge on his glasses. He soon came to regret his clearer vision: bumping, grinding and twerking, Comus shared his physical yearning for the comely maiden with his nearest neighbour vigorously. I’ll be honest: I didn’t pay too much attention to the action onstage as this was occurring. Though I’m sure Curtis’s The Lady was providing a sterling performance, the purile side of my persona was openly enjoying the discomfort of the poor spectator. Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: Proud Sponsors of Schadenfreude.

Photography © Sheila Burnett

The noble family were as accessibly sympathetic as they were ridiculously historicist: the two brothers, hapless and hilariously effeminate, fumbled their way through the narrative with similar dispositions to Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit sketch. Harmless, helpless, hopeless. The Lady, their wood-wandering fae-dodging sister, was at once the voice of reason as well as the embodiment of controversial gender roles: as twenty-first century spectators, being entertained by the events of this narrative was both humorous and socioculturally challenging. Our character informant, The Lady, spoke for us and to us, and her world-weary sighs were oftentimes echoed by our own response to the raucous events onstage.

Where Comus’s bare chest and feet represented the spirit undone by temptation, saucy endeavours and debauched lifestyle choices, The Lady was materially and metaphorically protected by her armour of multiple layered skirts and corseted bosom. There was an interesting twist to this seduction: in order to remove his beloved’s garments, Comus had to hide his true form by increasing his own apparel with the guise of a shepherd. Adding with the aim to subtract, sheepskins and hats covered the sin beneath, if not entirely convincingly to the knowing gaze of the spectators. Upon arrival in his castle, The Lady found herself hoisted into the Love Seat, which bore an uncanny resemblance to Edward VII’s siege d’amour: the risque nature of the stripping, however, was softened by the slapstick humour of The Lady’s russian doll undergarments. Clothes, it seemed, could be as much a tool for beguiling as a weapon against unwanted fondling hands!

Knickers flash, nymphs perform miracles, chastity preserves maiden modesty, and a Spritely Attendant gets stuck on a winch: Bailey’s ‘Comus’ was a stellar performance with everything that makes the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse the glowing casket of theatricality a success. Though not without its faults (I grew a tad bored of the “see a leg, hump the leg” mindset of Comus’s followers), the play was a rip-roaring success that still has me thinking about the clever twists of self-referential modernism within the casket of early modern narrativity. Comedy blended with darkness, our laughter chasing away the horror of some of the more unsettling narrative themes. Sumptuous woodland decor adds to the beauty of the interior playing space without disguising the natural platform, bringing the mythology of the Green Man into the performative mise-en-scène.

Photo ©Lucinda Pope

‘Comus’: John Milton
Director: Lucy Bailey

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