- A Mad World My Mastersdir. by Sean Foley
"London, Soho . . . 1956. Where glamour rubs up against filth, and likes it." This declaration of intentions, printed in the publicity materials, summarizes well the overall ethos of Sean Foley and Phil Porter's version of Thomas Middleton's 1605 play. The updated language preserved—or arguably augmented—the original's relish for bawdy wordplay and sexual double entendre, and amounted to a lively, engaging, and deliciously funny evening. But if the adaptation were faithful to the spirit of Middleton's script, the cuts in the text and the rephrasing and modernization of most lines took directorial intervention to a whole new level. The names of most characters, for example, were altered for the sake of intelligibility to a modern audience. One had to wonder whether the original's colorful Master Shortrod Harebrain needed to be translated into the rather shallow Mr Littledick. Renaming Lady Gullman, the courtesan, Truly Kidman did not seem to serve a strong purpose, either. However, the modernized Sir Bounteous Peersucker arguably improved upon Middleton's functional Sir Bounteous Progress, while the deaf butler Spunky was a superb creation that surpassed the more prosaic steward Gunwater.
Distrusting their audiences' ability to penetrate archaic language, Foley and Porter justified these potential editorial excesses by appealing to the preservation of the freshness and directness of the original play. As they wrote in the Editors' Note to the published script, "We wanted to make sure that nothing got in the way of communicating Middleton's seething delight in exposing how we pretend to be what we're not to get what we want." With this in mind, they decided to cut a fifth of the play and everything that might have obstructed the audience's understanding, fearing that if they presented a script that was merely cut but not adapted, [End Page 146]"Middleton's intentions and humour would be too buried in inaccessible language" ([London: Oberon, 2013], 11; all further references to the play will be to this text). Whether this adaptation, which almost amounted to a complete rewrite, should have acknowledged the extent of its rescripting by changing the play's title is debatable. I myself feel that the adapted text did not improve upon Middleton's original, and that an attentive audience would not need most of these modernizations if the direction were careful to illustrate and clarify the characters' intentions. One could argue that in this case the process of adaptation flattened the complexities of the play beyond necessity; there is a fine line between making a text accessible to modern spectators and patronizing them.
Be that as it may, the production was strong and funny, boasting some wonderful performances and a dynamic and engaging tempo. Power's clever set design made ample use of the recent technical improvements to the Swan Theatre, especially the possibility of making large portable properties appear from below the stage at different moments of the performance. These included a six-foot lamp post, a huge curtained fourposter bed, and the whole of Penitent Brothel's apartment. Two large structures on wheels at either side of the stage could be rotated and moved around to simulate different outdoor and indoor spaces. At one point, the top of the Swan's fronswas used to show how Mr Littledick overheard his wife's conversation with Truly Kidman, disguised as an Irish nun, through the room's ceiling. The musicians were placed on the...