DIRECTOR and adaptor Sean Foley describes Thomnas Middleton’s raunchy Jacobean comedy A Mad World My Masters as “beyond doubt, the filthiest play I’ve ever read.” He’s not joking – it is truly, amazingly and hilariously filthy. Perhaps almost too filthy for the first-night audience of the Royal Shakespeare Company/English Touring Theatre production at Bath Theatre Royal this week.
Some of the excruciatingly funny triple-decker puns and extended (and often visual) jokes about sex and sexual organs did not so much fall on deaf ears as on ears that couldn’t quite believe what they were hearing. However, after interval drinks, the audience returned (with a few exceptions, presumably unable to cope with the sheer blinding audacity of the piece) and the laughs came as thick and fast as the jokes.
Foley decided to set this comedy of money, class and sex in the 1950s, in Soho, a time and a place where celebrities, gangsters and adventurers from the upper classes all met in the sleazily glamorous night-clubs. Soho was a world apart from the rest of grey post-war Britain, just as Middleton’s fizzing cocktail of social-climbing wealthy merchants, feckless younger sons, lusty wives, clever whores and foolish young aristocrats was another country from the England that simmered beyond the City of London and the Southwark stews, a land of festering religious divisions, growing Puritanism and gruelling physical work.
As well as updating the setting, Foley took the slightly more contentious (but quite justified) decision to update some of the language, particularly the names of the principal characters, which give clues to their characters. He explains his choices in the programme notes, to make the piece accessible and understandable to today’s audiences. So the social climber Sir Bounteous Progress (so-called because of the ambitions of such wealthy nobodies to attract the king or queen on their royal progress around the realm) becomes Sir Bounteous Peersucker. And the quick-witted whore Gullman becomes Truly Kidman because we no longer use the term “gull” to mean taking advantage of someone.
The action is as fast and furious as it is funny and filthy. There are essentially two plots. The handsome Dick Follywit (a riproaring stud as played by Joe Bannister) wants the money he thinks his uncle (Sir Bounteous – a splendidy plummy but engaging performance by Ian Redford) is going to leave him, NOW, not when the old boy kicks the bucket. Uber-possessive Littledick (Ben Deery) is so jealous of his wife (energetically played by the delightful Ellie Beaven) that he is fooled into believing that the nun who comes to visit her is a pious sister, when in fact she is her sister-in-sin, Truly Kidman (Sarah Ridgeway), whose mother (Ishia Bennison) is ever-ready to stitch her back into virginity for the next unsuspecting victim.
With an on-stage jazz band, a terrific vocalist, Linda John Pierre, great support from the whole cast, who all play multiple roles, and a hurtling pace that is as unflagging as Follywit’s libido, this is a brilliantly conceived updating of an unfairly neglected comedy, a vastly enjoyable romp through the back passages of society, full of fallible fools, cuckolds and tricksters.