The Malcontent, by John Marston

By using ‘children’ in adult roles the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse both challenges the audience and returns to original practice

April 10, 2014

Source: Helena Miscioscia

Knowingness: the younger members of the cast, decked out in their exquisite period costumes, help to create the production’s challenge to casting orthodoxies

John Marston’s The Malcontent
Directed by Caitlin McLeod
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Globe Theatre, London
Until 19 April 2014

When these lines are spoken by performers who appear to be at the lower end of the age spectrum, their knowingness is challenging

John Marston (1576-1634) was a lawyer turned dramatist, a satirist, a misanthropic Clive Anderson, who eventually abandoned the theatre and became a village priest. He argued, feuded and mocked those around him, including King James I. He wrote plays that got him into trouble and occasionally landed him in jail.

Marston’s angry-young-man play, The Malcontent, was first performed around 1603 by the Children of the Chapel at the Blackfriars playhouse. It is full of energetic, colourful abuse, physiologically precise references to sex, memento mori perorations, and enthusiastic, forensically argued misogyny. So, of course, it’s ideal for kids. Jokes about erections generate a frisson when uttered by 12-year-olds. A young teenager repenting adultery sounds different from an adult making the same statement. A speech detailing with relish how corpses rot in the grave might sound slightly Horrible Histories, but Marston’s erudite misogyny is depressingly up to date: look at the gender pay gaps reported in last week’s Times Higher Education.

The “children” who first performed The Malcontent were all boys, selected – occasionally press-ganged – for their singing ability. They would have represented a wide range in terms of physical size, maturity and facial hair. When the play was later taken on by an adult company, the King’s Men, it was given a self-reflective “induction” by John Webster, in which the actors Dick Burbage, Henry Condell and John Lowin play themselves, and discuss The Malcontent, which they are about to perform, with members of the audience, played by Will Sly and John Sinklo. This suggests that there was an important connection between the dramaturgy of the play and the company of boys who first performed it. It is as if something was needed to compensate for the loss of the theatrical quotation marks that operate when children are imitating, caricaturing and mocking adults. So the opportunity to see The Malcontent performed with, as it were, such quotation marks around it, by the Globe Young Players, is very welcome.

What Marston and his contemporaries meant by a “child” was legally and culturally very different from current definitions and, for its new production, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (SWP) has sensibly avoided the term and put together a troupe of Globe Young Players. Auditions were open to anyone aged between 12 and 16 from around the UK – although I can’t imagine many commuted in from Keswick, Falmouth or Aberdeen – and performers had to be able to commit at least six months’ worth of Sundays to the project, which must have presented a challenge for anyone doing GCSEs. Yet they were offered a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train under the Globe’s own expert practitioners”.

Employing young people as actors makes a gesture in the direction of original practices. They are certainly kitted out in exquisitely authentic-looking period costumes. But the real advantage of having a company of “young players” perform The Malcontent is the challenge such a production offers to current casting orthodoxies. There are plenty of children onstage in the West End at the moment, in Matilda, Billy Elliot and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but they are not playing adult characters and they are not denouncing creepy old men as “goatish-blooded toderers”, regretting their decision to “taste the brackish blood of beastly lust/In an adulterous touch”, or promising to become “excellent pander[s]”. It is disturbing when audiences find themselves paying to hear young children say such words; it’s not as confrontational as an exhibition of Bill Henson photographs, but when these lines are spoken by performers who appear to be at the lower end of the age spectrum, their knowingness is challenging.

At the same time, the Young Players’ performance reconfirms the strength of early modern theatre’s commitment to a proto-Brechtian, anti-illusionistic aesthetic. No one is going to mistake these performers for real dukes, duchesses, bawds, “cornutos” (cuckolds) and halberdiers. But in the SWP, with its extraordinary privileging of the very few spectators who can see everything, they really need to pull out the stops to work their audience. Of course it’s a 20th-century idea that audiences should be able to see properly. Many Victorian theatres have pillars blocking the sight lines from the back stalls; plenty of box seats provide very poor views of the stage; the Haymarket’s gallery is dizzyingly high. And unless you shell out for a stalls ticket for The Lion King, you are excluded from the breathtaking opening sequence. But the challenges presented by the restricted-view seats in the SWP are surely compounded when some of the actors are under five foot tall. These players are swallowed by the blind spots if they don’t stay centre stage.

Not long after The Malcontent’s run, another “children’s” company will be putting on a single performance of John Lyly’s Galatea in the SWP ( April), the final venue in a short tour. The company is Edward’s Boys, formed of pupils at King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon. Over the past few years, under the leadership of deputy headmaster Perry Mills, they have become expert in exploring plays written for boys to inhabit. Although they can claim to tread the very boards that Shakespeare trod – the school’s Upper Guildhall could be where Shakespeare first performed, in the early modern equivalent of “the school play” – Edward’s Boys don’t go in for Shakespeare or original-practices productions. Thomas Dekker and John Webster’s Westward Ho! was performed in glam-rock style and their moving Henry V was a school play about a school play where the “cast” were about to head off to the trenches for the First World War. In the first Edward’s Boys production I saw, their 2010 version of another Marston play, Antonio’s Revenge, the ghastly goings-on were made more painful and stark simply because of the physicality of the performers. Sixth-formers, fully grown men, engaged with pint-sized Year 7 boys, some dressed as girls. Smaller boys darted around with an agility that made their elders look clumsy, but the murder of the hapless child, Julio, was all the more heart-rending because physically he so obviously didn’t stand a chance against the brutal bigger, but not quite grown-up, boys.

Julio – George Hodson – bounded back the following year as Mistress Honeysuckle in Westward Ho! and then moved on to Princess Katherine in Henry V. There’s a sense of watching an apprenticeship being served as Hodson moves up through the ranks. Indeed, Mills welcomes the apprenticeship analogy and is proud of the way the older boys who have been in several productions mentor the younger newcomers. While I remain to be convinced, as Mills claims, that Galatea is revealed to be a masterpiece in performance, it is certainly true that the play is more likely to shine when it is performed by a company where non-realistic casting is the norm. As with Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, the ending of Galatea needs casting that fools its audience into feeling overly confident that they know what is going on and that the gender of the characters they are watching is secure.

Mills has worked on Marston both with Antonio’s Revenge and the brilliant The Dutch Courtesan and is sure that, as he so often wrote plays for children’s companies, Marston knew what the “children” who performed in his plays could and could not do, wrote to their strengths and, in effect, created a different genre from the play written for adult performers. Performances by the Globe Young Players and Edward’s Boys allow tiny glimpses of this genre at work; they cannot prove anything, but they can challenge complacency about what theatre is and what casting can deliver. While Caitlin McLeod’s The Malcontent, despite several fine performances, is ultimately a curiosity piece, it also offers a reminder that something is lost when traditional, realistic casting practices are the norm.

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