Let’s be frank. When I was first told about Edward’s Boys productions, I was less than convinced. In fact, I was vocally unconvinced. A bunch of thespy lads at a posh Warwickshire grammar school hamming up Shakespeare and his contemporaries? I think I’ll skip it, thanks.
I have had to consume substantial portions of humble pie since then, or at least since the moment I was dragged, grumbling, to the venue for the first Edward’s Boys show I saw. I instantly became a devotee of Perry Mills’s company and their productions for two reasons. One, they are extraordinary shows: the acting, the direction, the ability to do so much with so little in the way of costume and prop, the sheer commitment by cast and director alike, are quite something. Two, for an academic with an interest in early modern English theatre history, these performances are more than entertaining shows performed by talented boys: they are demonstrations of an aspect of theatre history that has always been hard for critics fully to grasp – that many of the sharpest, most complex and, let’s be honest, filthiest plays in Shakespeare’s times were written for and performed by companies of boys with a likely maximum age of eighteen, and that their performances were sufficiently popular with audiences to alarm the adult actors (as Hamlet’s famous disparagement of child actors tells us). Like so many scholars, I didn’t really, in truth, believe it, taking refuge in the notion that expectations and standards must have been so different then as to be irreparably lost to time.
Edward’s Boys have proved this thinking obsolete. What we see when we attend an Edward’s Boys production is living history, proof that, yes, a bunch of lads, when effectively corralled by someone with the confidence and skill to get them to look beyond the huge social hurdle involved in half of them having to wear dresses and adopt the gestures of femininity (I can categorically state that no teacher at my own boys’ school had remotely the authority to get us to put dresses and high heels on, which was behaviour strictly confined to rugby first-team parties) can indeed produce superb performances of difficult plays in a version of English that is by no means naturally comprehensible. It is an achievement made all the more striking for the theatre historian reflecting on the way in which early modern boy actors graduated to the adult companies, as year follows year at King Edward VI and the boys who played minor parts at ten are playing leads at sixteen.
Which brings me to The Woman Hater, the boys’ most recent production. Probably at least ten academics think they suggested it to Perry. I’m one of the ten. Seeing an earlier Edward’s Boys production made me think of Francis Beaumont’s first, distinctly risqué solo play, a tour de force of gender struggle and courtly satire, and propose it as ideal material for the company. Beaumont was the posh one of the pair ‘Beaumont-and-Fletcher’, a glamorous, almost certainly infuriating character with a flair and knowingness that has given his brief career a disproportionately long-lasting impact. Not that The Woman Hater is regularly performed: I have a recording of a BBC radio production from the late Eighties, and that’s about it. Which made this Edward’s Boys production all the more welcome. The result was all I had hoped for and more.
Perry Mills has neatly modernised the scene to 1950s Milan, complete with snappy suits, priests, paparazzi and women of style finding their way in a male-dominated society, something that is neatly underlined by the production’s opening tune, ‘The Lady is a Tramp’. A promenade stage and energetic scene-changes, together with clear evidence of sustained voice work, combine to great effect in clarifying a plot of some complexity. Some of the finest work is done by the boys playing girls, not least Jack Hawkins, whose Oriana, the female lead, has both impressive poise and a certain haunted restraint. She is no tramp, but she has a hard time proving it to the men amongst the play’s overlapping plots. She is sought after by the Duke (Finlay Hatch), a shifty character with more interest in his women subjects than in the well-being of the state, who admits that his distaste for flattery faded remarkably rapidly once he became duke. She in turn has a dangerous curiosity about the play’s eponymous misogynist, Gondarino (played in a pleasingly pathological way by Daniel Wilkinson), whose venom against women stems from a past jilting or from the tragic death of a lover – we are never told which. That the situation Oriana finds herself in is more than partly of her own making only increases the tragicomic stress for both character and audience.
The primary plot is offset hilariously and with unremitting charmlessness by the subplot of Lazarillo, the ever-frustrated gourmand (played with slimy verve by Daniel Power, his suit bespattered with recent dinners) on his mock-romance quest for an obscure fishy delicacy. His obsession with this dish – which serves to underline the close connection between sex and food in the play’s closeted, repressed Milan – is equally funny and stomach-churning, yet we start to feel truly sorry for him as the play’s inability to distinguish between sexual, political and culinary machinations sees him arrested as a traitor and his voice rises ever higher in sheer frustration.
The nearest the play gives us to a stable character is Count Valore, Oriana’s brother – played with charm and confidence, even when trying to extract participation from an audience that can best be described as static, by the talented Joe Pocknell – yet even he, secure in his chosen role of observer of court follies, finds himself drawn inexorably into the action. And when the play culminates in a perverse ‘trial’ imposed on Oriana by the Duke through the willing agency of his sidekick Arrigo (Ben Clarke), we find ourselves in a scene uncomfortably reminiscent of the ending of Measure for Measure – Oriana equally as trapped by the Duke’s imperious desire as is Shakespeare’s Isabella – which is then compounded, uncomfortably and hilariously, by a scene in which the woman hater is tormented by the various women of the play, a process executed by two of the more substantial boys, cross-dressed in panto style.
In sum, this is a very fine revival of a difficult, rewarding play, successfully bringing the various plots into conversation with each other and keeping the audience engaged with each thread. The direction offsets the ostensible guilelessness of the boy actors against the knowing nastiness of the play by gently reminding us that boys are, of course, anything but guileless. This, in the end, it seems to me, is what gives all Edwards’ Boys productions their undoubted power and their charm.