Perry Mills and his boys are fast becoming the stuff of legend. A cut above your average drama society, Edward’s Boys are currently ploughing their way through the dramatic canon of the early modern childrens’ companies. Obscure plays by Lyly, Middleton, Marston and others, originally written to be performed at the indoor playhouses by specially-trained youths, occasionally grace the modern stage in adult productions, but Mills’s productions form a much more interesting sustained research project, attempting to capture something of the resonance and challenges of the plays as performed by the types of body and experience that they were written for. I’ve previously reviewed their Endymion and A Mad World, My Masters, and this year’s production was John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, which will play on Sunday at Middle Temple Hall, sure to be a wonderful experience.
This was the first time Perry and company have tackled a tragedy, which created a new set of questions. Previously, the approach of the productions has been playful and self-aware, drawing attention to the experimental and unusual nature of the plays. With Antonio, however, there was less opportunity for playfulness, and the production didn’t pursue it. The formality of the company was established in costume – each boy wore school shirt and tie under a boiler suit, creating a uniform identity over which were placed representative costume elements such as wigs, wrap-around skirts and clown noses. The metatheatricality was thus implicit rather than overstated; rather than draw attention to the young bodies of the actors, or the cross-gender casting, the actors simply played the characters straight.
In the darkened space of the school’s huge gymnasium, the audience clustered around a central raised stage. The close focus in the centre of a large space gave a cathedral-like quality to the setting, which the company fully exploited. Actors walked slowly around the furthest extremes of the gym, barely visible in the shadows, and often interjecting with shouts and curses. Galleries along the longest edges provided an occasional space for more action – Feliche’s body hung in a window in a distant corner, while Piero sometimes observed from above. Small boys in priestly habit led slow processions and carried candles, giving the sense of an ongoing series of funereal marches. The ceremonial atmosphere was accentuated by some beautiful singing, capturing one of the defining features of the boys’ plays.
The austerity and seriousness of the show did not lend itself, however, to accessibility. Antonio’s Revenge is a sequel, and there is a great deal of reference to action from before the start of the play. Having not read it for a couple of years, I confess to struggling to keep up with the plot. In many ways, the decision not to dumb down or over-explicate the action was a brave and respectful one, and demonstrated just how skillful the boys were, but greater emphasis on the expository dialogue would have been an aid to greater enjoyment.
The boys were wonderful throughout, showing a maturity of response and understanding that rendered and patronising responses unnecessary. I don’t wish to single out or critique all the performers (among the big cast and a great many interchangable Italian lords, that would be too difficult), but the play was strongly anchored by its two leads. Jeremy Franklin as the villainous Piero was rivetting from the moment he stepped onto the stage with bloody hands, manipulating his victims and betraying his assistants with glee, wit and verve. George Matts’s Antonio, meanwhile, was a compelling junior Hamlet, angst-ridden and angry, and increasingly terrifying in his acts of violence. His murder of the tiny Julio (George Hodson) was one of the production’s most powerful moments, the terrified child pleading with Antonio while the Ghost of Andrugio, standing behind Antonio, screamed “Revenge!” It was in moments like this that the relative size of the boys became hugely important, adding pathos to the death; and Julio himself joined Andrugio in ghostly form, silently accusing his murderer.
Dominik Kurzeja as the bloodied Ghost was a formidable presence, stalking the auditorium and glaring at those around him. This Ghost was all hatred, and the success of Antonio and the conspirators in their plot gave a complex tone to the play, seemingly justifying the descent into acts of cruelty. Antonio’s moral plummet was mirrored in the coolness of James Locker’s Alberto, Ted Clarke’s increasingly embitterred and astonishingly articulate Pandulpho, and Joshua Danks-Smith’s amusing Balurdo. In the Clown role, Danks-Smith took the bulk of the play’s humour and metatheatricality, wearing increasingly ludicrous facial prosthetics and bumbling through his interactions. As he was thrown into the dungeon, this clown stopped laughing. Standing behind the other conspirators during the masque, the steeliness in his eyes was one of the play’s most powerful comments on the transformative nature of revenge.
The women were all well-performed, especially Alex Lucas’s Maria, whose depressed passivity next to the dynamic Piero evoked audience sympathies. The cross-dressing was an unremarkable aspect of the production, rather than pointed up as unusual or transgressive. Harry Bowen’s Mellida had less to do, but took a key role in the production’s most moving scene, as Antonio sat atop a box with a barred window, from which Mellida made her complaints, acting only with voice and hands.
The formality and constant motion of the tragedy kept events moving towards an expectedly bloody conclusion, in which Piero was stabbed multiple times in a surprisingly graphic scene, a bleak conclusion to a very bleak play. If I have a complaint, it’s that the approach to this conclusion was rather straightforward; the ability of the boys in previous productions to draw out contemporary resonance and youthful meanings was one of the strongest aspects of the comedies, and I would have been excited to see something of the “boyish” response to the violence and formality of a very different kind of play. As it was, though, we were given a consummately professional and finely-realised production of a very rarely-performed play. It’ll be fascinating to see where the boys take us next.