Edward’s Boys get to do the most fun stuff. Some fourteen years (the time it takes to pass through secondary school twice) since the company based at King Edward VI School started bringing productions of familiar and obscure early modern plays to a wider audience, they (under the stalwart leadership of Perry Mills) are now the go-to troupe for practice-as-research explorations of several aspects of early modern drama. Trust Me, I’m a Doctor! developed from a collaboration with scholars in Montpellier exploring depictions of medicine in early modern drama, with a particular emphasis on Moliere. But it’s also a great collection of fart and vomit jokes.
For the purposes of this showcase performance to delegates at the International Shakespeare Conference, a two-hour show made up of fourteen extracts was distilled to three, linked with acapella renditions of thematically appropriate songs (the Doctor Who theme was a highlight). Against a set made up of hospital screens, the three scenes developed a shared interest in the betrayals of incontinent bodies, the pre-recorded squelching sounds of flatulence and vomit a punchline to shenanigans that left people embarrassed, humiliated, and expurgated.
The showcase began with 3.2 from A Mad World, My Masters. The scene’s humour emerges from the squeamishness of men around women’s health, and the actor playing the Courtesan (the programme, sadly, didn’t specify which actors played which characters) dominated the scene, along with the shorter Penitent disguised as a doctor. In this Volpone-esque scene, a rotating sequence of suitors were roundly gulled and dispatched, Penitent fleecing them for money and the Courtesan threatening exposure of her bodily functions in order to get the men running. What the surgery setting opened up here, though, was the contradictions of the medical environment, the shared public space in which the most private bodily functions are scrutinised. The flimsy partitions that served as screens between people having sex and those listening in gave a sense of the vulnerability of this environment, and the ease with which predilections for voyeurism and titillation can be exploited.
Following this came the purging of Crispinus from Jonson’s Poetaster. Whereas the Middleton scene was a little more difficult to follow deprived of its context, this sequence worked beautifully as a stand-alone vignette. A lisping Augustus sat enthroned, surrounded by his followers, while the smug Crispinus (Jonson’s proxy for Marston) stood smugly downstage, beaming out as his odorous verses were read out. Here, the smell produced by Crispinus’s self-consciously bombastic vocabulary was experienced viscerally by those surrounding Augustus, Crispinus continuing to smile even as the boys were overcome by the stench. The scale of the offence allowed for a comic satisfaction as the rather jolly Horace forced a purgative upon Crispinus, forcing the inferior poet to vomit up his words into a bucket, gagging and retching, while Horace and the others gleefully held up the specimens.
This interest in what makes up a person, and what is left over once the waste is expunged, led neatly into the final segment, from Thomas Ravenscroft’s late seventeenth-century play The Anatomist. Here again, the privileged space of the doctor’s office became an environment for coercion and exploitation. Once again a woman, this time the doctor’s nurse, dominated the action, firstly by fending off the lecherous advances of the doctor who tried to harass her. For Ravenscroft, clearly, doctors are characterised by their lust and love of money, and it’s money that won out, as the nurse persuaded the doctor to go see his clients. But then, when her own lover turned up, the scene turned into a slapstick farce as the doctor returned. The hapless lover posed first as a corpse (which the doctor was keen to immediately start cutting up) and then as a doctor himself, quickly falling in love with the money he was able to get from prescribing pills for whatever ailment or personal issue patients came to him with.
These were farcical scenes, linked by their mucky investment in bodily functions and performed by a game cast fully committed to the scatological excess of the scenes. But linking these scenes together (and presumably exaggerated in the fuller version) was an interesting overview of mistrust and corruption in the medical profession, in which people’s private ailments became public property, and humiliation and exploitation were inevitable outcomes of attempts to stabilise the body.