COMUS Wanamaker, SE1

A MIRTHFUL MORALITY
If Lucy Bailey’s wickedly funny interpretation of Milton’s moralising work gets another run (make it so!) anyone auditioning should make sure they are one of the parts which double as the Monstrous Rout. Hunched, ragged, depraved, extravagantly diseased, they scuttle and hump and do mad pissed stick-dances, and interfere extravagantly with fellow cast-members and the nearer audience: what’s not to enjoy? Indeed, there is a rich fund-raising opportunity: if Bailey chooses to auction a night’s participation as a supernumary rout-er. I’d definitely bid.

 
I doubt that many Eng.Lit sixth-formers, or even freshmen, study COMUS now as we did. A Masque In Honour of Chastity, delivered in florid, classically allusive iambic couplets could be a tricky sell to the Tinder and ROFL generation. Even in the ‘60s we groaned. Yet we still hold the of images and quotations: here is “the smoke and stir of this dim spot which men call Earth”, Sabrina under her “glassy green translucent wave”, the fog and fire by lake or moorish fen where blue meagre hags and stubborn ghosts prowl. Here are love-darting eyes, swinish gluttony, and the timeless sexy challenge “What hath night to do with sleep?”.

 

 
Milton’s blend of tremendous poetry and ornate pomposity reminds you how directly vernacular most of Shakespeare feels. He dates more than the older material . So does the tale of a virginal sister, separated from her protective brothers in a wood, kidnapped by Comus, son of Bacchus and enchanted helpless into a magic chair. She resists his blandishments and enchantments with her steely virtue, never even blinking, until rescued by a water-nymph from the river Severn. Yet what Bailey does in this candlelit, gilded, garlanded Jacobean playhouse is to recruit Patrick Barlow to book-end it with comedy. An all too human 17c household struggles to stage it to clean up the family reputation after “Uncle Gilbert” has stained it with with seduction, sodomy, rape and general disgracefulness. This is based in fact: the piece was commissioned for Sir John Egerton when he became Lord President of Wales after his brother-in-law’s depraved downfall. His two sons and daughter were to play the wandering virtuous young. The composer Lawes provided music and stood in as the narrating Spirit.

 

 
So far, so scholarly. But Barlow and Bailey make it bubble with fun: the one contemporary twist is making Lawes a somewhat desperate director, while the teenage Lady Alice (Emma Curtis) tries to refuse to do the damn thing at all . Her brothers, in silken flounces and ridiculous lace collars, moan at her and her father (Andrew Bridgmont, later a key member of the Monstrous Rout) forces her to do it. Her reason for resistance may be partially explained by – ahem! – the rather gynaecological design (by William Dudley) of the magic chair. It forces her into a stirrup position no girl wants made public. In the coda she gets to deliver a rousing feminist polemic, interpreting chastity as self-determination: neatly modern, though not very Milton.

 

 

In between, what with a smoky understage tunnel swallowing the Lord President and domestic staff and Rout-ifying them, the tale clips along. Both Comus (a satanic Danny Lee Wynter) and the Spirit (Philip Cumbus) do a brilliant job of delivering sugary temptations and plonking moralities with a sort of urgent mocking conviction, chucking in the odd spare word or repetition to fine effect. The brothers have an even harder job, iambically debating the value of their sister’s chastity while the Monstrous Rout trip them up and take unpardonable liberties with their pantaloons.
At moments it is a a bit Milton-meets-Monty-Python, and very funny indeed; but enough of the verbal beauty seeps through, and Paul James’ settings yearn from the gallery, played by pipes, flutes, shawn , percussion, virginal ,hurdy-gurdy and strings. Natasha Magigi, freed from her maid’s outfit and then her Monstrous-Rout costume into a big-turbaned-nymph kit, is particularly appealing. Even in a splendidly gratuitous Harry-met-Sally moment when she disenchants the magic chair. Goodness, how I wish I’d met COMUS this way first.
box office (0)207 401 9919 http://www.shakespearesglobe.com to 19 Nov
rating: four   4 Meece Rating

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