A children’s company pick up the theatrical baton, 400 years on
20th March 2014
A hardboiled Jacobean drama – with children
Sex, infidelity, social discord. Four hundred years ago, child actors tackled these themes in John Marston’s ‘The Malcontent’. How will the Globe’s new young players fare? First published in the Sunday Telegraph, 20 Mar, 2014.
Last summer, Joseph Marshall was just an average bright-eyed west London kid with little ambition to be an actor, and hardly any acting experience under his belt. It was his older sister who got really excited when Shakespeare’s Globe announced it was recruiting a bunch of 12 to 16-year-olds to perform in its newly constructed indoor Jacobean-style theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
She suggested he tag along with her to the auditions – and he remembers that the night beforehand she warned him not to raise his hopes, cautioning: “I think you’re too normal to act.” Whether that slight sibling put-down was a spur or not, Marshall – now 14 – got through the first round of auditions at the end of July, in which some 900 youths were whittled down to 200 or so. His sister was eliminated.
Two further auditions later, and he came home to find his mother had used Scrabble letters to spell out “Congratulations Malevole”. “I couldn’t believe it!” he says, grinning at the memory of it.
For those who don’t know John Marston’s tragicomedy The Malcontent – and as it’s rarely performed, there’s no reason why this should be common knowledge – Malevole is the star role. In the last major revival, by the RSC in 2002, it was played by Antony Sher. It’s a complex part: Malevole, the licensed fool at the court of Pietro, Duke of Genoa, is in fact the disguised Duke Altofront, who was overthrown by Pietro. He jeers, scoffs and benignly schemes. Early on, he rails thus: “I’ll come among you, you goatish-blooded toderers, as gum into taffeta, to fret, to fret. I’ll fall like a sponge into water, to suck up, to suck up. Howl again. I’ll go to church, and come to you.”
With its intrigue-filled plotting and jagged mix of verse and prose – it is sometimes compared to Hamlet thanks to its interest in the adoption of an “antic disposition” – the play can baffle even the most seasoned theatre-goer and test the most experienced stage actor. Yet Marston wrote it expressly for child performers. Although it was soon taken up by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company, it was first performed in 1603 by the Children of the Queen’s Revels, a boys’ company based at the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, a converted part of the Blackfriars Dominican priory to the west of St Paul’s.
It is this theatre that has inspired the architecture of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. And so when Marshall steps in front of an audience along with his 18 fellow Globe Young Players for a two-week run of The Malcontent in April, he won’t just be taking on the biggest challenge of his young life – he will be participating in a landmark theatrical event.
Though both sexes are tackling the text, with some girls playing male roles, and vice versa, this is the first time the circumstances of a revival have come so close to matching those of the premiere. History will be made and centuries o’er leaped.
Even before the production has opened, the project as a whole is throwing up fascinating questions. What do we actually know about the boy companies of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period? What was Marston attempting? What was expected of children at that time? What do we expect of children now? Can there be any hope of meaningful emulation?
To sit in on a weekend rehearsal – until this month, they have had to be conducted mainly on Sundays so as not to disrupt school – is to realise that even at this bastion of Shakespearean scholarship and practice, it’s OK not to know it all, to be trying to puzzle things out. Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of the Globe, has entrusted the production to Caitlin McLeod, a vivacious American-born director well used to working with young people – and the atmosphere that hits you on entering the brightly lit rehearsal-room is one of informal, eager curiosity.
A wall at the far end has been lined with a vast banner of paper along which a crowd-sourced timeline of the play has been scrawled, with drawings, quotes and remarks jotted down on Post-it notes. There is a surprising abundance of knowledge – Bianca, an attendant to the perfidious Duchess Aurelia, “may have been pregnant before she came to court”, reads one spidery contribution. There is also a healthy surfeit of humour. The Act IV masque is accompanied by suggested dance styles including “time-warp, Gangnam Style and the monster mash!”, while someone has confidently daubed a picture of hands clapping come the final scene of Act V.
Scampering around in jogging pants and T-shirts, the multiracial mix of youngsters present a very 21st-century picture. While most are from London some hail from quite far afield – three are from Yorkshire and Brogan Gilbert, 16, who plays Bianca, commutes from Newcastle. There is an air of constant liveliness, with bursts of excited chatter and the odd outbreak of giggling. McLeod keeps them in order by focusing them on the tasks at hand but even then room is allowed for youthful personalities to come through.
Today, they are inching through the first act. The principals are being put through their paces, while the rest of the ensemble creates tableaux to elaborate what’s going on in the text. Up to Christmas half these sessions were given over to training on such period essentials as dance, music and movement. A wide-eyed online diary, written by the troupe, details gruelling warm-up exercises – including a course in posture and teamwork by a chap from British Military Fitness and a mingle with the company from The Duchess of Malfi, the first show off the block at the Playhouse. But now the play’s fully the thing.
Setting the scene, McLeod calls for some morning sounds – the kids duly oblige with chirruping noises and in one case the sound of car-horns. “There were no cars back then!” she advises. The text calls for “the vilest out-of-tune music” and the youngsters let loose a free-for-all cacophony. Marshall gets to work with his opening round of railing as Malevole, then puts his hand up with a question.
“Um, will I be seen?” he wonders. There is some mirth at this but he has alighted on an essential point; everyone needs to know what’s going on around them at every stage, how they fit into the world of the production.
McLeod has a broad idea of what the play is about – the crux of it, she believes, is to do with the nature of nobility, and the carnivalesque sense of the social order being upended. “There is this idea that we are all born as awful as each other. Low status and high status shifts in almost every scene.”
Her tendency in rehearsals is to keep things practical rather than theoretical. When she asks Marshall to focus on an activity as he moves among the courtiers – as if searching for something – the performance suddenly acquires a sense of shape. Later on she has the company loudly whisper salient phrases – “my state’s usurped”, “dear soul”, “just revenge” – from his soliloquy back at him; it’s quite chilling, or as someone pipes up “It’s like [Harry Potter and the] Chamber of Secrets when he’s walking down the corridor”.
What on earth, you wonder, would the boy players who first brought Marston’s play to life have made of this carry-on? We don’t know the names of those who performed it. The youngest would have been those with unbroken voices, around nine, but we have to guess the upper age limit, which probably pushed into late adolescence. There are no contemporary critical accounts to draw on. Yet as Dr Will Tosh, a research fellow based at the Globe, explains, we still know quite a lot about them. Boys’ companies were very much in vogue when Marston was writing, in a great surge of creativity, between around 1598 and 1608, at which point he wound up in jail and seems to have forsworn playwriting completely.
Born to a wealthy Oxfordshire family in 1576, Marston wrote predominantly for boys’ companies. He wasn’t alone in creating works for these child acting troupes – among the big-wigs who wrote copiously for them were Francis Beaumont (The Knight of the Burning Pestle), George Chapman (Bussy d’Ambois), Thomas Dekker (Westward Ho!) and Ben Jonson (Cynthia’s Revels). Of the children’s companies performing at the time, there were two notable ones – the Children of Paul’s and the Children of the Chapel which became, among various re-namings, The Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Stuart ascension in 1603.
Tosh, an actor turned academic, stresses that we need to make a few distinctions. There is a difference between “boy players”, who abounded in Elizabethan theatre, and took on female roles, and boys’ “companies”. These troupes were offshoots of the dedicated boys’ choirs fostered in the reign of Henry IV to sing at court as required (the Children of the Chapel Royal continues to this day). Early in the 16th century, the practice began of having them perform dramatic interludes but there were two distinct later flowerings.
“There’s the period from the 1570s to the 1580s when there are boys’ companies at Paul’s, performing in the cathedral precinct. They fade out and then come back in the late 1590s as a sort of new fashion,” Tosh explains. The sneering reference in Hamlet (c 1599) to “an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for ’t”, he adds, “is a reference to the children of Blackfriars becoming the hot new company.”
Such lines might make them sound like precocious upstarts, but while it was seen as a privilege to be a member of the boys’ companies, life was hard-going. “Marston doesn’t limit his ambition because he conceives the plays as being played by boys,” says Tosh. “He and other playwrights working in this area are putting on rather arch and sophisticated plays that might draw on classical precedent and which include wordplay and wit that rely on an educated and knowing audience to get it.
“The best way to think about it is as if they were boy choristers. Composers don’t go, ‘Oh look, these madrigals are being sung by children, therefore let’s make them simple’. Boy companies of this period are trained in diction, oration, rhetoric, movement. They’re drilled in an extremely prescriptive and possibly brutal way to get it right and then they go on stage and they do it.”
There was a grey area surrounding the powers granted to the choirmasters to dragoon the finest choristers into service. Liberties were taken with promising young actors too. In 1600, Henry Clifton of Norfolk complained to the Star Chamber about the impressing of his 13-year-old son, Thomas, seized from school to “exercise the base trade of a mercynary enterlude player, to his vtter losse of tyme, ruyne and disparagement… amongste a companie of lewde and dissolute mercenary players”. Master Evans, who ran the troupe at Blackfriars, was reprimanded.
Whether coerced into the company or not, child actors weren’t paid for their performances, although board and lodging and essentials such as clothing, were covered.
What are we to make of the darkness and licentiousness in much of the writing? An early joke in rehearsals was keeping a “cuckold count”, such is the characters’ rampant infidelity. To what extent was it felt that this was age-inappropriate material, and that this may have been part of its appeal? “A fundamental question,” Tosh agrees, “and a difficult and slightly discomforting one to answer. It wasn’t regarded as problematic at the time. In certain plays there’s a toying awareness of the sexuality of the actors themselves – less so in Marston, who is an incredibly cool and analytic playwright”.
Dromgoole, who gets irked at hard-and-fast distinctions about what’s suitable for children and adults, thinks this project will help explode them. “There’s so much talk about adults finding their inner child, you think: why not let children discover their inner adult?
“Of course,” Dromgoole continues, “there would have been an irony about some of that worldly wisdom or plain filth coming out of young mouths. Putting mature relationships, marriages in decay, sexuality on the loose in the hands of kids – that was part of a deliberate knowing irony.” And that holds good today, he reckons. “We’re trying to get them to understand it as completely as they can but all the possible repercussions and nuances won’t be available to them.” Not that this necessarily puts an adult audience in a condescending position.
“What I love about these kids is they are so bright and they’re able to apply that brightness – they won’t clutter things up with emotion or self-consciousness, the things that adult actors might bring to this material. It’s an ideal match.” Expectations shouldn’t be lowered about this experiment, he says, emphasising the intention that the Young Players becomes an entrenched part of the producing model, with children staying on for several seasons and even going on to work with the adult company.
A tradition, then, is being restarted that hasn’t been in operation for the best part of 400 years. The fortunes of the Children of the Queen’s Revels – afflicted by falling in and out of royal favour – were on the wane after they left Blackfriars in 1608, although there are records of them touring until 1617. The closure of the theatres in 1642, after the Civil War, brought the era of the boy player to an end; following the Restoration actresses took the roles.
“We want to present this as well as we possibly can,” Dromgoole says. “There’s some wonderful youth theatre in this country but some of it proceeds from the premise that children are in need of help. We proceed from the premise that we’re in need of help from the kids – they will teach us how this theatre works and how those plays were written.”
No pressure for the children, then? They seem, judging by their ever-buoyant spirits, impervious to being daunted. Not that they’re sounding too cocky. As 14-year-old Guy Amos, playing Mendoza, the villain of the piece, confides with a twinkle: “Of course, it’s going to be a bit scary. If you’re not nervous, you’re not human!” Out of the mouth of babes…