English Touring Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company – A Mad World My Masters

Something didn’t quite sit right about A Mad World My Masters at the Hall for Cornwall. With English Touring Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company at the helm, there was a feeling that this would be a night to remember. I suppose, in a way, it was.

There was much to admire about this production, particularly in terms of design. 1950’s Soho has a certain look and feel to it, which was well captured by designer, Alice Power. It had a shimmering veneer, hiding a mélange of debauchery and corruption beneath. The music across the piece, supplied by a marvellous swing band perched atop the set, worked well to punctuate the scenes, particularly when Linda John-Pierre soulfully sang along.

The overall sound design, however, seemed curious and inconsistent. Sometimes effects were live, at other points they were played in through speakers, mostly bearing no relation to the on stage action. Window slides and whistles were clearly fabricated, but not performed or designed well enough to actually enhance the scene.

While aspects of the production worked, the play, particularly the edit and direction, really grated. Yes, it’s a Jacobean city comedy, but it was needlessly coarse. Let me be the first to say, I adore knob jokes; in fact, there is very little I enjoy more than a good knob joke. But, if everything is a knob joke, then nothing is a knob joke.

When your normal is permanent penis puns, you (forgive me for this) simply can’t see the wood for the trees. They needed to pick their moments, but instead each line was basted in double entendre, accompanied by a wry wink, or a knowing nod. At other points, scenes were simply driven along by a string of phallic gestures. Most of the time, neither of these approaches were necessary: Mr. Littledick leaves nothing to the imagination. It felt like they were compensating for something.

But for what? It’s a strong script, with some great performances, it doesn’t need to be perpetually steeped in vulgarity. However, it felt as though the original play was the principle issue for the company, that it needed “sexing up” somehow. If this was the case, then why select that text in the first place?

It was a tricky one to enjoy, not least because the person I was sat with was covered once in water, and then again in a delightful spit/water mixture. The play seemed a curious choice, and the end product is sexist drivel, too loaded with prurient silliness to debunk or ridicule the inherent misogyny of the time.

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