A Masque in Honour of Chastity
(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 26 October 2016)
Comus is the first of several productions I’ll be seeing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse this season and it proved to be a curious kettle of fish. It was commissioned from John Milton by the Earl of Bridgewater, who had just been appointed Lord President of Wales, and was performed on Michelmas 1634 at the Earl’s new seat of Ludlow Castle. The three main roles of the Lady and her two Brothers were performed by the Earl’s own children, and the masque trumpeted the family’s honour, virtue and chastity. Of course, such trumpeting only hints that there was something to hide, and this production cleverly puts Comus back into context. But even the excellent team at the Globe can’t overcome the issues of the text, and Comus never quite stops feeling like a historical curiosity.
The scanty plot could be written on a post-it. The Lady and her Brothers are on their way to Ludlow Castle, to attend their father’s celebrations, when they lose their way in a dark wood. With night coming on, the Lady begins to fret about her Brothers, who have gone to gather wood, and she ill-advisedly wanders off into the forest. Here she stumbles across Comus, son of Circe and Bacchus, a lustful demigod who likes nothing more than deflowering virgins. Unfortunately for him, the Lady remains steadfast in her chastity, but wicked Comus lures her back to his palace, where he imprisons her in an enchanted chair and tantalises her with a drink which will dispel all her inhibitions. In the nick of time, her two Brothers arrive to rescue her from Comus and his lascivious followers, and the wicked spell is broken by the grace of Sabrina, nymph of the Severn River, who restores order.
So far, so Milton. But this production sandwiches the masque between two added scenes, written by Patrick Barlow, which introduce us to the Earl and his household, and hint at the scandal lurking in the Bridgewater history. It was all to do with Anne Stanley, the Countess of Bridgewater’s sister. Anne’s second husband, the Earl of Castlehaven (incongruously named Mervyn) had been executed in 1630 for sodomising his servants and arranging for another servant to rape Anne herself. As if this wasn’t bad enough, there were rumours that Anne herself had been a far from virtuous wife.
Comus dates from only four years after these unfortunate events, which had been reported in the press as far away as Massachussets. With a grand new appointment, and a daughter – Alice – nearing marriageable age, it was suddenly very important for the Earl of Bridgewater to emphasise his family’s virtues. Hence the subject of the masque, which nowadays comes rather close to the knuckle when you remember that the Lady was originally played by a fifteen-year-old girl, and the Brothers by her eleven- and nine-year-old siblings.
The production, directed by Lucy Bailey of blood-soaked Titus Andronicus fame, looks gorgeous. The Playhouse is decked with garlands of greenery and satyr-masks hang from the columns (if you’re on the upper level, you risk having your view severely impeded by horns). The enchanted chair becomes an ornate gynaecological examination couch, which makes it all the more disturbing. As ever, the costumes are lovely: the Lady (Emma Curtis) is in a white gown sprigged with silver embroidery, while her Brothers (Rob Callendar and Theo Cowan) wear silver doublets with puffed slashed sleeves and nipped waists, for all the world as if they’ve scrambled out of a Van Dyck portrait. These three noble children offer much of the humour: the Lady’s primness contrasting with the enthusiastic naivete of her Brothers, who bumble around in the forest like a pair of golden retrievers. From Comus himself (Danny Lee Wynter) comes the danger and the dark throb of excitement. In a doublet of sleek, supple red leather and with a husky country burr to his voice (I thought the accent drifted occasionally, but could be wrong), he was a true force of nature, pulsing a rare raw sexuality out into the Playhouse. And his followers, the Monstrous Rout, are a lust-crazed tangle of dishevelled shirts and precipitous bosoms, almost salivating over the virginal young creatures who have wandered into their midst.
None of the cast could be faulted for energy, but for me, the highlight was Philip Cumbus, whom I’ve admired in other Globe productions, and who here served as the Attendant Spirit, guarding the three children from Comus’s wiles. He also played Henry Lawes, the masque’s original composer, in the framing scenes. Cumbus’s fluid delivery meant that even Milton’s heavy lines were infused with light humour, and his comic timing was absolutely perfect; he also benefitted from a rather splendid costume, when he descended from heaven in a white gown and fur-trimmed robe. Among a cast who were earnestly doing their best to be either innocent or slaveringly lustful, Cumbus stood out as one who just moved gracefully through the text, offering a flash of humanity beyond the stiff paeans to chastity.
It’s all bawdy and exuberant but, despite the team’s best efforts, Comus still lacks the timeless power of the stories being churned out by Milton’s Jacobean predecessors. Perhaps this just shows what a philistine I am, but I found the language so overblown and stilted that it seemed absurd even when it wasn’t supposed to be. The cast skilfully brought out all the humour, and there were laughs aplenty, but all too often we were laughing at Milton’s prose, not with it.
Furthermore, I couldn’t quite decide what I thought about the framing device. The added scenes offered fresher modern humour, but it was hard to escape the thought that they were buttresses holding up an edifice that might have had trouble standing alone. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Globe significantly alter the presentation of a period play, not by simply cutting a few lines but by undermining its very spirit. This is most evident in Alice’s final speech, where (I imagine) she deviates from Milton’s original text, which presumably professed her virtue and obedience to her father, in order to pronoune a modern feminist doctrine of independent choice. Yes, this chimes with our views nowadays. But it’s not faithful to Milton’s period. I was made uncomfortable by it. It was as if the audience had to be spoon-fed a reassuring PC coda, lest we be offended by 17th-century female oppression.
Comus was adored by theatrical audiences and artists in the 18th and 19th centuries, but even that popular hit was a reimagining of Milton’s original, produced in 1740 with music by Thomas Arne. Even now it seems that it has to be explained, sexed up and made comic in order to connect with a contemporary audience. Was it the right kind of thing to revive? Think, for example, of the glorious anarchy that can be conjured up by these early works: The Knight of the Burning Pestle made me laugh until I cried, and I couldn’t help wishing that Comus had tapped into a similar vein.
Don’t get me wrong: Comus has redeeming features, but essentially it’s a curate’s egg. The text is interesting in an academic kind of way, and the context of its creation is certainly fascinating, but the production never quite managed to do what the Playhouse achieves at its best: to dissolve the boundaries between past and present, and to make the words of long-dead writers seem fervently, urgently alive.