“Venereal dreams” and Rock and Roll: The RSC’s A Mad World, My Masters

Reflecting on his film Revengers Tragedy (2002), Alex Cox notes that Thomas Middleton is a strikingly “contemporary” dramatist: his concerns are our own, his language is distinctly “modern.”  Sean Foley and Phil Porter prove this to be true of Middleton’s sensational comedies as well as his sensational tragedies.  In their words, the play is “as outrageous as anything you might find on Channel 4, yet as hilarious as any classic mainstream comedy, the play manages to be satirical yet celebratory.”  Directed by Foley, the RSC’s A Mad World, My Masters is currently playing at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon; it is filthy, ludicrous, and funny – certainly our own concerns as much as those of the Jacobean world that bore it.

A Mad World, My Masters

In or around 1608, Middleton wrote A Mad World, My Masters for the Children of Paul’s, a company of boy players.  As is usual for comedies in the boy theatres, there is a huge to-do over sexuality and sexual deviance, as well as sexual celebration.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, Mad World is replete with puns and wordplay.  Foley and Porter have updated a number of words and names in the text, in order to make the bawdy jokes immediately recognisable, and it has the result of making the double entendres and witty one-liners swift and punchy.  The production sets the play in 1950s Soho, “where glamour rubs up against filth, and likes it; where the posh mix with musicians, whores and racketeers; where ‘virginity is no city trade’, and where a dashingly impecunious bachelor in need of quick cash and a good time has to live on his wits,” as the RSC production blurb puts it. In some of its camper moments, indeed, both the play and the RSC’s production resemble a Carry On film as well as a Channel 4 comedy, but the setting also emphasises A Mad World‘s “city comedy” atmosphere.

The production is playful with the original text, careless of its “sanctity” and careful to keep its irreverent spirit by treating Middleton’s words with equal irreverence.  The result is not an “updating” of the text, but an electric dialogue between 2013 and Middleton’s London.  The play’s ending, “a great feast,” makes that dialogue fantastically apparent, when the guests are invited to a “Jacobean fancy dress” party, prompting roars of delight (admittedly, mainly mine).

Reminiscent of Cheek By Jowl’s carnivalesque ’Tis Pity last year, the RSC’s Mad World could not inaccurately be called a musical.  The set is richly evocative of ’50s Soho, with street lights, diners, cigarettes, cocktails, and record players – and the music is suitably matched.  In a move that I want to compare to the hyped latest Gatsby soundtrack, in spite of the enormous disparity in commercial prospects, the production playlist is available on the RSC website, and it is no exaggeration to say that the musicians and Deborah Tracey’s powerful singing were given equal billing to the actors.  Indeed, somewhat like the musical interludes between acts in the early modern private theatres, the scene and set changes were delivered through Charlestons and Jives to the infectiously upbeat music; compellingly toe-tapping as it was, the standing seats were really the dancing seats.

The cast, too, was outstanding.  Follywit (Richard Goulding) was lively and camp with flashes of cruelty, Sir Bounteous Peersucker (Ian Redford) Falstaff-like in his revelry but again with shades of darkness, not to mention the indications of S&M in his relationship with the Courtesan (renamed to the Middletonian “Kidman”).  It was a hint at perversion that circulated for the first half of the play in the form of a whip.  The whip was an ingenious use of a prop, uniting Middleton’s familiar thematic preoccupations with dark and anarchic delight and moralising admonition: perversion and conversion.  The perversion turned to masochism in Mad World‘s later stages, where Penitent Brothel repents, and, played by John Hopkins, repeatedly flays himself on stage in moments that tread that fine line between laughter and pity – a line that Middleton collapses himself when he stages the haunting Satanic succubus in the fourth act.

The devil-succubus in Mad World mixes the trend for “devil” comedies in the 1600s with the antimasque elements of tragedies. It is fascinating to think what visual signs the early modern theatre would have attributed to the Devil, given that the word itself is a sufficient stage direction in so many plays for what must be a received convention.  Even in the wife’s “shape,” Penitent Brothel is immediately aware of its otherworldliness, exclaiming “Shield me you ministers of faith and grace…Th’art a Deuill” (F2r / 4.1.33; 34).  Foley’s production dealt with the issue by turning a coy and self-conscious adulteress – Ellie Beaven as Mrs Littledick – into a stunning seductress in red.  The eggs in the pan, smoking with fire, were an inspired addition to the scene.  At the centre of a play of subplots is the courtesan, played in exceptional style by Sarah Ridgeway, who flitted between Irish nun, cockney prostitute, and high-class call girl in wink and a nudge nudge and a matter of moments.

All of which is to say I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would have returned again, and maybe again, if I had been in Stratford for long enough. The tickets are an absolute bargain: go and see this play!  Sharing a cast with Titus, A Mad World, My Masters seems the perfect foil, only with so many similarities.  I hope the production proves so popular that we see another run, and some more Middleton on the stage.  Promising – and delivering – “feast, mirth, ay, harmony, and the play to boot,” summer 2013 at the Swan will hopefully prove “a jovial season” (V.i.120-1 / H1v).



Cox, Alex.  X Films: true confessions of a radical filmmaker.  London: I.B. Tauris, 2008. Print.

Middleton, Thomas. mad vvorld, my masters London, 1608.  Early English Books Online.  Web. 10 June 2013.

Middleton, Thomas.  A mad World, my Masters.  Ed. Peter Saccio. Collected Works.  Ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007.  417-451. Print.


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