by John Marston.
White Bear Theatre 138 Kennington Park Road SE11 4DJ to 11 December 2011.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm Sun 6pm.
Runs 1hr 45min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7793 9193.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 6 December.
Moral purpose in a shallow society revived with a fiercely comic sense.
John Marston was the John Donne of early 17th-century theatre. Like Donne’s poetry, Marston’s plays are sexy and satirical. And both ended-up clergymen. Marston specialised in plays for the boys’ companies in vogue at the time – Hamlet’s “little eyases”.
This play exemplifies in its title character a dramatic type of the time – if not of most times. Malevole is malcontented, like Hamlet, and for roughly similar reasons; he’s the other face of usurped Duke of Genoa, Altofront, hanging around in disguise railing like a bitter fool against a pretentious, self-seeking society.
Unlike Hamlet, and other tragedies, The Malcontent’s fierce satire doesn’t end in a bloodbath. Though revenge arrives, as so often, in the guise of a masque performed as court entertainment, there’s a zero body-count. Even deep-dyed villain Mendoza, making his attitude towards women plain to the audience, planning the murder of almost everyone on stage, is only carted off at the end. Maquerelle, the servant arranging sexual liaisons for jewellery, is dispatched as a prostitute and others repent.
Such a lot is show, rather than character in depth, it’s easy to see the hand of a playwright used to writing for talented child actors. And the false surfaces are prominent in Rae McKen’s revival for Custom/Practice and Graffiti Productions (companies to watch).
Elaborate bows and gestures, signalling respect and signifying insincerity are matched by elaborated, decorated yet incomplete costumes, hairstyles and face-paintings. They reach an apogee in Richard Kiess’s blissfully funny beanpole Bilioso, yanking-up a leg to display it proudly to the audience, openly admitting he’s the very model of a fawning courtier following whoever holds power, adapting his words to fit a new authority.
Spectators sit in judgement on him and other self-seekers, with two audience rows seated jury-like behind a rail, part of designer Penelope Watson’s ingenious marrying of fringe budget with a sense of decadent splendour, gold-edged black with red swathes criss-crossing above the low-topped, confined stage space.
There may be room for refinement and variety beyond what’s seen here, but McKen and her cast capture the raw, furious energy and we certainly get the point.
Bilioso: Richard Kiess.
Pietro: Lorenzo Martelli.
Ferrardo: Matthew Gibbs.
Malevole: Adam Howden.
Count Celso: Rupert Charmak.
Mendoza: Gershwyn Eustache.
Aurelia: Rebecca Loudon.
Ferneze/Captain: Boris Mitkov.
Maquerelle: Shanaya Rafaat.
Bianca/Maria: Susie Potter.
Director: Rae McKen.
Designer: Penelope Watson.
Lighting: Dan Jones.
Composer: Edward Lewis.
Movement: Lucy Cullingford.
Voice: Margo Cargill.