Idleness (the tantalising Will Groves) takes charge of his not too witty chosen victim. Pictures: Nickbimages.com

John Redford: Wit and Science

Edward's Boys

 Levi Fox Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon


Who was John Redford? It’s not a name we associate with the playwrights of the Elizabethan or Jacobean era; not with Restoration Comedy; nor with any later era.

In fact, he’s virtually the only recognised playwright from the first part of the 16th century.

The reason is obvious. Redford died – purportedly - the same year as Henry VIII- 1547 - although some nine or ten months later. And he was born around 1500. He should thus be termed a Henrician playwright, just as he was, like Fayrfax, Taverner and Tye, a Henrician composer. He was dead a quarter of a century before Dekker, Fletcher, Ford, Tourneur, or of course Shakespeare, were born. And some 40 years before all the stage dramas we know hit the stage.

Redford has fallen off the map. Perhaps we might as a consequence expect something naïve. But now, riding to the rescue, are the ever-inventive, brilliantly disciplined, impudent, dramatically sophisticated troupe of Edward’s Boys, the Stratford-based ensemble whose witticism or savagery never fail to have their audience on the edge of their seats.

Enterprising and ingenious, exuding vitality, splendid executors of the comic art, they offer some of the most excitingly daring of any such band to tread the boards both in England and, I daresay in Europe (where they are performing at the Palazzo Ducale in Geonoa). And now, undeterred, they have served up Redford’s The Play of Wyt and Science, his most celebrated stagework,


Jack Hawkins, sparklingly original and unpredictable as ever

If Redford was indeed dead by 1550, there are few who were penning plays in his time. Closest in date were Nicholas Grimald, who wrote staged biblical dramas in the 1540s; or Richard Edwardes (b.1525), a reputed illegitimate son of Henry VIII. Thomas Legge, born c.1535, wrote a Richard III deemed the earliest historical drama written in English, which presents a balanced , even supportive, view of Shakespeare’s villain; Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset (b.1536) produced the first play to be presented in English blank verse, a drama of political intrigue staged in 1561 before Elizabeth I; George Whetstone (b. c1544) was a partial source for a couple of Shakespeare’s comedies.

A group of playwrights were born in the 1550s, just after Redford’s death: Richard Edes (1555-1604), later wrote a Latin Julius Caesar (Caesar Interfectus); William Gager (b.1555), was a significant composer of Latin Dramas (which were the fashion of the day): his Oedipus, Dido, Ulysses are indebted to Seneca; Anthony Munday (b. c.1560), wrote – from 1584 – some 16 plays, mostly in collaboration with, or adapting and updating, others’ work.

Add, more importantly, the famous Thomas Kyd (1558-94), whose Spanish Tragedy and Arden of Faversham – and even a King Leir – date among his seven plays from the late 1580s and 1590s; and John Lyly (b. 1553/4), a key neglected playwright (of nine to ten essentially happy ending dramas) whom Edward’s Boys have brilliantly made their own: Galatea, and The Woman in the Moon, first performed by the phenomenally talented 16thC Boys of St. Paul’s, have both been taken up by Perry Mills’s present Edward’s boys - starring their outstanding talent, the inimitable Joe Pocknell - alongside plays by Ford, Beaumont, Marston, Nashe and Middleton .

Virtually all of these, it should be noted, like Kyd and Munday, were not penning their plays till the 1580s and ‘90s. John Redford is therefore the only playwright to emerge clearly from the first half of the 16th century – apart from Nicolas Udall, for seven years Headmaster of Eton College (he left under a cloud), who was born in 1504 and died in 1556 - closest to the dates of John Redford -whose immensely popular Ralph Roister-Doister was seen as the first English comedy. The play was probably written in 1552, again for boy actors. 

Redford excelled in both music and drama, taking over in his mid-twenties as organist, later choirmaster, of St. Paul’s Cathedral. One well-known anthem attributed to him, Rejoice in the Lord Alway, is now usually deemed to be by another. But pre-empting Purcell’s setting by half a century, it gives an idea of what a Redford piece might have sounded like. His organ works are prolific, and now increasingly recorded.

But he also wrote plays, and more lightweight interludes; and these were for performance by his boy choristers (enhanced), much in the way the later tradition of boy actors was maintained, revived (or intermittently suppressed) in Shakespeare’s day, by the 1590s.

The Boys of St. Paul’s emerged as one of the most skilled and artistically savvy of the few troupes of that period. They could act (both sexes; several, not necessarily unbroken voiced, became famed for their female roles); they could master the lines, more often than not fearfully complex, and deliver them impeccably; they could sing; they could dance and prance. They were, in fact, utter professionals.

The same can be said of Edward’s Boys, the canny, versatile and gloriously articulate theatrical troupe nurtured by King Edward VI School, Stratford. Under their Director Perry Mills these youngsters, in presenting John Redford , prove never less than inspired: they master their roles, they remember without fail vast swathes of patently difficult text (to them, the trickiest or most abstruse iambics seem to come utterly naturally); they know almost instinctively where to import humour and wit, anger and indignation, slyness and secrecy, jealousy and bitterness, liveliness and vigour, comic zest, pathos and Angst.



Ignorance (Jyan Dutton) is all ears, which may be change but is not quite Bottom

They speak their lines, faultlessly, as if they were inventing them for the first time, yet with a familiarity that communicates itself through first class, frankly amazing, diction. They are, virtually without exception, prodigies.

The redoubtable Jack Hawkins, still the troupe’s outstanding figure (his masterpiece was in the title role of Marston’s The Malcontent – a feat of astonishing animation, subtlety and vigour, and a shift of moods he to some extent incorporated here - demonstrated in a bellowing, or at least hoarse, prologue (possibly invented – the original being lost), featuring one element his juniors have got from him, as he from other predecessors: an ability to communicate directly and engage with the audience, in fact to lure the audience in, chaffing and teasing them and eliciting wriggles of embarrassment, and much laughter, always good natured, from some in-yer-face sneer or witty repartee, assaults of brazenness or effrontery, disparagement or mockery, qualities Hawkins whenever let loose delivers in heaps.

As for athletics – his electrifying leap straight on to a table was as risky as it was adroit. There’s a line with a cheeky internal rhyme something like ‘Now I am nimble to make the couplets leap onto the table’, a rather pert summary of his evident alacrity. But over five or so years, despite a rather plain role in Summer’s Last Will and Testament, Hawkins has never put a foot wrong.

The play is idled with abstract roles, not unlike early Italian opera. So Reason (Abhi Gowda), Instruction (Nilay Sah), Confidence (Ritvick Nagar) and Wit (Felix Kerrison-Adams) are all key figures in the unwinding of this hefty quasi-morality play.

The real opening, so far as I could see by the spectacularly well-spoken, somewhat dogmatic Reason (Gowda; though Nilay Sah - Instruction - ran him close for clarity and authority), set the standards for diction for which Edward’s Boys are universally applauded. Soon on the scene was Ritvick Nagar, right back on form since he played a cheeky young wag on his first outing, and a slightly pallid villainous role in Malcontent. Nagar shifted between two quite different roles: first, Confidence, then the curiously named Honest Recreation: he spent half the time, when not in bizarre heavy Amsterdam jeweller’s specs, in a kind of tongue-in-cheek woman’s attire (of a very basic kind, the costuming here being rather attractively simple); and he too has a gift for engaging an audience with a sly look, a flip of the head, a fidgeting of the hands and particularly a pert spoken aside.


Ritvick Nagar (Confidence) produces . . . a confidence trick

Nagar has a stage presence that is commanding, assuming prominence easily. He was arguably the best in the cast for catching hold of enjambment (continuing on to the next line without a pause in verse) and using it to especially neat or appropriate effect. The speed of his speaking was constantly well-judged; his use of dropped volume and perfect pauses striking. If he would sometimes benefit from differentiating his role from his own personality, in otherwise exploring more deeply, that does not prevent him from being one Edward’s Boys’ star performers. An enjoyable vignette in the programme runs: ‘Nagar, are you troubled by sexual thoughts?’ ‘No, sir, I rather enjoy them.’ He does best in roles where he is the clever one, adept at quickfire repartee, who outwits everyone else. As for the quote, it is part of Edward’s Boys’ maxim ‘The work is demanding, requires discipline, and is enormous fun. It also contains a great deal of sex and violence. Onstage. What more could a group of boys ask for?’

Song and dance played some modest role in this production. A song very Henrician in manner (one was reminded of Greensleeves) played an apt part. A clapping dance – again, the music felt not unlike Henry VIII’s own rather stylish compositions - followed a rather adroit, unexpected game of twirling handball: yet again, this company loves to furnish the unpredictable. An entertaining five-part warbling from a group of servile and earnest waiters came off rather well.

The focal role of Wit (though the text makes him more gullible and vulnerable and outwitted than his name implies) was taken by Felix Kerrison-Adams. His role proved something of a triumph. He turns up in more scenes than anybody else, and he provided a variety and often an invention that impressed. Constantly in trouble, often for inordinate haste, hapless, impatient, outwitted, almost imprisoned in his own confusion, firing off improbable and unexpected shots at his fellow cast members, and constantly led a merry dance, he was a kind of amiable no-hoper. They all took advantage of him, exuding glee, and he seemed almost resigned to being something of a loser – but then occasionally turning the tables. An enjoyable showing, boding well.

Yiannis Vogiaridis, another Edward’s Boys’ find following half a dozen successful parts played by his brother (Pascal), came a bit more to the fore in no less than three roles: Diligence, Quickness and Worship. As an actor he is indeed just that – diligent. When he frees up – as betimes here, he seems much more promising. He has a sort of Master of Ceremonies character, which might benefit him in future roles. Here, a good bit livelier thanks to his triple role, he seemed to emerge more sophisticated, and more alive.


Science (Tom Howitt), despite the wig a poignant presence and an exemplary young speaker


These allegorical, almost cartoonesque figures, so the Director writes (such as John Cherry, an amiable, earnest newcomer as Study) are in fact more than themselves: they are parodies, pen-portraits, above all of a school’s teaching staff, all different in manner: pompous, tedious, sadistic, manipulative, smug, imperious, naïve but know-it-all, narcissistic. These characters ‘are all of them subjected to mockery throughout.’

Below a splendid cartoon of a crabbed pedagogue and only slightly daunted Tudor-era Molesworth, straight out of Ronald Searle, is the suggestion, ‘The schoolteacher is certainly underpaid as a childminder, but ludicrously overpaid as an educator.’ The quote is from John Osborne: typically sardonic. (‘A Professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep’ might have done as well.)

With his fretful, vigilant mother (Johan Valiaparambil) fluttering and muttering and chaperoning around him/her, one of my favourite performers – in The Malcontent also - is one of the youngest, Tom Howitt. As Science he has curiously, a relatively attenuated role, but his diction is to die for. What makes for enunciation is not just consonants (obviously crucial) but well-formed vowels too. Howitt has that gift. Even as a page boy in The Malcontent, his diction was nothing less than stunning. He reminds me of Charlie Waters, whose diction by his last role (Orion, in Summer’s Last Will and Testament) surmounted a new level of perfection. Howitt has an intelligence beyond his years. Surely promotion beckons.

Which brings one to the obvious other star. If any young actor has the talent to match a Joe Pocknell or Jack Hawkins, it has to be Will Groves. Being cast as Idleness here gave him the perfect opportunity to think up wicked wheezes, to relish the fun and arrant outrageousness of sheer misbehaviour. Groves has already astounded by his astounding Maquerelle, Aurelia’s lady in waiting in The Malcontent. The stunning French accent there, source of the some of the play’s best comedy, was matched by a vast range of fluttery gesture and cheeky facial manipulation. It was a performance and a half.

Here we got the full Groves works: hugely intelligent speaking, wheedling, mocking, sneering, reprimanding, pouting; eyes narrowing beguilingly or opening expressively; tongue in cheek, pirouetting and twirling 360 degrees perfectly, endlessly buoyant, teasing, bossy, but also, at a stretch, generous hearted, empathetic and unforeseeably lovable (Wit being her victim; although most of the wit came from her). In dotty garb, at worst somewhat sinister, was it here that we encounter a sequence not unlike Henry V and Princess Katherine? If so, it was touching beyond belief.

The Play of Wyt and Science (interestingly the play The Contract of Marriage between Wit ad Wisdom by Thomas Marbury, written in prison in 1579, clearly owed a debt to Redford; and that was only one of the subsequent imitations) may only be a half-play: it runs for around an hour, and all these eighteen or more neatly differentiated characters are squeezed into that space. But with the pace and sharpness of Redford’s arresting and wryly, artfully pinpointed text, this work proves a pretty good match for Nashe, Lyly and others mentioned above. Who knows how these things will work out? It was, as usual, a brave undertaking by Edward’s Boys. And, needless to say, they scored another hit.

Roderic Dunnett


The production toured Stratford, Oxford and London before ending at the Palazzo Ducale di Genova, Italy at the sixteenth triennial colloquium at the invitation of the Société Internationale pour l’étude du Théâtre Médiéval. 

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