Fawn top pic

Will Groves, left, as Nymphadoro and Ewan Craig as Frappatore. Pictures: Nick Browning

Parasitaster or The Fawn

Edward’s Boys

Levi Fox Hall



Is there anything Edward’s Boys cannot achieve? In Shakespeare’s time, the late 16th century and early 1600s, with periodic declines, some of the most remarkable plays of the whole Tudor-Stuart era were produced; and the roles, male and female alike, were played by boys.

The ages varied: some might be as young as 12 or 13; others recruited even as little as eight or nine. Others with breaking or even broken voices, perhaps as old as 15 or 16 or more, could and did still star in girls’ roles, unfazed to appear apparelled in dresses.  

Gertrude, Ophelia, Cordelia, Portia might all take the stage as boys playing girls. Some boys later continued to act with men’s companies, such as the (subsequent) King’s Men. Since before the Restoration women were banned from the stage – until, under the Protectorate, plays themselves got eradicated from public performance, grown men still continued as women, again pretty impressively, some earning notable fame, above all Edward Kynaston, who revived the tradition after 1660 and was described by Pepys as "the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life”. Relevant to Edward’s Boys, he also played the title role in Ben Jonson’s The Epicœne, or The Silent Woman, a frisson added, not surprisingly, by his shifting sexual preferences.

But of major importance in our memory today is those spectacular troupes - the Children of (St.) Paul’s, the Children of the Chapel (Royal), or of The Queen’s Revels: child performers whose brilliance may sometimes, maybe often, have equalled – a few even outshone - our great leading actors of today.

They performed at court, by Royal command; they frequented one of the most celebrated theatres, at London’s Blackfriars. The acclaim they earned, and merited, rivalled that of footballers today.

There is such talent in the present company, Edward’s Boys, it is almost shocking. If not faultless, they come perilously near it. True, their brilliance and sparkle and superlative qualities may be rivalled by the top boy choristers today of (say) King’s College, Cambridge or New College, Oxford: singers, though, not actors. But imagine a boy MacKellen, an unfledged Branagh, a teenage Colin (or Peter) Firth, the boy Nicholas Hoult, onstage. Actually Hoult started similarly, as the youngster who adopts Hugh Grant so memorably and demandingly in the film (aptly) About a Boy.

Mic queen

Callum Maughan as (Donna Zoya, queen of the microphone

Michael Kitchen (Foyle’s War) played opposite Peter Firth, later Harry of Spooks, at the National Theatre (1974) as the two lead boys, Melchior and Moritz, in German playwright Frank Wedekind’s unbelievably daring 1890s play Spring Awakening, stunningly, even outrageously ahead of its time, about teenage sexual explosion, gay and hetero (and solitary) alike: the confusion, Angst, dreams, mistakes, pain that may result with catastrophic consequences. Firth also played the distracted boy opposite Richard Burton in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, where the source of the problem is, once again, a mixture of demented religious guilt and (reluctant) teenage sexual experimentation.

Now imagine, visualise, Edward’s Boys, the Children of Paul’s of today. Here is a school-based company (King Edward VI, Stratford, most surely Shakespeare’s old school) that uniquely rivals those of Ben Jonson’s time, the very early years of James I. Their latest, The Parasitaster (or more simply, The Fawn) is by John Marston. Marston (1576-1634) was a key figure among the tragic and tragicomic playwrights of the time: Middleton, Marlowe, Ford, Beaumont, Lyly. Initiated with Shakespeare in 2004 (plus one more later, Henry V, starring Jeremy Franklin, in 2013), Edward’s Boys have since 2008 tackled, and often resurrected, more than 20 plays of that period; four (now five) of them are by Marston.  

With tragedy the Boys work miracles (2019’s quite terrifying The Malcontent - again Marston - was perhaps the epitome). With comedy they thrill by their cheek, sophistication, sensuality, conviction and invention. Often, as in this, the two are intermingled, and they switch from the one to the other with consummate ease. If Marston frequently deploys ruthless Satire, there was loads of it here. Edward’s Boys are not like professionals: they are professionals.  

How is it that their speaking, let alone their learning, word perfect, of the most complex, often convoluted texts is so masterly? Their moves not just so brilliantly plotted, in the minutest detail, but so flawlessly enacted? Their individual gestures, stances (poses), moves, inflections, so faultlessly engineered, in part by themselves, and flawlessly enacted? How do they enter so totally, and unflaggingly, into character: generate a personality, an accent, a sense of individuality, and hold so tenaciously onto it and deliver a finished whole. Why are these boy actors all so staggeringly acute?  

The generator, one might say perpetrator, of all this daring excellence is their founder and director, Perry Mills. Season after season, he turns out these extraordinary, articulate, eye catching, audience-teasing stagings which entertain, educate, enlighten us; which show such initiative even in the choice of play, let alone vivid solutions to staging issues; hilarious but never gratuitous, updatings, which somehow marry the age they were written with enough of the modern day, but never trivially, so as to tickle by their very anachronisms, paradoxes, and oxymorons (as in fact the playwrights themselves are constantly devising for their day)?

duke mid

Johan Valiaparambil as Duke Gonzago

There’s no skipping the inappropriate: in fact Edward’s Boys’ plays - or at least their readings/intepretations/presentations of them - are deliciously politically, socially, pruriently incorrect. The conceptions embraced are not to be afraid to affront current know-all public taste. “We strive to explore the repertoire of the boys’ companies. The work is demanding, requires discipline and is enormous fun. It also involves a great deal of sex and violence. Onstage. What more could a group of boys ask for?”  

Great work is being done here. And hugely promising actors, people, whether actually for a professional future or more generally for the wider sheer quality of their developing intellects and unending gift of enquiry, are being nurtured. Several have gone forward, or certainly should have gone on, to (most obviously) that storehouse of talent, the Cambridge Footlights.  

The current most thus destined is Will Groves, who should have played the (unbroken-, or quasi-unbroken) - voiced title role in Jonson’s The Silent Woman, 2020’s already completely rehearsed production, shot to bits (cancelled) thanks to this loathsome pandemic. For not just the lead, but the whole ensemble, and certainly the director, this wanton destruction of another fully plotted masterpiece was desperate and demoralising. At least Groves turned up in fresh new guise in The Fawn. His male role talent might yet not be as fully mastered, or perceptive; as his females; but it is polished, and becoming so.

Much of this kind of emerging polish extends to the whole cast. The plot of The Fawn is a little hackneyed: Duke disguises himself; a marriage plotted but not yet in view (for his son, not for him) is being subtly and deceptively promoted (a ‘fawn’ is a wheedling – here disguised - pretendedly obsequious courtier). He is set against a seedy court, corrupt in various ways. misbehaviour that amid much mischief finally yields an unforeseen outcomes, in a clever denouement with almost masque-like divine intervention; plus a welter of crises, or not-really-but-perceived-as, crises; much vexation (hence hilarity); and a pompous, opinionated deuteragonist (rival Duke). Little fragments here and there (the lightly manoeuvred marriage), almost a paradigm for The Tempest.

The company (and school) may have lost many of its former stars, and characterful supporting actors. But Felix Kerrison-Adams (a girl in Marston’s The Malcontent), in a huge role here, with a mass of lines spanning almost two and a half hours, has emerged as a front runner in the tradition of, say, old hands (and grumpies) Daniel Wilkinson or Rory Gopsill. Another seasoned and thankfully surviving figure is Tom Howitt, promoted from Page (boy) to Garbezza (girl!), imprisoned wife to the impossibly decrepit Sir Amoroso Debiledosso (speaks for itself), determinedly crumbled across stage by Joseph Foley, newly promoted from chorus to a solo role.


Jamie Mitchell as Zuccone with Rufus Round, a one boy cast as sailor, waiter and Cupid 

But this is, in the main, almost an entirely new gang. And the promise reaches right down to ensemble members, silent or vocal. Each is kitted out superbly, thanks to the imagination and superb seamstressing of the half-dozen costumiers (whether youthful or senior), plus added ideas and dressing-up cupboard initiatives from cast members themselves; indeed the costume department exemplifies the company’s wide-ranging, 30-plus backstage talents..  

And - rather fun - someone ensured that every boy’s hair - those playing chaps, that is - was immaculately combed and parted. It looked almost like a uniform. There was a kind of additional twinge about this, given that several of them were toadies craving favours. Sucking up to Dukes you probably had best look - and be, and act - smart. 

The lights shone too (four designer-operatives). When a follow-spot was used, the aiming was as good as any repertory company’s. Mills marshalled (or mentored) two Movement Directors too, Struan Leslie and Laura Dredger. The moments of virtual ballet this time - highlighting the nautical theme - were deliciously creative, and performed with zest. Still on the visuals, Head of Art David Troughton’s designs – assuming he designed the glowering Cunard Liner - are unerringly superb, year on year. Mills’ printed gloss Programme, fronted by Troughton’s witty, parody artwork, is invariably a small (or not small) masterpiece in itself.

With perhaps one reservation. As for those same younger ensemble players, sailors both dance-stylish and (dare one say) gay, or - where appropriate - something in between, they exemplified two more things:

The blocking of Edward’s Boys productions is invariably a special, enabling feature. Often eight or nine characters were onstage, and their layout frequently had relevance to the scene, was shrewdly done, and pleasing to the eye.

The groupings of those same white-clad sailor lads - including one notable huddle frontstage and those attractively devised dances - were natty. This aspect took one back to the most vividly structured moments and fluent shiftings of their masterly Summer’s Last Will and Testament (2017), where yapping littluns (hunting dogs/puppies) melded together so gorgeously round scarlet-coated huntsman Charlie Waters (Orion); or also, back to the first sighting I had of the Boys, John Lyly’s Galatea (2014). Scrupulously rehearsed exits, often in structured units of up to five, were as there a bonus.  

These ensembles really came into their own beefed up by the music. Here was a wealth of Fifties, or even Thirties (Cole Porter) hoary old favourites delivered with such fun and panache and, yes, musical perfection. What fired all this up was the composite band. Keyboard especially, and deft drums (Luke Cherry, Zach Hedges), gave such punch and rhythm: hard not to, but they had it learned meticulously, showed marked capability at every turn, (granted some of it was heard from recordings) supplied lavish, always enhancing accompaniment to the group or to individuals. Cherry’s keyboard display was, time and again, spot on; the drums with style did not overwhelm. Much of it, electrifying.  

Icing on the cake was Oliver Feaver and his endlessly expressive saxophone playing, already obvious in The Malcontent. Feaver plays jazz (blues, for instance) almost as if improvising (perhaps partially, and instinctively, he was). Slides, subtle crescendoing and fading, already Music College standard and way beyond. His mastery of, and sensitivity in, the lower ranges, not least, is gobsmackingly impressive: sometimes slyly introduced, almost unnoticed portamentos, and like the two others, exuding musicianship from every pore. These tight-performed, perky, nostalgic set-pieces were a treat, their dexterity and finesse a constant surprise.  


Oliver Feaver and his endlessly expressive saxophone playing

So again, this riveting cast. First and foremost, quite a shock, was when Donna Zoya (they’re all Italo-Hispanic Dons and Donnas) - Callum Maughan - grabs a mike and delivers, from the poopdeck a stupendous rendering of Cole Porter’s My heart belongs to Daddy. It was, arguably, the most arresting sequence in the whole show. As it’s a big lyric about flirting with (other) boys, all the more fun. And carried off with such dazzling aplomb. Wow.

Maughan again took the lead in the final song - an outrageous rendering of Let’s do it, in which - instead of Cape Cod, Siam etc., boys, teaching staff (particularly), even the director are all sent up, What it is they’re all supposed to ‘do’ seems somewhat ambiguous. Certainly the cast seemed to find it joyous, hilarious and - deliciously ironic.

The two-way scene between husband and wife was one of the sharpest, most persuasive, of all. Zoya’s relationship with husband Zuccone (Jamie Mitchell) is, to put it mildly, ropy. He knows it. “Avaunt! I will marry a woman with no womb - a creature with two noses, - a wench with no hair, - rather than remarry thee!” And better still, “O! that we could increase like roses, slipp’d one from another - or like flies, procreate with blowing, or any other way than by a woman. Women, who have no mercy in their hate, no pity in their revenge, no judgment to speak, and yet no patience to hold their tongues.” Zoya could be forgiven for looking elsewhere.

 Hercules puts it rather differently: “Donna Zoya, the grace of society, the music of sweetly agreeing perfection, more clearly chaste than ice or frozen rain, that glory of her sex, that wonder of wit, that beauty more fresh’d than any cool and trembling wind.” Whether Callum’s Zoya deserves the first view or the second is debatable. Feisty, overwhelming drama queen, she could be a burden for any man: Witness her addressing the gaggle of idlers: “talk wantonly but not bawdily”, she urges (what’s the difference?). “Come, gallants, who’ll be my servants? All! I am taken with you all.”

From the outset, the massive ship design warrants the question - why sailors? Why a ship?  

Here in Marston, a ship forms the climax to, and in a sense is the purpose, certainly the destination, of the whole play. The concept of a ‘ship of fools’, rooted in an acid passage from Plato’s’ Republic, became famed through an end 15th century, Rabelais-like satirical work (1494) by the German commentator Sebastian Bran(d)t, produced at the same time as Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, and shortly followed by Alexander Barclay’s woodcut illustration.  posters

David Troughton's as always penetrating cover for The Fawn on the left alongside the woodcut for Sebastian Bran(d)t's biting 1494 treatise The Ship of Fools, Der Narrenschiff

Brant’s ‘fools’ are primarily the (Catholic) Church hierarchy; and conversely, posing as a fool was one way a satirist or critic could get away with parodying or lambasting those in power. Der Narrenschiff - the ship of fools – (see illustration above), so cleverly depicted here as to make a tight space look amazingly spacious - is exactly how The Fawn will unleash the scenes’ deserved conclusion, as the randy, crawling courtiers are all ignominiously consigned onboard. In Brant, the fools, as here, are disreputable and untrustworthy characters, mainly clerics; but here they mop up inept, presumptuous courtiers, judges and lords of the Renaissance, or of the scarcely launched Jacobean, era.  

For (possibly irrelevant) info, the ‘Ship of Fools’ has been featured by rock groups from the 1960s onwards. The Grateful Dead: ‘I won’t slave for beggar’s pay, likewise gold and jewels, But I would slave to learn the way to sink your ship of fools.’ Robert Plant, lead singer of Led Zeppelin, recalls Plato’s Republic: for him ‘the ship is desire, and the storm the turbulence inside the human mind’. World Party: ‘Save me, save me from tomorrow

I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no, no.’ The Doors: probably the first band to record an apocalyptic ‘Ship of Fools’ number: ‘Ship of fools, ship of fools The human race was dyin' out No one left to scream and shout…’. Soul Asylum: ‘Ship of fools, drunken hearts Making yet another new start’. Erasure (currently touring): ‘Oooh, do we not sail on the ship of fools? Why is life so precious and so cruel?’ Or the group Fucked Up, a weird text ‘punk rave-up’: ‘The speaker and the spoke The axle on the wheel…the prisoner and the jail Sinking on the ship of fools.’ see https://litkicks.com/FoolSongs/  

Here in Marston, the ship of fools first briefly surfaces in Herod Frappatore’s riposte to his drinking pal and confidant Nymphadoro’s query, “Is there a maid found at twenty-four?” “Speak”, replies Herod, “thou three-legg’d tripos, is thy ship of fools, afloat yet?” “True, the maids at seventeen fill it.” Hercules adds his tupennyworth: “Folly to the ship with him, and twice a day let him be duck’d at the main-yard.”  

Thanks to the huge, frankly sensational liner (commissioned by Mills, its created presumably by David Troughton), which dominates the stage so awe-inspiringly, and will presumably sink finally with all the ne’er-do-well toffs, toadies and miscreants aboard, Mills’ set had four levels to work with: this provided for endless visual variety (more, say, than The Malcontent), and struck one as a new departure for the Boys’ recent productions.  

How well it was used, this great - almost gross - construct, right up to the final stage where the smallest Rating, new acquisition Rufus Round, one of the clearest speakers, turned out to be the real skipper. He fared slightly so-so on ground level as Cupid (his featherweight toy bow I guess deliberately comic), until he seized the top (fourth) level and just with his legs and re-positionings alone confirmed what one had thought: this might be a new emerging talent.

It's a theme of several pop songs: Save me, save me from tomorrow I don't want to sail with this ship of fools, no, no, no  

More to be said about individuals, but despite this, one reservation concerned not so much the speaking itself, which was uniformly praiseworthy, indeed exemplary, but its projection. In a rehearsal room, or even an empty Levi Fox Hall itself, issues of projecting are not entirely apparent: the room itself resonates. Even less so, when chunks of rehearsal had even to be - heaven forfend – done on Zoom. Sitting initially at the back, one became aware sensed, that these exquisitely carved, conned and presented speeches weren’t coming over strongly enough. Consonants, to render phrasing lucid, need to be spat out. I blamed my own deafness, but then - I’m not deaf.  

cupid and sailors

Rufus Round as Cupid leading a sailor's dance

Slipping down to the front solved the problem, more or less; but there one could see at close quarters that sometimes twosomes, or groupsomes, were being addressed either to each other or to, mainly, the front four rows. So, it wasn’t quite enough. To learn all those lines so fabulously but only share certain (by no means all) lines with a proportion of an audience is not just a misdemeanour, but almost a dereliction of an actor’s duty. It’s a common problem with school plays everywhere; but not, surely, with Edward’s Boys.

Another danger is that where a character is established, its very consistency can become stuck in a rut. When I played a female role in King Lear, aged 13, my superlative, and patently professional standard, (late) school director came up with a wheeze idea of how I might better imply unpleasant character and sinister intentions by a particular - ironically almost prayerful - gesturing with both hands stuck together. The trouble was, I simply kept doing the same thing, almost by rote. I hadn’t the imagination to work out for myself what variations might be worked upon it.  

Here, there were hints of that. Will Groves has already astounded - as a kind of French au pair in The Malcontent, a series of confidential vignettes almost rivalling the virtually unbeatable star, Jack Hawkins. When The Silent Woman was aborted exactly a week before its 2020 opening, it was perhaps he, in his last female (title) role, who suffered the greatest disappointment; and was, surely, the absent audience’s greatest loss. That enforced, undeserved cancellation will have shattered every cast member - meticulously prepared, only for nothing.  

Although perhaps not quite for nothing: weeks of rehearsals will have educated, challenged and enhanced the cast’s potential even despite the eventual tragic loss.

Although possessed of such a glaring talent as to rival, also, Edward’s Boys’ phenomenally versatile Joe Pocknell (if that were possible), Groves, now a tentatively masculine courtier, with his over-deployed cigarette in hand, wasn’t innocent of that danger of repetition. Actually, there were too many cigarettes, because those of course give you something to do with one of your hands, or if you’re smart, both, swapping. Even when not a well-practised behind the bike sheds puffer, there are quite a lot of things you can do with a fag (I mean a cig.). I did claim to notice that (being of course unlit, thus permanently wielded at full length), no one seemed to be flicking away much ash. Doubtless I was watching inattentively.  

the duke

Felix Kerrison-Adams as Duke Hercules, the Fawn with some of the ensemble

Maybe a concealed swap for a dreary dog-end. Or perhaps the charmingly astute, perceptive Props team (Emma Benton, Louisa Nightingale, headed by Troughton) might have tried to invent - not at all easy - some kind of Player’s Please, or Senior Service (famous naval forerunners of today’s B&H, or Camel), which gradually bends in half (to comic effect), or disintegrates in bits. Pouring wine (maybe a bit too assiduous here, jobs for the sailor/waiters) from empty bottles into empty glasses is normally permissible. The safe carrying (balancing) of presumably blue tacked - or somehow sticky - trays was remarkably deft by the eagerly dispensing seamen, who even habitually bowed to each other. Such touching manners from the (indeed) senior service.

The onus in The Fawn rests largely on the role of Duke Hercules (Kerrison-Adams), almost continually on stage. He has disguised himself as Faunus, a fawning, that is, flattering, though rapidly accepted member of his opposite number Don Gonzago’s retinue. Hercules, who is really spying on his son Tiberio (why Heracles? Why Tiberius?), nudging forward the boy’s tentative, slow emerging marital aspirations, so that the lad will unwittingly fall for, be fallen for, and espouse Gonzago’s daughter.

The whole weight - of maintaining continuity, of keeping us serious but entertained, of monitoring the unruly courtiers and evolving his plan - thus falls in this play on the title role. ‘Fawn’ might sound amusing enough; but this is a play by Marston, whose both carping and subtle satire on the social norms of the day’s jumped-up aristocracy is as penetrating as today’s tabloids. It is his role to comment on the action, to savage those who surround him, or at times simply to pierce their smugness by understatement.

Kerrison-Adams is not only phenomenally articulate; he speeds through certain passages with well-calculated alacrity, so that the play, which might in places drag, at no single point does. Posing as his own ‘master of the bottle’ - i.e. cellarer - he is taken to the bosom of all the seedy lot he is seeking to expose.

It was a grand performance, and Kerrison-Adams, who like so many came up through girl’s roles, and then merely ‘a knight’, was essentially the clearest speaker, crucial in his case: notably polished, incisive, superbly intoned, persistently persuasive in his role, a constantly eloquent, illuminating, notable performance. His mature reading of a by no means easy text shone throughout.  

If he had a kind of rival, as the chief rotter Johan Valiaparambil’s Gonzago was quite spectacular in his faces, glares, winking at and teasing the audience, and general wildness amid his creeping courtiers. Often hilarious - far from “A weak-minded lord”’(though certainly “with a boundless belief in his own wisdom”, as the play’s ‘argument’ has it “Ha’ we not our eyes, our nose and ears? [NB Shylock] What! are these hairs unwise?”), here was the true comic of the evening - firing off each line, some thirty-seven at one go) with gobsmacking zest and aplomb.  

More than once Gonzago explodes - as Dukes tend to do - and these moments, so often hack, were actually mesmerising. Valiaparambil gripped us, enticed, won us. As rogues often do. Even when he artfully dropped his voice he punched lines home with a brilliant clarity. Edward’s Boys had an impudent clown previously in the impishly hyperactive Ritvick Nagar. Here was a more than worthy successor.  

So - much relevant to the plot - what is their male view of women? Here it tends to and fro. So prospective father-in-law Hercules, pleased with what he sees, can describe the daughter as “indeed the sweetest modest soul, the fullest of pity; the softness and very courtesy of her sex, as one that never lov’d any”. So: enchanting and …virginal. Gonzago, the corrupt and corrupting ‘Daddy’, consistent about nothing, typically veers from one attitude to the other, strutting, belittling, or - unpredictably - soothing. To Dulcimel, “Daughter, in! It is not fit thyself should hear what I must speak of thy modest, wise mind. For thou’rt careful, sober, in all most wise, And indeed our daughter.” Yet characteristically somersaults “Go to! You are a simple fool, a very simple animal…What! Are you wiser than your father?”  

Frappatore comes up with a dismissal: “For my part, would I were eunuch’d rather than thus suck’d away with kisses, enfeebling dalliance; why did reasonable nature give so strange, so rebellious, so tyrannous, so insatiate parts of appetite to - a woman?”

And then Hercules himself, perhaps for effect, swaps direction: “Why, all know they are more full of strong desires—those desires most impatient of delay or hindrance, they have more unruly passions than men, and weaker reason to temper those passions than men.”

greg and joe

Greg Madden as Tiberio and Joe McCormack as Dulcimel

So much for ladies. Actually kissing is an issue here. For obvious reasons, or out of touching sheer inexperience, boys tend to dodge it. But they shouldn’t. Professionals cannot hold back. Gonzago can only dish out a scared, evasive hug to his daughter as if he were embracing a bloke (true). If there’s a tender kiss, let it be a kiss. Enjoy it for what it is. Don’t funk it.

The above is precisely what Joe McCormack’s Dulcimel is: in no way “indeed our daughter”, in no sense shy or wilting, but the opposite - shrewd, intelligent, canny, insightful, determined, in fact quite complex; kind of standing up for women’s rights, and - unlike Shakespeare’s shy, demure Miranda - capable of plotting her own life and her own future.  

Now aged fifteen, Dulcimel’s former childlike deference has turned ironic, and has evolved into a strong, potent, even wilful individuality. It’s she who comes up with - putting the beau but most obsequious, presumptuous, craving (yet craven) suitor (these toadies recall the Odyssey’s obnoxious wooers) firmly in his place - the focal utterance: “There’s a ship of fools going out! Shall I prefer thee, Nymphadoro? Thou mayst be master’s mate.” McCormack has, paradoxically, progressed from boy (The Silent Woman) to girl (here). Nothing if not versatile.  

She has one in whom she can - maybe - confide. Her companion and chief confidante, perhaps chaperone, or previously nurse, Philocalia (Jed Trimnel). An ideal casting. It’s notable how well chosen these female assistants are - compared with the motley gathering of unruly men. Trimnel gives us an attentive, considerate, supportive personality, aristocratic (“one of great blood”), literary, learned (wise), as she is designated; and above all honourable: trustworthy, so she assures us, enough to share secrets with McCormack’s Dulcimel and ensure their privacy.


Jed Trimnel as Philocalia

It’s with her the girl can share her vexations, irritations even distaste: “Tell me [Philocalia] if it be not a scandal that I, a female of fifteen—healthy, lusty, vigorous - should for ever be shackled to [Heracles, as she believes] the crampy shins of a wayward, dull, sour, austere, rough, rheumy threescore and four”? Philocalia seeks to advise; but her advice, tastefully given, is overcautious.  

Indeed McCormack and Trimnel being two examples, what gave one, as always, intense respect overall was the sheer sophistication of all these Edward’s Boys performers, goodies and baddies, girls (there are lots) and boys alike. It ran right through the cast. Uncertain how to present themselves, schoolboys elsewhere, unschooled, and shorn nowadays – tragically, by coeducation - of female roles, can so easily slip into a kind of mannered ‘actorese; a sort of dull-witted, self-satisfied pastiche of acting.  

There is not a whisper of that here; well, mostly. Given (as mentioned) that all but a handful - about two thirds - of these parts were taken by relative newcomers, following a massive two-year leave-out, there has to be a cause. And - quite apart from the quality of rehearsal and precisely defined shaping of each character - one patently obvious reason is that as each generation comes through, they adopt, imitate, the exalted standards of their predecessors; equal their gifts, and grow to become exalted themselves. The shared influence is massive; the line of descent traceable. Each year is corrupted into new brilliance.  

“This is one of the cruellest plays from that period I know”, Perry Mills, their prime mover, director and inspirer, opines. Verbally certainly; perhaps visually, not quite brutal enough. The Malcontent, for instance, was utterly savage, thanks to Jack Hawkins’ stunningly crazed, fiercely unpredictable protagonist. The Duchess of Malfi - emanating from the most savage of Spanish tragedy - would clearly be in there too, Italian or no. Here, there’s a lot of casual, demeaning, intermittently dirty, certainly prurient, chat among the men; only at the end, when [Don Giovanni] they are consigned to some kind of subterranean - or submarine - Hell, do we realise how remarkably damaging and unforgivable their smug posing and indecent attitudes are.

Forceful projection apart, one of the things that never ceases to amaze about these vastly intelligent boys is the way in which they master - and deliver - such highly complicated,- often convoluted, Jacobean texts with such ease, and almost outrageous effortlessness. The flood of lines demanded of leading roles in Shakespeare’s plays is challenge enough. How long do those take to con, to learn? The daunting vocabulary, let alone the interpretative skill needed here, ‘flishing’; ‘shaling’ (of peascods - cf Lear’s Fool) ‘sallet’, ‘chine’, ‘drab’ ‘cuckold’ (they probably know that one); ‘gills’ ‘contumelious’; ‘heteroclite’; ‘fleamy’, or better still: ‘the hipgout, the strangury, the (whoops) fistula in ano’- to name but a few.

The trick is, I think, that the boys simply take these in their stride, because as far as they are concerned what are weirdnesses to us are to them simply snippets of normal vocabulary. Why should they be fazed? It’s only we who are puzzled or thrown as such elusive words whizz by. The boys simply sail through them. Picking them up like any others. Yet that particularly does merit awe and admiration from us.

And what of the sentiments expressed? Take Nymphadoro, for instance. Girl-lover? Virgin-luster? Is he unsuccessful not in whoring, but in love? His name, after all, only means girl- (young or old) adorer: to adore is not to achieve. Duke Hercules, now familiar with him, suggests, “Why, here are two perfect creatures—the one, Nymphadoro, loves all; and my Herod [Frappatore] here enjoys all.” It looks a bit the other way round.  

Yet Will’s Nymphadoro does not, it seems, get as often as he’d like into bed. Though he alludes to “Pity of my passions Nymphadoro shall lose one of his mistresses”. He dubs himself ‘a young gallant” (“of clean boot, straight back, and beard”), adds Herod: is Nymphadoro a teenager, with beard just appearing?” Even now, what he seeks is not more whoring, but something nobler; even if “Untrodden snow is not so spotless!” Virgins are not everything.

A casual wag like him, with all his (vaunted) conquests, actually still seems oddly virginal himself, and depressed about it. So he falls back on wit: “She speaks as sharply, and looks as sourly, as if she had been new squeezed out of a crab orange.” What stirs his highest hopes? “My father hath made Dondolo (the jester) captain” (says Dulcimel), “else thou shouldest have his place.” Nymphadoro as a jangling Fool?  

But here comes more boasting: “I do love at this instant some nineteen ladies, all in the trade of marriage.” Then he ups the ante: “I do now love threescore and nine ladies, all of them most extremely well, but I do love the princess most extremely best; but, in very sighing sadness, I ha’ lost all hope!” Outwardly a mocker and a droll, cheerful, rather alluring, he seems, in Marston’s text at least (though you might not outwardly think it), rather a sad figure. Still, wait for the plum: “Why, by Janus! women are but men turn’d the wrong side outward.” Sounds like Restoration Comedy. Or worse.


Ted Jowett as Puttota, the washerwoman


Indeed Groves’ Nymphadoro is allotted another star speech. “If she be a virgin, of a modest eye, her very modesty inflames me, her sober blushes fire me; if I behold a wanton, pretty, courtly, petulant ape, I am extremely in love with her, because she assures her lover of no ignorant, dull, unmoving Venus; be she sourly severe, I think she wittily counterfeits, and I love her for her wit; if she be learned, I love her soul; be she slender and lean, she’s the Greek’s delight; be she thick and plump, she’s the Italian’s pleasure; if she be tall, she will print a fair proportion in a large bed; young, she’s for mine eye; young or old, lean, fat, short, tall, white, red, brown, nay, even black, my discourse shall find reason to love her, if my means may procure opportunity to enjoy her.” Methinks this lad doth protest too much, but at least he exudes sexiness, as he has to; and every one of those longer speeches was very appealingly spoken.

There’s a scene between Nymphadoro and Donnetta (Charlie Hutton) whose quick exchanges - the Greeks called it Stichomytheia (rapid fire line-by-line) - typify what Perry Mills instils into his whole team. We get some of that snappiness from nearly all the characters at some stage; and it greatly helps maintain the pace. It’s also thoroughly professional; and slick; and clever. A quartet of Zuccone (Jamie Mitchell, in earlier years the fabulous, enticing Moon in Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon), Hercules, Frappatore and Nymphadoro is all quick shooting; and oh so smart..  

Talking of duets, one of the pleasures was the exchanges between Donnetta (mentioned above) and Poveia (younger brother Joseph Valiaparambil), two of Dulcimel’s ancillary ladies in waiting, perched on a bench stage left, who patter away, be it the usual court gossip, sly engagement or fancying the fellows. They also made a pleasant contrast to the connivings of those same amorous chaps above. Their costumes, as the whole cast’s, often imaginatively intricate, lent added flavour. Poveia’s bottle green dress somehow fitted exactly the correct, demure figure she cut.  

Garbezza (Tom Howitt), tired wife to the hopeless, un-amorous-looking (yet he’s apparently not quite past it) Amoroso, managed to pump up the amusement and good cheer. There seemed to be pregnancies dotted around, actual – Garbezza - or simulated (idle blokes’ false tittle-tattle about Donna Zoya), strangely initiated by the Fool. The way Howitt heaved and patted and joggled his enlarging stomach, carefully practised, as if it was just starting to prod and kick, looked like the real thing.  

Herod Frappatore (why Herod?) is I suppose a combative name. Certainly Ewan Craig made of him a rather splendid overtly, even brazenly masculine kind of army figure: congenial company, clearly, a trusty kind of guy on whom Nymphadoro knows he can rely. Unwittingly comic, he has quite a biting wit. For me he recalled unlikely, boastful war hero Sergius Saranoff (Arms and the Man), or Don Ferolo Whiskerandos (Sheridans’s The Critic) - both very apt. When he ascended to receive a double massage from the disguised Hercules, a scene of high comedy, second time round, semistripped, his elongated, battered torso looked distinctly Sandhurst.  

Neat paradox is a favourite of the Shakespeare-Jonson era. “Makes oft great men fools, And fools oft great men”. “Youth thinks that age, age knows that youth is vain.” “If thou observ’st I do I know not what, make me to know it.”

Is Dulcimel that likely to be entranced by Greg Madden’s rather limp Tiberio? Marston in the text has painted the son as (mostly) a Ferdinand-like, slightly recessive, acquiescent character. Was Tiberio sufficiently directed? The nominal plot, although not the numerous barbed jibes and implications, concerns him. We needed to see just why McCormack’s keen-witted, resourceful Dulcimel should ultimately take him to her (quite substantial) boyish bosom. But Madden has his moment. The daring (actually rather limber) climbing up, with Romeo-like ignoring of risk, of a plane tree to her bedroom window renders Tiberio - who bizarrely fails to recognise his own (virtually undisguised) father - came suddenly, belatedly, alive. A good(ish) moment.

Actually more lines that might assist him do come intermittently. He has four or five speeches of ten lines or more, and perhaps one brief, telling, unexpected outburst (“O woman! thou art made Most only of, and for, deceit; thy form Is nothing but delusion of our eyes”. And yet again subsequently a complete volte-face: “Thou dear as air, necessary as sleep To careful man! Woman! O who can sin so deeply As to be curs’d from knowing of the pleasures Thy soft society, modest amorousness, Yields to our tedious life!”  

But more often Tiberio is muted by his loyalty to his father’s (as he believes) avowed wishes. That makes him into almost another Granuffo. Can we seriously believe Gonzago’s “when thou shalt behold Tiberio’s lifeful eyes and well-fill’d veins, complexion firm, and hairs that curls [sic]with strength of lusty moisture...”. A bit more lusty moisture would have gone down nicely. The other great moment comes when he reads aloud the disguised message: “When two hearts yield consent, all thwarting’s vain.” But no, that yields instead “Shall I, that ever loath’d A thought of woman…”. Like Dulcimel, a youngish teen, surely.  

Dondolo, the court Fool (Enrique Burchell), is equipped with too few clownish lines to match a Touchstone or a Jacques. One of his classics is “Why mentula [Latin: prick] should be the feminine gender”. Head mostly jester-topped here, not bald (as stipulated); reds, blacks, and greens, very successfully Fool-like. Palpably somewhat Hispanic in character, he had a way of manoeuvring, jerking and changing direction of his head that suited, and became almost a tick. In some ways more a factotum than a jester, and pausing sometimes to exchange quite serious, insightful banter (as king’s Fools often do). His comic charisma, as Brant’s German text reminded us, enables him to assert what sometimes others cannot, especially as (one points out) “Thou art private with the duke; thou belongest to his close-stool.”  

In fact, at the culmination, it is Burchell’s well depicted, quite energetic Dondolo, most perspicacious of the lot, who (with Cupid to hand) presides over the final scene, the consigning of all these aristocratic cretins, as they deserve, to the Ship of Fools. “Aboard! aboard! All manner of fools, of court, city, or country, of what degree, sex, or nature!” Or put differently “O, ’twas excellently thronged full: a justice of peace, some long fortunate great politicians, sottishly paradised… some courtiers that o’er-bought their offices, priests that forsook their functions.” At least he, like Hercules, sees through the vain pomp (Gonzago) and general salaciousness.


Joseph Foley as the decrepit Debiledosso

As Donna Zoya’s hapless husband, Zuccone gets short shrift. Witness his wife: “That insufferably jealous fool, that dry scaliness - that sarpego - that barren drouth and shame of all humanity”. Marvellous stuff. Mind you, respectable or not, Zoya does get around,

Granuffo (Zephan Lacey-Rousou), ‘a silent Lord’, in effect Gonzago’s secretary, following his master everywhere (“My Lord Granuffo, pray ye note my phrase”) emerged as rather an appealing figure: patient, deferential; ineffably respectful. (“Now, sure, thou art a man Of a most learned silence, and one whose words Have been most precious to me…thy tongue is constant.”. Or constantly gagged. In fact he became one of the charming and amusing items in this production: dutiful, subservient, yet somehow an ironic teasable tack-on to a mainly feisty cast. Being so privileged, might he not be seduced sometimes to spill the beans?  

But no. As Gonzago acknowledges, “Of a most learned silence, and one whose words Have been most precious to me. Right, I know thy heart…”. (There was a perfect restraint to Zephan’s Granuffo : while the others loll, sway and titter, hoping no doubt to improve their bank balance, he nods and acknowledges, but does not laugh overtly at the Duke’s remarks - nor cackle like the rest. Perhaps a little more might be made of the role’s comic potential. But a serious chap, worthy, ignorable yet still eye-catching.

However amid all this manoeuvring, one additional character stood out a mile - and, with a mere ten lines (of prose, so maybe equivalent to 20 of verse), almost stole the show. This was Ted Jowett as Putto(t)ta, whom Marston throws in as a washerwoman, ‘a laundress in her tent in the wood-yard’. She spurns and despises any clumsy attempt to woo her to a court wife’s position,  

Is she, utterly working class, meant to be as noble as all the others put together? Jowett’s accent, and whole demeanour, were wonderful, and hilarious. There is such a character as his Putotta in Giovanni Busenello’s tragicomic libretto for Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea, where Arnalta, Poppea’s Nurse (sung by a bloke) has just such an entertaining, joky, diversionary function. Of Howitt’s Garbezza: “I must confess he says she is a spiny, green creature, of an unwholesome barren blood and cold embrace—a bony thing, of most unequal hips, uneven eyes, ill-rank’d teeth…” “What! does he hope to make me one of his gills, his punks, polecats, flirts, and feminines?” She’s a toughie. Below stairs has more common sense than the whole lads’ court. Her little page boy did quite well, too.

Curtain calls are almost always a measure of a skilled, meticulously thought out production. Careless, casual or ill-planned curtain calls often bespeak the quality of an opera or theatrical production, professional or amateur alike.  

Did they work, was this gaggle’s take on a musical finale (reprise of Millionaire) artfully mapped? Zestful? Convincing? Accurate? As perfectly poised as – not mentioned yet - the end of Act I?

Of course. This was Edward’s Boys.

Roderic Dunnett


Edward’s Boys’ productions of plays by contemporaries of Shakespeare, including The Malcontent, The Woman in the Moon and Summer’s Last Will and Testament, are available on DVD at edwardsboys

Performing Early Modern Drama - Beyond Shakespeare: Edward’s Boys, by Harry R McCarthy, an inspiring newly published book, the first in-depth study of the present-day all-boy company: Cambridge University Press, 2020 

Index page Reviews A-Z