I had never heard of John Milton's masque Comus - first performed in 1634 - but what an exceptionally dark morality tale it is. And director Lucy Bailey – famous for her very bloody production of Titus Andronicus at the Globe in 2006 – positively revels in the sordid bits during this rare outing for the piece at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
The plot – even for the 21st century – is pretty shocking. Three teenagers get lost in a dark wood and one – the young virgin Alice – is kidnapped by Comus, the god of revelry. He ties her to a chair in his abode and spends an evening using some very nasty moves to get her to surrender her chastity.
The masque was written for the Earl of Bridgewater, and his kids – including his 15 year-old daughter Alice – played the original lost teens. No doubt the first performance, what with the Earl watching as his daughter is almost violated, was as sanitised as it could be. Here Bailey certainly feels no restraint, and ramps up the effect of that scene, making the chair Alice is stuck in a mixture between a gynecological chair with high stirrups and a torture chair. Alice has her legs up, knees bent, skirts askew and her body horribly vulnerable.
Bailey finds a way in to the slightly arcane form of a masque by using a framing device, written by the excellent Patrick Barlow. Barlow plunges us into the original day of the masque where we watch as the Earl's household gets ready to stage the masque, a little like the Mechanicals from Midsummer. In reality, the Earl commissioned the masque to mark the moment he took over as Lord of Wales and as an attempt to counter balance previous scandals in the family (the Earl's brother-in-law had been executed for sodomy and for arranging the rape of his wife).
This first section is delightfully funny and once the masque actually begins, there is an attempt to continue this humour – despite the fact that Milton's text isn't full of gags. Props to Philip Cumbus who stars as both the piece's original composer Henry Lawes and the Attendant Spirit who keeps up the laughs throughout.
Interestingly, Bailey and Barlow have Alice refusing her role in the masque and staging a mini rebellion: she is not anyone's to use as they please, she says. It's an attempt to appeal to modern ears and eyes and it's powerful, going some way to reminding us that during her actual lifetime, Alice would never have been given the chance to voice her own opinions.
Paul James' music is lovely and it is performed well by the raucous ensemble. But Bailey's framing device does get a little weird, when the ground at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens up and swallows the troupe into some sort of murky hell. It feels an unnecessary addition to the plot and the sight lines in the theatre mean it's also not that fun to watch.
Still, this is a brave, funny, strong staging of a remarkable piece of work which definitely shouldn't be forgotten.