If Thomas More is a firework-offering spectacle after a fashion, though with few bangs for the buck, A New Way to Please You, the second offering in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gunpowder Season, is a firecracker.
Credited to Thomas Middleton and William Rowley – best known perhaps for The Changeling - the play is a black comedy about euthanasia and filial ingratitude sharper than a serpent’s tooth.
The Duke of Epire revives an obscure law whereby men, on reaching 80 years, and women, on reaching 60, are to be put to death. The rationale is that women are past childbearing age and therefore no longer of use to the state, while men can no longer bear arms or offer profitable counsel.
The Duke’s proclamation is Christmas, New Year and 21st birthday rolled into one for a trio of ne’er-do-well sons who use their newfound wealth to stock up on the sort of outlandish clobber (not to mention G-strings), that a hardened fop like Boy George would blush to wear, and hit on an equally money-grabbing young woman whose wealthy husband is four times her age.
Julian Stolzenberg, Jon Foster and especially Jonjo O'Neill (as Simonides) have great fun as the outlandishly accoutred threesome. Their antics culminate in a bravura scene in which the aged Lysander (James Hayes) challenges his would-be cuckolds to a drinking, dancing and fencing contest.
As with the RSC’s successful Jacobethan and Spanish Golden Age seasons, there’s no overwhelming sense of undeservedly neglected classics being rescued. Also in common with the Spanish season, half the fun seems to come from a fairly free staging as much as the inherent quality of the text itself.
There’s not a ruff in sight in this production which, designed by Kandis Cook, has a very contemporary feel and music to match. Purists might hate it, but A New Way to Please You, directed with great pizzazz by Sean Holmes (director of The Roman Actor here a few years back) is a hit.
As with other recent seasons in the Swan, it also boasts some terrific ensemble playing. Particularly worthy of mention here are Miranda Colchester as Eugenia, Lysander’s corrupt wife, and the personable Matt Ryan as the incorruptible Cleanthes. Top.