Few people would disagree that Shakespeare’s shadow has served to obscure a great number of superb plays and playwrights. But Thomas Middleton has a good case for being the most unjustly neglected of them all. I was delighted to discover, therefore, that Mercurius, the independent production company run by my friend Jenny Eastop, was planning to stage Middleton’s rarely performed 1608 comedy A Trick To Catch The Old One at the Rose Theatre this May.
Jenny kindly agreed to take time out from rehearsals to discuss the play, the production and Middleton’s reputation generally.
For those who don’t know about Mercurius, could you give me some background to the company and its aims?
After 20 years as a director, being given plays to direct, I had a list of my own choice of plays I wanted to direct and the only solution seemed to be to start my own company. So I set up Mercurius in 2012, launching the company with a collection of Chekhov’s Vaudeville sketches translated and adapted by Michael Frayn at the Brockley Jack. This was successful enough for us to transfer it to Jermyn Street Theatre in 2013 and return there with it, as a co-production with Jermyn Street, in January 2014. In between Mercurius also produced Moliere’s School for Wives in a great modern version by Neil Bartlett at The White Bear in 2013 which received two Offie (Off West End Award) nominations for Best Director for myself and Best Actor for the lead Tom Barratt. A Trick to Catch the Old One is the fifth outing for Mercurius and our first time at The Rose Playhouse which is a fascinating venue, being performed in and amongst the foundations of the 1587 Philip Henslowe playhouse.
What attracted you to A Trick To Catch The Old One?
I specialised in Renaissance Theatre at university and did my thesis on Thomas Middleton so I’ve always been fascinated by his very modern, satirical take on life and his vibrant language. I particularly like his city comedies and edited A Trick to Catch the Old One some years ago for the National Theatre Studio, workshopping it for an in-house performance with some of the National Theatre company which was a great experience and made me determined to direct a fully staged version one day. It’s taken a while but I was delighted to revisit the play and my edited version.
Can you tell me something about the production?
I have made some pretty drastic cuts to the text. Partly to reduce the size of the company and cut down on potentially confusing doubling and partly to reduce the length of the play, this version runs at 1 hour 25 minutes without an interval. The cuts have removed the subplot involving Dampit and Gulf (which is a shame as the play shows arguably the first alcoholic on stage) and the peripheral characters of Lucre’s wife and Hoard’s niece’s suitors and the battle to net her. In cutting it the play does lose a little of its texture but it focuses much more clearly on the wild central plot to pass the Courtesan off as a rich widow as it spins out of Witgood’s control. I’ve updated the play to the modern age but placed it in the late 1940s during the days of rationing and desperate black market dealings to bring out the power of money and the gullibility of those who pursue it running through society in an age when so many were in a desperate scramble to survive and prosper.
What attracted you to the space at The Rose?
There are some very interesting performance spaces in London but The Rose really does hold a trump card. I like the simplicity of the wooden three sided stage that means the production has to be plainly staged, allowing the power of the story and the experiences of the characters to be the central focus. I also like the intense atmosphere of the dark underground flooded ruins, it feels unlike any other stage space. But above everything is the very moving sense of creating something amongst the foundations of Philip Henslowe’s 1587 playhouse. It is hard not to feel the baton being passed down the generations of theatre when you see something at The Rose on the very site where so many of our greatest plays were first performed.
Middleton seems to be slowly receiving his due as a writer for the stage. What do you think is distinctive about his work?
I liked Middleton from when I first came across him for his very modern attitude to life and human relationships. He uses very direct language with little poetry and few similes. His city comedies in particular really do hold a clear mirror up to the everyday audience of his, and our, time. Alongside Jonson he presented vice and immorality on stage in order to comment on what was happening in society, but unlike Jonson’s more obvious use of grotesques he pursues a much more naturalistic, ironic tone. He never applauds immorality but neither does he roundly condemn it, in Women Beware Women Leantio explains his behaviour by claiming “though sin be death, I had died if I had not sinned”. Middleton seems to understand the difficulties and complications of life.
What challenges have you found in staging A Trick To Catch The Old One?
The joy of a Middleton play is how clear the language is, how naturalistic and believable the characters are and how modern the dilemmas that fox them so the challenges in staging it are no more difficult than with a modern play. The only real challenge is making sure we tell the story clearly enough so the audience can follow the twists and turns of the various fiendish plots.
Why do you think Middleton – and A Trick… in particular – has been neglected for so long?
Middleton was viewed suspiciously for many years because of his down-to-earth, direct approach to the way people live their lives. His serious plays were neglected because they had no grand sweeping sense of tragedy and the profound importance of what was happening to the characters. The Revenger’s Tragedy had its first production in centuries as late as 1966 because it was seen as too farcical to be taken seriously. But this is precisely why I like Middleton, he is almost Chekhovian in his acknowledgement of how ridiculous life can be and how something tragic to the person involved can seem unimportant farce to an onlooker. His comedies suffer similarly in not carrying a message about how we should judge the characters but simply presents them and their lives as normal.
For those who don’t know the play, what have they been missing?
Firstly the play is very funny. The plot is incredibly inventive and subverts lots of our expectations of how people will behave and what will be the outcome. It is satirical and ironic but contains at its heart a real warmth towards its characters, they’re conning each other viciously but in the end they are family and neighbours; however outrageously the characters behave it is hard to end up hating any of them.
The play is – very broadly – about the scrabble for status and financial security in a dog-eat-dog world of debt and deceit. Everyone is complicit; no-one is innocent. The Victorians, in particular, thought the play amoral. Is that your take on it too?
Middleton was seen as very immoral for a long time because he didn’t write messages of moral indignation into his plays and openly condemns no-one, he has no righteous characters who act as spokesmen for morality. His characters are realistic and drawn from the world the audience would know well, there are none of the stock comic characters of the time, the stage-usurer or greedy father/uncle are shown as real people here. At the end of the play bad behaviour goes unpunished and the revealing of foolishness is merely accidental, not done in order to bring anyone to a realisation of their folly. It would be easy to see this as Middleton embracing immorality and celebrating greed however his ironic detachment and dispassionate presentation of vice allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. The very realism of the characters brings home to the audience the acceptance of vice as normal and leads to powerful satire, arguably a more successful way of conveying a message than open indignation.
How difficult are the play’s sexual politics for contemporary audiences?
The women are seen as commodities to be chased for financial gain in the play, which could be uncomfortable if they weren’t very strong characters in their own right. The Courtesan revels in the power her supposed wealth gives her over her suitors and is as much, if not more, in control of the wild plots to get Witgood’s money and land back, she is in places the one driving Witgood on. Even Hoard’s Niece, chased by so many of the characters as a golden prize, sees a chance to use Hoard’s feast as her wedding dinner and seizes it to save money. The women use the only possession they have, their availability for marriage and sex, to give them real control over their destiny. Each of the characters use all means at their disposal to prosper, and at the end the women and men in the various marriages seem like well matched equals.
What are your ambitions for Mercurius?
At the moment I’m just really enjoying the chance to direct those plays on my list that have built up. In the near future I’m hoping to revive the production of School for Wives, possibly at Jermyn Street Theatre, and direct another Middleton City comedy. In the longer term I’d like to be able to get proper funding for Mercurius, either through subsidy or private sponsorship, to be able to extend our creative vision and be more artistically adventurous, something that needs a bigger budget than we have at present!
A Trick To Catch The Old One runs at the Rose Playhouse from 6th to 24th May. Please click here for more information and to book tickets.