Comus, directed by Lucy Bailey at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, autumn 2016.
What was it like to watch a masque? In one way the most artificial of art forms, it is also paradoxically one of the most real, since participants and audience members actually knew each other.
In Lucy Bailey’s clever adaptation of Comus for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Emma Curtis’s Lady Alice wants to pull out of performing at the last moment because, as her upper-class-twit brothers helpfully explain to their father, she has a thing about Daniel (Danny Lee Wynter), the stable boy, who is playing Comus. Lord Bridgewater (here just plain Sir John Egerton, and played by Andrew Bridgmont) is having none of this, though: as the added ancillary material, based on Barbara Breasted’s 1971 article ‘Comus and the Castlehaven Scandal’, spells out, Alice has to play her part because she needs to be marketed as virginal and marriageable.
It is not a common strategy to make an article in Milton Studies the basis for a frame narrative, but in this instance it is a very successful one, though Alice’s final feminist statement does bring a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Breasted’s article has not been followed exactly, though: there have been several changes to names, with the elder brother becoming William rather than John, Castlehaven himself becoming ‘Uncle Gilbert’ rather than Mervyn, and his wife, Anne, being rechristened Grace.
The fact that the younger brother, to whom the story is explained, hilariously mishears ‘sodomised a servant’ as ‘sodomised a serpent’ (don’t try it) might distract attention from these changes, but it is perhaps suggestive that Gilbert and Grace are both Talbot names (they were the two eldest children of the sixth earl of Shrewsbury, and married the son and daughter of Bess of Hardwick) and William an obviously Cavendish one.
Talbots and Cavendishes seem to have been on the mind of someone connected with the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, since the hangings over the doors are copies of ones at Hardwick Hall, and there is of course an inherent Cavendish connection to Comus since the elder brother was in real life the husband of Elizabeth Brackley. Whether the allusion to the Cavendishes and Talbots is intended or not, though, Bailey’s Comus vividly and engagingly brings home a sense of what household theatricals might have been like, and the way in which allegorical elements such as those in The Concealed Fancies might have been in tension with the personalities and attributes of the performers.