Richard Brome is probably best known for the recent RSC production of his A Jovial Crew, even though that was almost as much Stephen Jeffreys' adaptation and the late Ian Dury's songs as it was Brome's original. He was also Ben Jonson's manservant, and although not as bilious as his erstwhile master's work, The Antipodes functions rather like Jonson's "humours" plays: set up a bunch of character types, let them interact and be corrected in their various follies.
Whilst it carries something of a didactic air, and also retains a whiff of the period social satire which has mostly been expunged from this version (even the original production, Brome complained in a resentful preface to the published edition, was heavily cut down from his text), Gerald Freedman's production at Shakespeare's Globe is principally a big hoot. The play features probably the first appearance on an English stage of a psychiatrist, Hughball (Geoffrey Beevers), who attempts to cure the travel-mania of young Peregrine by making him believe he has journeyed to "Anti-London", the capital of the Antipodes, where all things go by contraries. Thus, he sees women govern men, servants rule masters, a man taken to law for not cuckolding another, clerics giving money to "deserving" gamblers and cutpurses, and so forth. He is also enticed to consummate his marriage a mere three years after the wedding – which, in turn, cures the growing derangement of his wife. The Antipodes scenes are, in fact, laid on by a company of actors engaged by the friendly and philanthropic lord Letoy, who himself effects the cure of Peregrine's father, Joyless (James Hayes), sunk in jealousy of his young wife.
The play-within-a-play structure allows much wackiness to ensue. In particular, we enjoy Mark Lockyer as massively as he enjoys himself in the role of Byplay, an actor given to improvising, which becomes increasingly necessary as Peregrine declares himself King of the Antipodes and requires constant humouring. Lockyer appears as policeman, cleric, a braying judge who is almost literally a ass, and in several other guises. Harry Gostelow has a nice line in wide-eyed derangement as Peregrine, and Tim Preece and Joanna McCallum make an irrepressibly good-humoured supporting couple. The sudden mood change in the character of Diana (Penny Layden) – she appears first to encourage the advances of Tim Woodward's Letoy, then virtuously to spurn them – make the subplot run a little more clunkily, but the resolution of that strand is a classic: gosh, Letoy turns out to be her father, and he's only wooing her in order that Joyless might overhear her protestations and thus be assured of her fidelity to him!
Freedman and his company work in a clutch of discreet cross-motifs about this season's Globe Hamlet: Letoy's players, before they set to work, recite in weary unison "Speak the speech, I pray you,..." as if used to the instruction, and the lord boasts that "my players can act... Shakespeare's comical histories to boot", with an affectionate chuck on the cheek for none other than Mark Rylance. (Even Rylance's casting in the Antipodes scenes as a roistering lady and the dea ex machina Harmony may be a reference to his Cleopatra last year.)
One of my colleagues remarked in the interval, "Where has this play been all our lives?", and he has a point. At two and a quarter hours in this cut, it bowls along most enjoyably. On a flying trip down from the Athens of the North as I was, I was even prepared to forgive the jibe at would-be great travellers "who put out on return from Edinburgh".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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