Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Woman in the Moon, by John Lyly. Rose Theatre, Bankside, London.

Do yourself a favour, and grab the last remaining tickets to the Dolphin's Back production of John Lyly's comic masterpiece. Last Thursday, a sell-out audience grinned, cackled, and glowed with admiration as this talented troupe brought the long-forgotten 16th century gem to life.

John Lyly deserves to be much better known. A bright Kentish Lad, born in 1553 in cosmopolitan Canterbury (which also also spawned Christopher Marlowe eleven years later), Lyly excelled at Magdalen College, Oxford before bursting onto the London literary scene with the publication of Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit (1578), and Euphues and His England (1580). In these prose works, Lyly introduced nothing less than a revolution in the English language, which - in his work at least - made it sparkle with style, irony and wit. By the age of 30, Lyly was widely feted as England's greatest writer, and this reputation did not diminish until well after his death. Indeed, (as James Wallace, director, writes), in his introduction to Shakespeare's First Folio, Ben Jonson places Lyly among the pantheon of England's greatest writers.

The Woman in the Moon is radical - feminising and paganising the origins of the universe; exploring the nature of female character and actions. Dissatisfied with Mother Nature's generation of a perfection to rival their own, the planets decide to derail Pandora's transition into the world. Beginning with Jupiter, and depressive, moody Saturn, each planet's undermining of woman is a chapter itself. We encounter the despondency of Saturnine woman, the belligerence of Martian female,  the allure of Venutian temptress. Each planetary influence is an orchestral movement in its own right, and each somehow brings the person of Pandora to a complex, multivalent completion.

Men in the play are easily-duped, unilinear and comic; wholly dependent upon the mood or whim of womankind. It is interesting, then, that this was a play written with Elizabeth in mind - indeed it is documented that she attended a performance of it by the Paul's Boys. Like Shakespeare's later playwriting for James I, John Lyly was not precious, or consistent in towing a party or royal line; and Lyly's exploration of womanhood was ambiguous and provocative. At the end of the play, Mother Nature asks Pandora to choose the planetary influence she wishes to make permanent; she selects Cynthia (or the Moon) under whose spell she is mad, capricious, indecisive and self-contradictory.

Elizabeth, at the height of her powers in the 1580s, was none of these things; indeed, she would have been disdainful of the character Pandora chooses for women. This raises interesting questions about Elizabeth (whom Lyly would have known well). Was she disdainful of other women, or the modes of femininity approved of in the late 16th century? Which of the planetary influences upon offer would she have recognised in herself - if any? In raising such fundamental questions about female personalities, and doing so so publicly in front of Queen and audience, John Lyly shows a provocative confidence - cockiness even.

Though the themes of the play run deep, the script is light, funny, fast-moving. The Dolphin's Back troupe did a wonderful job balancing deep, dangerous themes with light, saucy gags, and the result was ninety minutes of theatrical bliss. As Pandora, Bella Heesom took us on a dazzling journey through conflicting expressions of womanhood - a bravura performance, which showed amazing adaptability and inventiveness. Those playing the hapless men in the play worked to great comic effect, with James Askill again a joy to behold, and a name to watch out for. The great male foil in this was the crafty but appealing Gunophilus, who was entertainingly played by James Thorne. This was very much an ensemble production, however, and in a way it is unfair to mention particular names. Bravo to all.

The Dolphin's Back is a superb group of creatives, who have skill, wit and depth - from James Wallace's direction, to the quick, fun-loving cast, to inventive stage design and lighting. The DB are committed to resurrecting neglected scripts, and bringing them to life for modern audiences - and they do it with authority and a great sense of fun. As such, Dolphin's Back are my favourite troupe - and I can't wait to see them again in the Massacre at Paris. (Spoiler alert - it's brilliant.)