A New Way to Please You
Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
RSC at the People's Theatre, Newcastle
Review by Peter Lathan
Tragicomedy is an odd beast. Characters are brought close to death but don't actually die, being rescued at the last moment, in a restoration of the proper order of things, by a deus, or, as in this case, dux ex machina. Its Italian theorist Giambattista Guarini argued that, with the advent of Christianity, happy endings are almost de rigueur, for to have it otherwise would be to question God's ordering of the universe.
When A New Way to Please You (originally called The Old Law) was first performed in 1618, Tragicomedy was the popular theatrical form, because of its adoption by a range of writers such as Marston and Fletcher, and, indeed, it fitted well into English drama which had never allowed itself to be shackled by Aristotle's "rules".
In his article on the Tragicomedy form in the RSC programme for the play, Richard Rowland of the University of York argues that "the incessant shifts in perspective ask spectators to reconsider, repeatedly, the ground upon which they afford the characters - and the play - their laughter and approbation." For the ground does shift under our feet continually, from high moral tone to low comedy, and our perception of the authority figure, Evander Duke of Epire, does a 180 degree turn at the end.
Evander has enacted a law that all men of eighty and all women of sixty should be put to death unless they have not outlived their usefulness to the commonwealth. For some, like Simonides (Jonjo O'Neill) and Gnotho (Fred Ridgeway), this is most welcome, for it means they will get rid of a father and a wife respectively, whilst for Matt Ryan's Cleanthes it is a devastating blow, for he loves and honours his father Leonides. In an ending reminiscent of the return of the Duke in Measure for Measure, the former two are punished and the latter honoured, as the executions have not been carried out and the old are restored to their rightful places.
But there is no celebration, for Gnotho, having rebuked this Lord ("Heaven bless and mend your laws that they do not gull your poor country men") goes off with the musicians. Evander snaps his fingers to start the celebrations, but nothing happens: the musicians are gone with Gnotho and the (in this case metaphorical) curtain falls. Thus the happy ending is undermined with a twist which is typical of English rather than continental drama.
But how does this work on the stage? One has to say: not terribly successfully. It is hard to fault the direction, performances, and production values in general, for all are of a high standard, but there was a bit of an exodus at the interval (we smokers who are relegated to the freezing out-of-doors notice these things!) and there were definite longueurs, especially in the first half. It is a very wordy play, but too often the words lack the poetic force to hold our attention, in spite of director Sean Holmes' efforts (and those of yet another excellent ensemble cast).
It does not compare to the writers' most successful collaboration The Changeling, nor to Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside or Women Beware Women. One thing is certain: it is not the "excellent comedy" it was billed as in the published edition of 1656.
Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the Trafalgar Studios.