A New Way to Please You
Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Royal Shakespeare Company
Trafalgar Studios 2
This play, which is the first of the RSC's Gunpowder Season of 400 year-old plays to reach London, was originally called The Old Law. In view of the subject matter, the highly-appropriate title used when it was first performed and published seems far more helpful than the rather meaningless alternative now chosen.
This play would have been a real oddity regardless of its staging. It was written just after the death of Shakespeare and set amongst the ancient Greeks. However, Sean Holmes, possibly realising that this work is not of the highest quality, has updated it to the dissolute world of today's clubbers where hedonism rules.
In a strange way, A New Way to Please You could be regarded as a precursor of science-fiction with its creation of a dystopia that connects it to works such as kitsch film Logan's Run and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, or even Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It also borrows some of its plotting from Measure for Measure, a play that its writers would undoubtedly have known.
When Peter de Jersey's Evander becomes Duke of Epire, he inexplicably introduces a new law by which all men will be executed when they reach the age of four score (80), and women twenty years before. It is not clear why this law is introduced but its effect is immediate and very dramatic.
The oldies, best represented by Geoffrey Freshwater as Creon and Barry Stanton's Leonides, are not surprisingly rather put out by a law that will finish them off almost instantly.
The youth split in two very distinct categories. The lairy Simonides (Jonjo O'Neill) and his two cronies could not be more delighted. This trio looks as if they had been drawn directly from another science-fiction novel, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and have the same cruel streak as Alex and his Droogs.
They could not be more delighted at the removal of their parents and Simonides is soon making plans for making the most of the wealth that he will inherit. They are not alone in seeing opportunity in this law. Men start selecting 59 year-old wives, while others, such as Fred Ridgeway's Gnotho (married to Ishia Bennison's truly shrewish Agatha) age theirs to speed up the chance of appointing sexier replacements.
By contrast, the remarkably serious and therefore somewhat dull Cleanthes (played by Matt Ryan) is devastated at the prospect of losing his own father Leonides, and with the help of his wife Hippolyta (Evelyn Duah) secretes the old man, at the risk of his own life and liberty.
Having come up with their novel idea, the writers use it to explore the nature of age and the relationship between the generations, as well as greed and filial piety. This would yield some comedy in a straight production but thanks to Sean Holmes' tremendous vision, they may not take on much of a deeper meaning but the production does become great fun.
The comic highlight is when James Hayes' Lysander is about to be cuckolded by his young wife Eugenia, wittily played by Miranda Colchester still only year out of drama school.
In a three-way duel, the almost-octogenarian, by this stage dressed like the hippest of rappers, beats off his wife's suitors, firstly in a disco-dancing competition, then with a sword and lastly drinking three of the ghastliest witches' brews imaginable.
It hardly needs saying that the Duke relents, the dead ancients are brought back to life and everyone lives happily ever after. The only exceptions are the young upstarts and gigolos. They suddenly find themselves saddled with rich wives who will probably outlive them and will definitely make their lives hell.
This may not be the finest of plays but Sean Holmes has worked wonders to create a highly enjoyable entertainment that deserves a longer run than its fortnight at the Trafalgar Studios.
Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the People's Theatre, Newcastle, part of the RSC's 2005 Newcastle season.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher