A Mad World, My Masters revels gleefully in its sexuality, in it's casual, almost careless breaking of laws, reversing of morals and shattering of taboos. It delights in its gratification of desires - not only sexual, but financial, social and even vengeful: one of Middleton's greatest strokes of genius in Mad World is the play within his play, which sees a grumpy policeman/guard symbolically tied up and forced to be part of the fun. Elsewhere, Mr Shortrod Harebrain (here renamed Mr Littledick) unwittingly colludes in his wife's adultery, speaking a language laden with unintended innuendo. This is a laugh-out loud hilarious show, brimming with the same kind of subversive energy that made The Rocky Horror Show an instant cult classic. By developing its own perverse kind of logic, it seems to insist that anything is possible by taking us in directions at once both unexpected and yet strangely fitting.
Following a similar pattern to Shakespeare's Much Ado, it's the unlikeliest couple who seem, by the end of the play, to be the most well-suited: though duped and coerced into their relationship, nobleman Dick Follywit and common prostitute Frank Gullman (Truly Kidman here) spend most of the play proving themselves to be more than a match for each other - they're the only characters who can effectively and independently navigate their way through the intricate and slippery structure of the world they inhabit. This they do by acting, sliding smoothly from role to role, moving between different social classes and circles, and even, in one instance, swapping genders. It's rather appropriate, then, that we begin to see where things are headed when Dick dresses up as Frank/Truly. Despite never having met her, he does a good enough job of "playing her" to hoodwink her clients: since she herself is an actress of sorts, it's the very stageyness and blatant artifice of his performance that makes it a convincing one. It's also apt that Frank/Truly, who spends most of the play gratifying the desires of others, should first realise and express her own longings and feelings when watching Dick perform in "The Slip".
In bringing the play to a contemporary audience, Foley and Porter could hardly have chosen a better setting than 1950s Soho: seedy, satirical and glamorous in equal measures, full of acting, sex and people from all walks of life, this is a place and point in time which has acquired an almost mythic status. The location was brilliantly realised through Alice Power's incredible designs, from Truly's luxuriant four-poster bed and Sir Bounteous' elaborate mansion with its apparently bottomless safe, to Penitent Brothel's dingy bachelor pad and the shabby, street-corner café where everyone seems to meet. The music, too, was convincingly of its time, and in terms of quality was probably the best in any RSC production I've yet seen. In particular, singer Linda John-Pierre was phenomenal - I'd honestly have gone along purely to see her. I was even pretty impressed by how well the cast coped with their singing parts.
The acting was practically faultless all round. Ian Redford made a brilliant Sir Bounteous, his greed and lechery matched by Ishia Bennison as Mrs Kidman, Truly's mother and pimp. Richard Durden and Steffan Rhodri were magnificent as aged butler, Spunky, and the hapless Mr Littledick, both with immaculate comic timing. However, the show was ultimately and quite rightly stolen by Sarah Ridgeway, starring as a truly ingenious Truly, every bit as shifty, sly and shocking as the Soho setting itself.
I may well have to see this one again.