Comus – A Masque in Honour Of Chastity

I decided last minute to see this unique play at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe. Comus – A Masque in Honour Of Chastity was written by poet John Milton in 1634, supposedly commissioned to clear the family name of the Earl of Bridgewater after his brother-in-law was executed following a sodomy trial. It follows the story of a Lady lost in the woods, who meets Comus, the God of Revelry, who promises refuge but offers something darker.

The whole concept of a masque is probably alien to most modern audiences, so I appreciated the efforts made by director Lucy Bailey and writer Patrick Barlow, who has added a prologue and epilogue, to put things in context and set the scene for contemporary viewers. The performance spilled over into the crowd, a novel adaptation of the space by designer William Dudley. Performances were strong, including Emma Curtis as the central character Lady Alice. Overall, despite the rather odd subject matter I rather enjoyed this production.

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Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost is a seventeenth-century poem by John Milton. It’s majestic and beautiful, but it’s also epic and difficult, so I was impressed to learn that Fourth Monkey Theatre Company were putting on a production of it. Add this to the fact that it would be an immersive promenade production, and I was determined to go.

The ticket I booked instructed me to wait at the buoy marking the entrance to Trinity Buoy Wharf, the location of the piece. I duly did so, and knew I was in the right place when I spied a bunch of singing ‘angels’ just opposite. When they got up and walked down the road, still singing, I followed behind; for one terrifying moment I thought I was the only one there, but on arriving at the venue realised to my relief that there were plenty of other people (who clearly hadn’t followed instructions).

Walking down the steps and entering ‘heaven’, then, was a lovely feeling. I was greeted by another ‘angel’ and offered a cupcake. Heaven was a white airy space, decorated with happy and positive photographs from all round the world. To pass the time before the play began I popped next door to ‘Eden’ for some apple cider: the company clearly thought this through!

Watching the production, which lasted for a couple of hours including the interval, I realised how much thought had gone into it. Director Ailin Conant makes the most of the space: Heaven is twice the size of Hell, which emphasises the uplifting light nature of this area, while Hell’s position next to Eden indicates how close Adam and Eve are to the Fall. Set designer Zahra Mansouri has created an evocative world: the decor was clearly done on a budget, with painted cardboard and homemade costumes, but this only adds to the charm of the piece and lends it an organic feel. Disturbing images of war and pestilence in Hell complemented the pleasant pictures in Heaven, while I loved the use of the chute leading into Hell, down which Satan and his cronies tumble after they are expelled from Heaven. Pablo Fernandez Baz’s lighting also succeeds in evoking the very different atmosphere evident in each space.

The large ensemble worked very well together, uniting to create the voice of God, staying in character before the show and during the interval (I asked one of the angels where the toilets were – she pointed them out to me at the other side of the wharf and added, apologetically, “We don’t have toilets in heaven; we’ve spoken to God about it, but nothing’s been done”), and generally bringing Milton’s world to life. Some performances stood out: Sadie Clark’s bossy Gabriel and Adam Trussell’s swaggering Raphael were hilarious, while I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Ruth Rundle’s naive Uriel. Daniel Chrisostomou’s physical and confident portrayal of Death was disturbing and unsettling, while Reuben Beau Davis and Adam Will-Jones together make an effective, changeable Satan.

Adam and Eve, played by Scott McGarrick and Leanne Bennet, are appealingly innocent at first: in a clever move, they can only speak a few words of basic halting English. It is only after they eat the forbidden fruit – the scene when Satan in disguise persuades Eve to do so is suspenseful and gripping – that they gain full command of language. It is suggested that Eve and Satan are parallel characters – both rebellious and forced into subservience against their will – which is an interesting take.

The audience are moved around the space as the show progresses, which can sometimes be tiring but has the effect of fully immersing us in what is going on. At the end we are exiled with Adam and Eve, forced to exit with them out of the welcoming Heaven and onto the windswept wharf. A unique immersive experience.