A New Way to Please You

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Friday, 23 December, 2005

First hitting the stage in (or about) 1618 and currently part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Gunpowder’ season, ‘A New Way To Please You’ (or ‘The Old Law’) is attributed by modern scholars to Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. The reason for the uncertainty in the authorship rests on whether a third party could have been involved in writing the play, since the first printed edition of 1656 credited a third author, Philip Massinger.

Whatever the truth about the authorship of this 350 year-old piece, it has an incredibly modern feel to it, together with an energy and drive that the RSC’s production has eagerly seized on to produce an enjoyable, entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theatre.

‘A New Way To Please You’ begins with a young man intently discussing the validity of a new law with some lawyers. The location is a fictitious Dukedom, ruled by Duke Evander. The new law in question requires that men who reach the age of 80, and women who turn 60 should be put to death. We soon discover why the young man is consulting with lawyers – he’s anxious to get rid of his ageing father and spend his inheritance. And he’s not the only one who’s itching to take advantage of a law which affords opportunities aplenty for those who are only too willing to take advantage of it. Before long, we meet men who are bribing officials to forge their wives’ ages in the parish registers, and a young wife who is eager to be widowed when approached by virile young suitors. A glimpse into the nastier side of human nature and behaviour, the play isn’t total gloom. One devoted son at least is prepared to risk his own life to protect his father from ‘The Old Law’ by faking his death and then concealing him. But it’s still a carefully crafted indictment of human nature and politics that’s only redeemed by a sudden reversal of reality at the end of the play, where, as if we had been dreaming, the dead are returned to life and sit in judgement on those who were willing to use the law for their own gratification.

However, there’s more to this intriguing and highly complex play than the frailties of human beings. Written in the reign of James I, the play is a daring challenge to the Kings’ contention that his authority stemmed directly from God – the doctrine of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’. But it also has applicability to politics in general, the role of women (note that in ‘The Old Law’ females are to meet their demise 20 years before their male counterparts), as well as the age-old conflict between old and young in society, the use and abuse of power and much else besides.

Played against a simple background of brick walls, director Sean Holmes has opted for non-period costume, a contentious decision that will obviously provoke heated debate. Indeed, my preference, particularly when it comes to Shakespeare, is to experience the plays performed in period dress. But this play is rather different, because the language and ideas embody a kind of currency that provides a good fit with almost any kind of costume, and the result isn’t distracting, though it still poses problems. Still, It would be interesting to see the play in period costume too – but then you can’t have everything.

Holmes also opts to highlight the comedic elements of the play – aided here by the use of amusing costumes particularly where Lysander (played by James Hayes) is attempting to shed some years by practising sword fighting, dancing and drinking. This means that the darker side of the play is rather shunted into the background, losing some of the satirical bite. But there’s good contrast in the enthusiastic, headstrong playing from the younger characters in contrast with their older counterparts, and the cast’s obvious conviction and enthusiasm for the play shone impressively throughout the production.

The dramatic choices the RSC have made in bringing this unnerving, powerful, and multi-dimensional play to the stage certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. But since getting any ‘taste’ at all of this great play is a very rare treat indeed (since it’s hardly ever produced), it’s certainly worth a visit.

(Peter Brown)

Production photo by Stephen Vaughan
Photo of Trafalgar Studios by Peter Brown

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