Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Boys Ford ahead 377 years on

lady's trial

Joe Pocknell (Spinella) is faced by her unjust accuser Aurelio (James Williams). At left Pascal Vogiaridis as Adurni Pictures: Mark Ellis

The Lady's Trial

Edward's Boys


The Lady’s Trial is one of those plays so often doomed to fester in manuscript or libraries: slightly known about, but unperformed and overlooked, until someone has the brainwave of digging it up and staging it.

The RSC, usually in its recently refurbished Swan Theatre over the past three decades, has something of a tradition of restoring neglected Tudor and Jacobean repertoire (Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor, for instance, or the Shakespeare-Fletcher The Two Noble Kinsmen).

But not even they can quite match the glorious performing originality and sheer risk-taking of Edward’s Boys, the courageous teenage drama society based at the Levi Fox Hall across the road at King Edward VI School, Stratford, who have just made this immensely difficult and challenging play their own – and triumphed.

This is a remarkable rediscovery. The Lady’s Trial is by John Ford, known partly for The Witch of Edmonton (an early collaboration with Dekker and Rowley, very occasionally revived) but most significantly for ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a late play printed in 1633.

Otherwise almost all his plays – The Sun’s Darling, The Lover’s Melancholy, The Broken Heart – sit yearning for rediscovery by some adventurous company. By remarkable coincidence, theBenazzi RSC will stage Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice (also 1633), a vivid Italian-based play about marital jealousy and murder, this year, alongside Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.

Edward’s Boys have just upstaged them. The Lady’s Trial is later still - indeed dates from 1638, probably a year before Ford’s death, and so is his last surviving play. It has not, it seems, been revived since then. A hefty undertaking, it boasts some fifteen lead roles – roughly the same as, say, The Taming of the Shrew. That’s a largish ensemble to muster, and requires infinite talent to pull off.

No problem here: Edward’s boys have not just astounding nerve, but endlessly impressive strength in depth. It’s a wordy play. The number of lines even minor characters have to master is considerable; and the sheer content of the lines is not easy to master. But Edward’s boys roll up their sleeves and get on with it. The outcome, especially in the overall quality of the diction, is hugely impressive. I heard possibly one onstage prompt, rapidly rectified. No more.

One reason for the extended cast size in The Lady’s Trial is that there are in effect (as in Love’s Sacrifice and several other Ford plays) three plots, or at least two sub-plots that are given prominence. If it has a subject, it relates to the treatment, or often maltreatment, of women by men; and their right to speak for themselves.

Levidolce's husband, Benazzi, played by Dan Wilkinson, returns incognito

The great speech of Spinella, the Genoese wife accused of betraying her husband (arguably echoing Shakespeare’s Othello), at the heart of the main plot, is a defence of women’s entitlement of comparable impact to, say, Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice.

The fact that it was so well delivered here, fabulously enunciated – by Joe Pocknell, the endlessly versatile Cupid in last year’s Galatea, where he never ceased to excel – is a measure of some of the superlative delivery that this boy cast as a whole brought to Ford.

The best of the speaking, with Pocknell and Jack Hawkins’ equally assertive, courageous, brilliantly lucid Levidolce to the fore, both of them boy-girl roles, was of quite astonishing quality. 

Levidolce is another kind of loyal spouse, a married woman devotedly awaiting the return of her errant spouse (Benazzi – Dan Wilkinson). When he appears, clad in a kind of poor man’s gabardine, he is in effect in disguise, seeking to catch his temptable wife out: in fact, she has succumbed, to the pestering Adurni, but the way Levidolce cleverly turns the tables is part of the comedy, or at least the irony, of Ford’s play, which time and again Perry Mills’s production brought out to advantage.

There is even more wry fun in the other subplot, the dilemma of the bizarrely lisping Amoretta (Ben Clarke), pursued relentlessly by two impossible gasping foreigners of (to her) less than ideal demeanour (and to us, complete nincompoops). 

The triple chorus which opened the production was brief, but crisp and buoyant: much of the time, characters out of costume, in school jackets and/or shirtsleeves, were used to beef up the story, fill out the action or enliven proceedings. It’s a risky conceit: mostly this worked, but visually perhaps not always. Often it lent energy. Sometimes it sapped it, generating a lively hint of mischief but also of muddle.

Even at this late Carolingian date (1638) Ford’s rediscovered drama suggests affinities with Spanish Golden Age drama more than, say, with Shakespeare or even Marlowe.

James Williams’s Aurelio, the well-meaning but interfering friend who intrusively and unfortunately rather than maliciously persuades his colleague (Auria, Finlay Hatch), setting off for the wars, of the latter’s wife’s proneness to unfaithfulness, was mostly finely and tidily spoken: superior in this respect, arguably, to Hatch’s beleaguered, hesitant and essentially benign husband, who nonetheless brought a pathos, a decency and an unjudgmental nobility to his part; he was notably entertaining as Rafe in Galatea).

Around them creeps Dominic Howden’s snaky Futelli, a kind of mischievous master of ceremonies, full of knowing looks and winks and endlessly sidling and slithering, manipulating, teasing, not to mention squeezing out many laughs. He was the memorable Hebe (Goddess of Youth) from Galatea, one of the most touching performances, his delivery superlative, the characterisation profoundly affecting; and effective here despite slightly swallowing some words.

Vocally he in turn was upstaged by Isaac Sergeant’s Piero, a Hispanic-lookisneaky Futelling figure in black, also gently prodding along the plot, immensely amiable, but – more importantly - without doubt one of the four outstanding speakers of the evening: sensitive, utterly lucid, earnest, well-paced, finely cadenced: a quietly, impressively stylish, memorable young performer.

Dominic Howden as the sneaky, master-manipulator Futelli, with Ben Clarke's lisping Amoretta looking on


Stealing the show wickedly and scrumptiously – as they are supposed to - were two clowning characters whose wit and timing were a delicious, endlessly funny foil to each other.

Dan Power was let loose on the gloriously ludicrous Guzman, a porky Spanish nobleman who fancies himself as a suitor and goes to any extraordinary lengths to prove it: splendiferously clad in Hispanic red, yellow and black, puffed up, striking the most unutterable self-satisfied poses, and quite brilliantly playing the audience, his hapless victims, to their deliberate discomfiture.

Magnificently impossible, bloated and utterly uncontrollable, with a superb smattering of bizarre Spanish gutturals and hilariously awkward consonants, clumsy in the extreme, revving up like a bull, Power, possibly the only one not seen in Galatea is a terrific find; a one-off.

In the humour stakes no less a one-off is George Ellingham’s knock-you-over novel creation Fulgoso, Guzman’s swords-drawn rival then intermittently his inseparable fellow-conspirator, who intones with a disconcertingly squeaky voice reflecting Dutch parentage and produces a hilarious result.

Fulgoso’s every shambolic utterance is a pearl, especially as his every word, amid the vocal shenanigans, is beautifully audible. How he managed to square the two and pull such zaniness off – and so consistently - is beyond me. Guzman and Fulgoso (Melibeus last year) simply gobbled up or seized hold of the stage – and the audience - every time they embarked on one of their surreal, dotty exchanges: elaborate bows and scrapes and curtsies, mock-joustings, crazy embracings, struck poses, attempted and hopeless wooings. And all with incredible polish. What a hoot they were. Endlessly clever, and outrageously funny.

Ford’s lesser male roles are nonetheless quite demanding. All the men here made some impact, always adequately and often well-spoken.

George Hodson (Malfato), light blue-clad, hit the jackpot with two blistering outbursts, one in each half of the play: much more assured than his Tityrus last year, suggesting a stronger performer in the making.

Myles Langley (Martino) moved well and as the tolerant uncle set aside a sternish demeanour to exude benevolence as the play reached its dénouement. As the errant Adurni, Pascal Vogiaridis (he played the crucial role of Phyllida in Galatea), if not an obvious adulterer, exudes earnestness with every move and gesture; Oliver Lloyd in green cloak achieved a presence as Trelcatio to produce a tidy, assured character from his relatively minor role, including one particularly good, well-turned scene.

You have to work to keep up with these characters, as Ford fires them on and off in quick-fire scenes. It was good tGuzmanhat all these talented youths brought such definition and thought-through character, thus differentiating them all sufficiently.

There were several abbreviated, quite well-compacted dance sequences, involving the ‘extras’ or (as they are dubbed here) the non-speaking ‘mutes’. These were exquisite and well plotted - enough for one to wish they could be longer, especially as the accompanying music (Ben Dennes, Sam Bridges, Joe Woodman and others) was so appropriate and so effective, and neatly performed (including an exquisite Kyrie).

The same could be said for several elegant set-piece moves for five or more characters, especially a delicately managed sequence with mirrors. A noisy, stylish clapping dance of Hispanic cut follows – ironically - Spinella’s mortified challenge below. Elsewhere, Ben Clarke’s Amoretta was treated to a burst of something like the Yale Song Book

Dan Power as the gloriously ludicrous Guzman

Charlie Waters, last year’s spirited young title role in Galatea, played an impish, sympathetic part as the younger sister, Castanna, forever trapped in the middle, loyally backing up Spinella at every point in her troubled dilemma, perhaps a little softly spoken yet each word still lucid (as with his pert Galatea).

One device, a bit tricky to pull off cleanly, the placing of Spinella (and one point, Amoretta) on a simple revolving platform centrestage, wheeled out a twirled by four senior ‘mutes’ or helpers, was a nice idea:

Pocknell’s Spinella, who has, incidentally, an extraordinarily noble, upright stance and dignified aristocratic bearing, superbly maintained, seemed disturbingly vulnerable; yet also authoritative, determined to remain in control. As a maligned spouse, charged with adultery due to James Williams’s Aurelio’s tiresome misconception, she seems not just a Desdemona but more like Hero from Much Ado About Nothing.

Her forlorn appeals to her husband – ‘Auria, Auria’; her censorious ‘How unmanly his anger threatens me’; and her bold challenge ‘Let me appear in open court’ all gained hugely from Pocknell’s skill – sheer artistry – at projecting his voice upward.

Every line he spoke was moving, appealing, beautifully charged and strikingly poignant, with some sophisticated, grown-up changes of pace worthy of an actor way beyond his years. Spinella’s first reply is in fact long delayed: and impacts the more for it. How also could one not feel with her at ‘The rack and ruin of my injured name’ or…’His love for me was matchless.’ It put one in mind of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.

Alongside Joe Pocknell’s Spinella was that other revelation, Jack Hawkins’s Levidolce. How he managed to manoeuvre the vast, beautiful Hispanic-looking dress he wore was a miracle. He moved in it gracefully; he sat down with dignity; charged with noblesse, he looked and seemed every bit the aristocrat.

But there was a sensitivity quite unexpected in the beauty of his verse speaking, even when, in a brief vengeful moment, quietly plotting in a church service. Not just consonants, but vowels and glottals were delivered by Hawkins, a rugger star, with a gentleness, in a voice with feminine perfection. Perhaps there was a little too much of the clenched hands.

Levidolce’s rediscovery of her ragamuffin-like husband (Dan Wilkinson’s forceful Benuzzi) turned into one of the evening’s highlights. And Wilkinson, almost inevitably a strong presence, brought some of the frightening, staring-eyed intensity of his Diana (from Galatea) to his role here.

Edward’s Boys has ranged across the late 16th and early 17th Century playwrights, bringing their own outstanding fusion of excellence, polish, perfected diction - and humour. Besides Christopher Marlowe, and Dekker and Webster, they have to advantage revived both Antonio’s Revenge and The Dutch Courtesan by John Marston (1576-1634) and two plays by his near-contemporary Thomas Middleton (1580-1627): A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and A Mad World, My Masters, also currently in the RSC’s and English Touring Theatre’s repertoire.

Last year’s Galatea was their second play by Lyly, after Mother Bombie, a delicious farce several times acted by Lyly’s ensemble, the Children of St. Paul’s. Now they have added Ford to their roster, and by and large they have triumphed at every turn.

The production has two more performances in the autumn. The Lady’s Trial can be seen at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s South Bank on Saturday 26 September at 7.00 and Sunday 27 September at 6.00.

Roderic Dunnett


Edward's Boys

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