Laugh? I nearly had therapy

There's an intriguing anticipatory touch of
The Truman Show in
The Antipodes, a comedy from 1638 now mounted in a rare and highly captivating revival by Gerald Freedman at Shakespeare's Globe. Unbeknownst to the hero of Peter Weir's movie, all the world is a television studio. Likewise suffering from a bad case of wanderlust, Peregrine Joyless, the protagonist of Richard Brome's play, is deceived into living a life that is just one big theatrical production for him. All the world literally becomes a stage, a play within a play put on by undercover thesps. Here, though, the trick is a benign one, masterminded not by Weir's sinister control freak and pseudo-deity but by a physician, Doctor Hughball, who is one of the first practising psychiatrists on the English stage.

There's an intriguing anticipatory touch of The Truman Show in The Antipodes, a comedy from 1638 now mounted in a rare and highly captivating revival by Gerald Freedman at Shakespeare's Globe. Unbeknownst to the hero of Peter Weir's movie, all the world is a television studio. Likewise suffering from a bad case of wanderlust, Peregrine Joyless, the protagonist of Richard Brome's play, is deceived into living a life that is just one big theatrical production for him. All the world literally becomes a stage, a play within a play put on by undercover thesps. Here, though, the trick is a benign one, masterminded not by Weir's sinister control freak and pseudo-deity but by a physician, Doctor Hughball, who is one of the first practising psychiatrists on the English stage.

Laid on thick, the idea of theatre as therapy could feel counter-productively self-serving in an age when going to see stage drama is no longer a mass activity. But Freedman's production - which ends in a delicious spoof-Purcellian masque - has such an infectious buoyancy, speed and sense of light, reflexive mischief that it comes across as a genuine tonic, rather than as a slightly sanctimonious sales pitch for the medium.

With his lanky loon's body and wonderful, lopsided features that clearly have designs on becoming their own DIY Picasso portrait, Harry Gostelow is perfect casting for the hero. Peregrine is not so much proof that travel addles the mind as an example of how, back in the Caroline period, the wrong kind of travel writing could turn the wits of a young man stuck in the provinces. He has become obsessed with the tall tales in Sir John Mandeville's famous travel book (more Bruce Chatwin than Bill Buford), to the point of having failed for three years to consummate his marriage to the certifiably naïve Martha (Karen Tomlin). His father (James Hayes) brings him to London to seek help, but it soon becomes apparent that he, too, needs the services of a proto-shrink, since he is beside himself with baseless fears that his young second wife is being unfaithful to him.

The planes that periodically zoom over the Globe are a nice, ironic reminder of the cheap flights that would these days be a partial solution to Peregrine's problems. In The Antipodes, though, other methods have to be found. Geoffrey Beevor's Doctor, who is here equipped with a joky precursor of the Freudian couch, drugs our hero and leads him to believe that they have both sailed to "Anti-London", an Antipodean city directly beneath the English capital. Created by the private company of players kept by the fantastical Lord Letoy (excellent Tim Woodward), this illusory world is an upside down and back-to-front version of society back in England. The place abounds in breezily barmy inversions (school is attended by senile greybeards; merchants plead with gentlemen to cuckold them; it is women who fight), though, interestingly, the play within a play declines to reverse a convention close to home. It could have shown theatre switched from an all-male to an all-female preserve, but it sidesteps that option.

In Freedman's production, too, Letoy's actors are men to a man (so to speak) and very amusing with it, especially Mark Lockyer who impersonates (amongst other things) a leeringly toothy, morally topsy-turvy judge.

Given that Peregrine winds up convinced, for a time, that he is the king of this looking-glass realm and races about in regal costume waving a prop wooden sword, you wonder how much, to its first audiences, the play seemed a coded commentary on London under Charles I. When the Swan Theatre revived and adapted another Brome play, A Jovial Crew, a few years ago, it forced you to hear premonitory rumblings of the Civil War. By contrast, the cuts and changes here work to untether the play from its historical circumstances. Within those limitations, though, the production is a delight.

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