Every day, the media remind us that the population is ageing and that the consequences of this are no cause for celebration. In a world of "living wills", euthanasia, collapsing pension schemes and increasing tax burdens on the young, the emotional pressures on the old to make a timely exit in favour of their children are likely to intensify.
So what better moment to unearth A New Way to Please You? Middleton and Rowley's black Jacobean tragicomedy from 1618 imagines how a society might react if its ruler were to introduce a law whereby men at the age of 80 and women at 60 became subject to a cold, automatic and compulsory culling.
Premiered at Stratford in the spring, Sean Holmes's bracing and enjoyably ebullient modern-dress production now comes to the Trafalgar Studios, where it kicks off the London transfer of the RSC's much-praised Gunpowder Season. The play is like a darkly comic thought-experiment, as it envisages the corruption and the unedifying practices that would spread if we could pinpoint the exact moment a "loved one" - spouse, parent, employer - was due for the chop. There's a very funny scene where the clownish Gnotho (Fred Ridgeway) bribes a nerdy old Parish Clerk (excellent Geoffrey Freshwater) to doctor his wife's birth certificate, on the supposedly charitable grounds that bringing her death forward will relieve her of the pain of waiting. Referring to her as "my first wife", though she has yet to oblige him by dying, he takes bets on the date of his remarriage.
Black-veiled processions to the scaffold collide with raucous, riotously colourful wedding parties as husbands strain at the leash to get going on their second nuptials to dolly birds. It's like a virility contest among the unattached males when they compare the relative longevity of the rich widows they are angling to wed.
Comedy traditionally sides with the young against the old, who are presented as the repressive obstacles to love and life. When I saw the play in Stratford, I think that I was too inclined to see A New Way to Please You as a straightforward inversion of this arrangement. To be sure, there is little that is attractive about the calculating, shallow young shits who can't wait to get their hands on their inheritance in order to blow it all on fashionable retro-clobber. It's a jolting affront when we see these worthless layabouts - led by Jonjo O'Neill's brilliant, abrasively louche Simonides - promoted to lolling, bewigged judges at the climactic show trial.
On the other hand, I now appreciate more how Middleton complicates our moral response by making the one virtuous youth Cleanthes (well played by Matt Ryan) a humourless Puritan prig who is too ready to brand anyone who opposes him a whore or a hypocrite. And though the old are mostly a dignified, patriotically stoic bunch, they are let down badly by James Hayes's hilarious Lysander, an aged party who - desperately trying to prove himself a swinger - dyes his beard and does his back in during a hec- tic drinking, fencing and bopping competition with Simonides.
Nothing in the play is quite what it seems, including the young Duke (Peter de Jersey). The approved view in this society is that being a good son is the same as being a good subject, because a King is father to his people.
So what do we make of a ruler who embarks on a Measure for Measure-like monitored trial of his subjects by appearing to sanction state-enforced parricide? Is there an implied criticism of this use (or abuse) of his prerogative? The role is underwritten, but Holmes's production suggests that the Duke has caused emotional damage that will not be readily undone by touches such as the uneasy silence that follows his call for celebratory music at the end.
A powerful evening and one that whets the appetite for the RSC's forthcoming revival of Middleton's great play Women Beware Women.
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