Sheer bedlam

A bawdy 18th-century romp at Shakespeare's Globe.

Is this is the way the world-order ends? It's been strictly boys only at the writing end of the Globe theatre since it re-opened in 1996, seemingly in a continuation of 17th-century policy. It has taken 14 years (or 400, depending on your point of view) to stage the first-ever play written by a woman. Playwright Nell Leyshon makes history this month, but can her play Bedlam make equal claims?

We no longer treat the mad with blood-letting, laxatives and leeches; nor do we cut them and keep them cold, so as to let the heat out of the brain. They are no longer regarded, along with the cock, the bear and the actor, as entertaining spectacle. The historical debate on the treatment of the mad that the play scrutinises (enemas and mustard compresses v understanding and compassion) is long dead, so one may wonder how much Bedlam can touch us now, and how much it is merely a jolly period pastiche.

The play is set in 18th-century London, and there is no doubting its Hogarthian vitality. The stage is peopled with gimcrack whores, filthy-hemmed nymphs, beggars and lunatics; as well as fashionable toffs and doggerel-scribblers. An impressive and energetic acting ensemble leaps smartly into the folk dances and popular songs that lace through the show and shore up the flabby plot like a whalebone corset: their riotous version of smutty drinking song "Seven Drunken Nights" will live long in the memory. As will Ella Smith, who stands out in particular in the role of Phyllis, purveyor of various kinds of sauce.

The anatomy of London underpins the revels, and scenes play out in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, St Giles or Bedlam itself. We get an almost site-specific feel at the Globe, of course, the waterside ("bordello") theatre open to London skies. At one point, the amorous Bedlam doctor speaks of swimming up the river of the bosomy Phyllis, getting lost in her narrow alleys and so on. But the suggestion that the topography of a whorish gin-seller is analogous to London is then -- and this is rather typical of the play -- made explicit, as though the groundlings weren't quite up to the job of working this out. Similarly, the nice structural ambiguity in "mad doctor" is carefully spelled out for us in the final scenes.

The groundlings themselves are variously spat on, begged from, solicited, and at one point, have slops emptied out on them. All good fun, except that at some point the pageant hoists one too many petticoats and shows its pantomime knickers: a hapless audience member duly suffers mild humiliation onstage, and the London references start to look like the local allusions so beloved of panto. The punters, it seemed, had problems with the tone of the piece: when Stella -- who has been incarcerated in Bedlam for what would, in modern terminology, be called postpartum depression -- is reunited with her infant daughter, it is undoubtedly supposed to be a tender moment, but instead it provoked gales of laughter. One of the unlikely pat pairings at the end, between the mad doctor's wife and his reforming colleague, elicited an "aaaaah!" of the sort normally reserved for small furry animals.

There is just a tracery of Congreve's The Way of the World as these two lovers negotiate a union, and it is clear that Leyshon has a sensitive ear for the language of the time. Perhaps the improbable marriages that round off the play, and the creaking plot machinations that get us to that point seem a little trite and dated for modern sensibilities, but there is genuine poignancy in the descent of the mad doctor to mad patient. "I am unravelling" he moans, as he is stripped, and the troubling suggestion here is that the way we treat people is contingent on their costume.

And there are contemporary parallels to be found in Bedlam. The libidinous gin-addict Dr Carew typifies an 18th-century variety of binge drinker. "I am English", he intones, "and this is what we do". It seems that "Madam Geneva", variously sweetened with fruits and berries, was something like the alcopop of its day. And the South Sea Bubble, which sends poor Tom O'Bedlam off his rocker, doesn't sound a million miles off another, more recent speculative catastrophe.

But the show's real strength lies in its 18th-century cartoon colours and textures. This, then, is the way the world order ends. Not with a bang, perhaps, but with a broad-brush flourish all the same.

"Bedlam" runs at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 until 1 October.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times