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.