Editing A Mad World My Masters

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Sean Foley and Phil Porter explain how they edited and adapted Thomas Middleton's 'wicked' comedy.

Thomas Middleton's A Mad World My Masters is one of the most hilariously wicked plays ever written. If new, it might be hailed as the bastard offspring of Richard Sheridan and Joe Orton, but one whose midwife was a nurse from a 1970s sex comedy.

As outrageous as anything you might find on Channel 4, yet as hilarious as any classic mainstream comedy, the play manages to be satirical yet celebratory.

It reads as a compendium – almost a masterclass – in juggling differing comic styles: it mixes profound wit and slapstick, poetics and vaudevillian jokes, and biting class comedy with filthy innuendo.

Yet Middleton's genius still manages to keep us interested in the fantastical story, and the marvellous parade of characters striving to find their way to love and fortune in a recognisably fast-paced London.

Editing Middleton's play
We wanted to make sure that nothing got in the way of communicating Middleton's seething delight in exposing how we pretend to be what we're not to get what we want. He shows how lustful, vain, greedy and desperate we are, and how hard we work to cover this with threadbare conventional morality.

We wanted to underline the playful way he develops his plots, and how he plays with the idea of theatre itself; because the whole play is a sort of vibrant amoral celebration of entertainment – it knows it's being funny, and invites us to have fun in knowing that it knows. And we wanted to try to make sure everyone could laugh like they must have done in 1608: uproariously, and at ourselves.

So, in editing and adapting, we decided to cut away innuendoes, references, and allusions to things no one has heard of any more. We removed around a fifth of the original play, and re-visited or even re-wrote some passages – while doing our best to impersonate the salty Middleton tang.

We have occasionally changed character names where Middleton's joke could be rendered more clearly with modern language. And we have 'translated' from his Jacobean English into our own contemporary idioms in those few passages where we judged that Middleton's intentions and humour would be too buried in inaccessible language.

1950s Soho
London is timeless, and 1950s Soho seemed to offer a stylish and recognisable stand-in for London 1608: a post-war world where everyone is worried about sliding morals, the position of women, a changing class system, immigrants, and where on earth to get the next drink.

But this is also a time when 'you've never had it so good', and when foreign fashions and food began loosening straight-laced Britain, despite the high-minded protestations of some.

Celebrating our obsessions
In the end, we adapted and edited A Mad World My Masters because it's a still magnificently alive play.

It celebrates and castigates our obsessions with sex and money – how we buy the one, and make love to the other – and does so with such fun and brio that it's, well, undecent.

Sean Foley and Phil Porter

A Mad World My Masters

by Thomas Middleton

Swan Theatre
6 June - 25 October 2013

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