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Antonia Charlesworth talks to writer and director Sean Foley about reviving an undiscovered comedy that’s making audiences blush 400 years after it was written

While many consider the Bard to be England’s greatest writer, his critics argue that his modern reputation is somewhat inflated and anti-Stratfordians have questioned his authorship for centuries. Wherever you stand on the matter, there is no debating that Shakespeare’s resonance has overshadowed countless other playwrights of his era.

One example of which is Jacobean dramatist Thomas Middleton. In 2012, Oxford University academics looked at one of Shakespeare’s anomalies, All’s Well That Ends Well. Distinctly different in style from his other work and difficult to categorise, it’s often referred to as one of his ‘problem’ plays. Analysis revealed that the cause of this was most likely a co-author, identified as Middleton.

It is a mere coincidence, according to comic theatre director and writer Sean Foley, that Middleton’s neglected comic masterpiece A Mad World, My Masters was adapted for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) the following year. Now, the RSC has teamed up with English Touring Theatre to take the production on the road, starting in Blackpool next week.

“While Shakespeare wrote some fantastic comedies, they’ve been done and I wanted to try and find something new,” says Foley, who adapted the play alongside Phil Porter and is the director of the touring production. “Of course it’s not new in terms of when it was written, but it’s new in the sense that it hadn’t been done before in any major way.”

In Foley and Porter’s adaptation, the action unfolds in 1950s Soho. Glamour rubs up against filth as the posh mix with musicians, whores and racketeers. The dashingly cash-strapped bachelor Richard Follywit is in pursuit of a quick buck and a good time so attempts to get his hands on his uncle’s fortune. Meanwhile, in a dual narrative, Mr Penitent Brothel decides he must have the beautiful Mrs Littledick, but her extremely jealous husband stands in the way until events come to a head in the play’s final act. The plot is supported by stylish set and costume design and a jazz band Foley says audiences would pay to see in their own right.

“When I read the play I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before,” he says. “It really is hilariously rude and packed full of fantastic comic situations that everyone can buy into and laugh at…But I wanted to bring it into an era that was closer to our own.”

Despite the age of the play, Foley points out that desperation for money and sex are things that “never go out of fashion”. But its unabashed degeneracy may have been a contributing factor in its fading into obscurity, with the staunch morality of the centuries that followed.

“These kinds of funny plays have been written for hundreds and thousands of years,” says Foley, adding that it could just as easily have been written by the ancient Greeks but somehow still manages to shock modern audiences. “Even putting it on 18 months ago in Stratford-upon-Avon, there were a couple of sharp intakes of breath.”

Foley gives the RSC credit where it’s due and says that throughout the process, his first venture with the highly regarded theatre company, he has been given relative freedom. “As with any big organisation, there’s a certain amount of bureaucracy in a way that I’m not used to,” reflects the director, whose work with his own company has included hits like The Ladykillers.

“But they’ve been fantastic and let me get on with it. Once they decide that you’re the person for the job, they back you – and that’s been a great experience.”

Though it is relatively unknown, Foley believes that A Mad World, My Masters is one of the most hilariously wicked plays ever written and, coincidence or not, its production by the RSC is a fitting tribute to its overlooked author.

A Mad World, My Masters is on 3-7 March, Grand Theatre, Blackpool

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