Initially performed as a Read Not Dead piece, before a production at the Rose Playhouse, The Dolphin’s Back have begun a limited run of John Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It has been billed as his “astrological sex comedy”, and a likely source of inspiration for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A group of Utopian shepherds (Stesias, Learchus, Iphicles and Melos) comes to Nature in search of a wife – she agrees to help them, and to that end brings Pandora to life. In so doing, she takes virtues from the planets and they vow to have their revenge, by instilling Pandora with some less desirable qualities. And thus begins a series of japes and misunderstandings when the shepherds come to woo her, as she blows hot and cold on their signs of affection; a truly unpredictable presence indeed.
This 90-minute production (directed superbly by James Wallace) has been put on in association with the Globe Education team and has links to the Before Shakespeare project. Thanks to Shakespeare’s overwhelming success and legacy, many of his playwright predecessors and contemporaries have been almost lost to history – indeed, I could only name a select few of the most famous ones, and not really know a lot about them or their works. So it is vital that we continue to explore the lesser known personalities and their creative output; Read Not Dead is a good starting point for this, and it is fantastic to see a fully staged production developed off the back of one of those readings. It is fascinating to see where Shakespeare may have found inspiration for his stories and style, whilst also celebrating these other writers.
With a backdrop as awe-inspiring as the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, not much is required in terms of a set – a circular bed suffices, which can be symbolic of the moon, as well as allowing some very dynamic sequences. The planets orbit sleeping Pandora in a predatory fashion, whilst the shepherds are able to engage in some rough and tumble over a severed boar’s head. Despite the very traditional surroundings, there are touches of modernity and the play itself seems quite in touch with the here and now (despite being over 400 years old).
The entire cast puts in faultless performances. Of the planets, who have slightly more fleeting appearances, Joy Cruickshank leaves a lasting impression as a highly sensuous Venus, as does Tim Frances as an amorous Jupiter – along with Emma Denly as his angry and suspicious wife, Juno.
Gunophilus is gifted to Pandora as a servant, and James Thorne brilliantly shows how he’s put through the ringer; initially rejected by his mistress, her changing moods eventually lead him to become another potential suitor. This puts him in direct competition with the shepherds (played hilariously by Mathew Foster, Mark Knightley, James Askill and Adam Cunis) – the five actors excel in these almost farcical events, deploying incredible physicality, timing and comic delivery.
Bella Heesom is perfectly cast as Pandora. Her character’s inconstant moods and emotions mean she is almost playing several different people in one. From Pandora’s initial innocence, she is catapulted through ambition, aggression, humility, promiscuity, deception and lunacy – all the while there is a glint in Heesom’s eye that suggests this is no ordinary woman.
My verdict? A production like this is a clear example of the timeless language of theatre, uniting the audience in joy at events onstage – an instant classic.
The Woman in the Moon runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 19 August 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.