Formerly standing side by side with The Globe on the banks of the Thames, The Rose Playhouse is now an archaeological site overshadowed by the impressive reconstruction of her once rival sister. The space on which the small theatre stands is tucked into the walls and hidden away: there is no evidence any rivalry exists any longer. This relationship between The Globe and its now oft forgotten counterpart The Rose is much like that between the reputations of William Shakespeare and John Lyly themselves. Lyly’s great influence is overshadowed by the bard’s complete domination of Elizabethan drama, yet The Woman in the Moon, Lyly’s only play in blank verse, resonates in the small stage space of The Rose Playhouse as much as any performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Globe.
The Dolphin’s Back has subtitled its interpretation of Lyly’s The Woman in the Moon as “an astrological sex comedy”. It is certainly that – an impressively funny, intimate and refreshing performance of a play that toys with classical references, gender stereotypes and astrological allegory. Bella Heesom plays Pandora, a human woman created by Nature (played by Julia Sandiford) who has imbued her with the seven planets’ most attractive qualities. The seven planets, unhappy with Nature’s recycling of their qualities, use their powers to reverse these into their most unattractive elements. Thus the mortal Pandora revolves in the centre of a web spun by the planets, each one taking a turn to inflict Pandora with melancholy, deceit, vanity, lust and madness. This brings havoc to the mortal world and to the four shepherds who are each trying to win her for a lover.
Gunophilus, Pandora’s Puck-like servant, brings mischievousness to this production. Played by James Thorne, with enviable comic timing, Gunophilus’s deeds often cause more trouble than planned. The comedic characterisation of the shepherds, each with innocence and slight simplicity, brings forth empathy from the audience – as well as a frequent chuckle. Joel Davy, who plays shepherd Stesias, is particularly impressive: a comic moment where Pandora attacks the four shepherds in a fit of anger sees Stesias among his friends smarting with unexpected surprise. This is a funny play and a funny production, which relies sometimes upon knowing looks to the audience and the odd raised brow, but that does not mean to say it is brash – each look is subtle and each well-choreographed.
This a lively production of Lyly’s play and a wonderful introduction if, like me, you were previously unacquainted with his work. Performing in a space rich with legacy, The Dolphin’s Back’s presentation of The Woman in the Moon puts Lyly centre stage – and deservedly so.
The Woman in the Moon is playing at the The Rose Playhouse until 4 October. For more information and tickets, please see The Rose Playhouse website.