Mandrake, billed as “Machiavelli’s greatest sex farce”, is filled with lust, adultery, deceit and much Machiavellian scheming. Our protagonist, Calimaco (Will Parrott), is driven mad with desire, and must sleep with Lucrezia (Ruth E. Mortimer), the wife of Sir Nicia (Piers Hunt). Sir Nicia desires children, six years of marriage having thus far left him with none. So Callimaco and the cunning Ligurio (John McInnes) devise a plan which centres on Sir Nicia’s longing for children. Devious deceptions and much use of disguise ensues, as each character – the friar, the mother, the unpaid servant – seeks to capitalise from this duplicity.
This 5 Pound 5 Theatre production of Mandrake was adapted from the original text by Howard Colyer, who has done a really good job of making the language relevant and accessible – the original play was written in 1520 and staged in Florence. The production is sharp, sweet and funny, and really rattles through the text at a fast pace, which I always like in a comedy.
The acting is strong all round, with standout performances from Will Parrott as Callimaco and particularly Jean Apps as Sostrata, the elderly mother who tries to persuade her happily married daughter to take a young lover. I really hope Apps will be playing Lady Bracknell in the production of The Importance of Being Earnest which is coming soon to the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.
I must admit that at some points performances unfortunately seep into the realms of being hammy: I often had the sense that I wanted everyone to tone it down a notch or two. The comedy sometimes feels bashed out as it doesn’t come naturally or get as many laughs as it could, and in my opinion it falls short of the “farce” it was described as. More could be made of many situations: for example, when the faithful wife Lucrezia is being urged by both her husband and elderly mother to sleep with a young man, or the anti-Catholic satire that characterises plays of this era, but is not, in my view, emphasised as much as it could be.
I was also disappointed by Kemey Lafond’s set design, which could have been much more ambitious. The simple decorated screens disorientate rather than clarify the action of the play, and I longed for the drama to be more grounded in a particular setting. There is not even innovative use of these screens throughout the action: I expected more cleverly choreographed manoeuvring, but instead they seem only to clutter the stage.
But this aside, this production of Mandrake significantly makes Machiavelli – which I had in mind as one of those scary names in drama – highly accessible. My friend and I were wondering on our way there about how aloof and intense the play might be, but we couldn’t have been more wrong, as it is a light and very enjoyable evening of theatre. I would particularly recommend this show if you have not seen any Machiavelli before – many, including me, do not realise that when he died, he was a more famous playwright then political writer.
Mandrake is playing at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15 June. For more information and tickets, see the Brockley Jack Theatre website.