Shakespeare’s Lost Boys: Moth, Mercutio’s Page and Hamlet’s Double.

Confidentiality forbids me to blog about my job, so that’s why I’ve been silent for the past few weeks! Finally, though, I’m halfway through my contract and really getting into the swing of things; enough that I have something to blog about other than stifled posts on teaching reflexive pronouns and the amusing habits of my students.

I’ve always been interested in the use of children in film, TV and theatre. This originally derived from my vicious envy of child actors, occasioned by my parents’ inexplicable refusal to send me to stage school and let my brain rot. As I’ve got older, my dad’s frequent stories of working with child actors (did you know that the BBC makes better provision for the physical, psychological and education well-being than any other company?), plus my own limited experiences of child acting at first and second hand deepened the interest. I thought as I got older, and academic studies necessarily took over, my personal interest would wane, but instead it increased.

I am five foot tall, nearly the same weight I was at twelve years old, and still occasionally get ID’d when buying scissors (I think you have to be fourteen – life just isn’t fair). I have bobbed hair. It’s not very surprising I was cast as Moth (in fact, I’ll be brave – go on, have a picture. The handsome chap is Phil Aherne, and our gormless expressions are appropriate for characters. And here’s me being incredibly short with the incredibly tall Ed White as Armado).

For a girl, Moth is a wonderful part. More individualised than the smaller ladies-in-waiting parts (Katherine and Maria), Moth is also less susceptible to heavy cutting, because he spends most of his time onstage with the two major comic roles, Armado and Costard. Nobody wants to cut Armado. Girls’ voices suit Moth’s treble better than boys, and it’s a sizeable role for actresses who suit young ingenue parts rather than sex bombs. The language, though, is appallingly difficult. While virtually everyone else gets breathable verse with metric signposts and the luxury of rhythm, Moth gets gargantuan prose sentences with nowhere to breathe. And in a clever, wordy play, Moth has an almost compulsive determination to be clever and wordy. He’s a terribly bratty child, whose only hint of vulnerability comes when Boyet suddenly out-bitches him in Act V. In our production, cross-casting Holofernes and Nathaniel made Armado’s page seem almost vicious; instead of old men, he was verbally abusing spinsters. Of all Shakespeare’s boys, Moth is the wittiest; he also needs to be one of the most physical. An archive on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website told me that, in the twentieth century, the RSC often staged Love’s Labour’s Lost in tandem with The Tempest, with Moth doubling Ariel. This doesn’t reflect Renaissance stagings (LLL predates The Tempest by a decade), but I think it’s a shrewd decision, reflecting just how much physical energy has to moderate that endless wordy dexterity.

The one thing everybody knows about Shakespeare’s theatre is that boys played girls.  Looking at Love’s Labour’s Lost, you see just how many boys there must have been in the King’s Men. At least six actors in the original cast of Love’s Labour’s Lost must have been pre-pubescent boys; the Princess, Rosaline, Katherine, Maria, Jacquenetta and Moth, even without any female attendants. The fact of these boys’ theatrical femininity tends to obscure just how often they did get to keep their breeches on: these ‘squawking Cleopatras’ must have played princes and pages far more often than virgins and wives.

Those boys playing boys – whether Moth, Richard III’s nephews, Fleance, young Macduff, young John Talbot, the Player Queen who’s nearing the end of his career as he shoots ‘nearer to heaven’ in a growth spurt, or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them pages of Benedick and Mercutio – must have been younger than the boys playing Shakespeare’s heroines. Carol Chillington Rutter makes this very point in her excellent 2007 lecture Pyg, Little William and Moth: Parts for Boys on Shakespeare’s stage. You can download it from the link given, and – having done so – I am now desperate to check out her book, Shakespeare and Child’s Play. And yes, this is the same Carol Rutter whose 1988 Clamorous Voices inspired the title of my blog, the format of my dissertation and my theatrical obsessions past and present. So excuse me while I fangirl.

The point I most wanted to raise in this entry has less in common with the body of the post, discussing textual pages and the LLL experience, than with another blog I’ve been following: Illuminations, which recently chronicled the production of the Hamlet DVD. The RSC has made great use of children in productions recently; Jonathan Slinger originally began his first soliloquy as Richard III holding hands with Edward V, while Greg Doran’s 2003 Macbeth ended not with Malcom but with Fleance, alone on stage as the witches returned to crowd him, suggesting all to clearly just how Banquo’s son would craft a path to the throne. The Doran/Tennant Hamlet is almost a child-free zone, except for one little page, who hands Hamlet the recorders, runs errands, and darts about in the confusion post-Polonius’s murder. That page is Zoe Thorne, a wonderful and diminutive actor who (you’ve guessed it) also played Moth in the Tennant-led LLL. But Doran’s use of children (or adult actors playing children) is nothing to the fascinating detail revealed by Rutter in her description of another Stratford Hamlet: Benthall’s 1948 production.

Rutter uses a different Angus McBean still to illustrate her lecture, but this one from the RSC Exhibition on Hamlet works better:

Diana Wynward and Anthony Quayle as Gertrude and Claudius.

Bottom left, watching the Players, lies Timothy Harley, who played Gertrude’s page in the production. And this, Rutter writes, was his importance:

[…]the little boy somehow the residual trace, the ghost of the child-who-was-Hamlet, but also Elsinore’s stake in the future.  At the end of Benthall’s production, as the curtain fell, it was this child who was Hamlet’s lonely witness.  As corpses were removed, he sat on the steps, ignored, sobbing.

This has to be my favourite Hamlet detail since finding out about the “Kean crawl” (which, interestingly, also takes place in III.2, the play scene. In a scene in which so much has to happen and be clearly seen by the audience – the dumbshow, the play, the reactions of Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia and Horatio in particular – how interesting that directors should start to introduce additional details, and that it’s these which get remembered). I wonder if Greg Doran knew about Benthall’s page when he cast Thorne, or whether the genesis of the 2008 page was the need to find another role for the ensemble’s Moth.

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6 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Lost Boys: Moth, Mercutio’s Page and Hamlet’s Double.

  1. Have you seen any piece of the show “Slings and Arrows”? You may like it (forgive the irrelevancy to the specific subject matter, but the show heavily involves Shakespeare).

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    • Hi Duncan!

      I have seen some of it, and absolutely adored it. I see you’re based in Canada — presumably you’re a fan? When I first watched it, I felt convinced that somebody writing the programme must have been connected to the RSC. Unfortunately I have no way of knowing…

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      • Indeed, based in Ontario, and definitely a fan since I was a kid. I’m pretty sure the writers are all Canada-based, though to be fair here in Ontario we have the Stratford Festival of Canada (which is definitely the basis for the festival in S+A), which I would say is the closest thing we have in Canada (and probably North America) to an RSC equivalent. Repertory company, 4 or 5 shakespeares a year plus about ten others, and I imagine, similar backstage histrionics. My best wishes for your recovery, it sounds totally hellish, though if you’ve endured a thesis, an illness should be no problem.

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  2. I saw the Richard III “child” and was absolutely riveted by him–but not the rest of the show, unfortunately. I agree: I think the talent and presence of the boys on stage has always been overlooked for the more showy and obvious question of the sexuality aspect. But in fact, the boys must have been a much more powerful presence than is usually considered (after all, they were “only” kids). Hope your flu clears up soon.

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    • Hi Pearl – really interested to hear you didn’t like the production… you’re the first person (apart from my great-aunt, who automatically dislikes ultra-modernity in design) to say that. Did you like the rest of the Histories? Thanks for the well wishes – I am definitely feeling better.

      The relationships between the boy actors playing boys and those playing girls must have been interesting – which parts were preferred, for example; if certain boys were often paired, etc.

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