Since they started to experiment with early modern drama a few years ago, Edward’s Boys have started to attract something of an insider following among scholars. This is not only because the plays they perform are selected from among a repertoire of very rarely-performed early modern plays written for all-male companies of boy players, a demographic which the grammar school boys match, but also because of the quality of the resulting performances.
The boys and their director, Perry Mills, avoid the potential pitfalls of “original practices” experiments by consistently setting their productions either in the present or in the not-too-distant past, a choice which enables them to inhabit the world of the plays – and, more importantly, their often difficult language and jokes – with ease. This is how we find the Welsh Wench of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside performing a rap or The Dutch Courtesan seductively singing a jazz tune while twirling a feather boa.
The boys are clearly having a great time re-imagining the plays for their present-day audiences, and we, in turn, can enjoy experiencing the complexities engendered, say, when two teenagers play a mother and her son, or when a boy plays a mature man who disguises himself as another mature man. I keep being struck by the delightful appropriateness with which a lanky youth conveys the awkward desires of a young woman and by the disturbing thrill of hearing, as if for the first time, the erotic ambiguities and potential of lines written for adolescents.
There is a strong sense that, precisely because Edward’s Boys do not set out to reproduce early modern performance conditions and never strive to hide completely that they are boys, they capture something important about the dynamics that underpin these plays. The availability of some of their productions on DVD means that, finally, these dynamics can begin to be experienced by many more viewers and that we can start to discuss them in our work and our classrooms.
Dr Pascale Aebischer University of Exeter
They are our modern day “Little Eyases” as the companies of boy performers were referred to in Hamlet. But in fact the exercise is much more than that, and should I think be seen, as it deserves to be, in the wider context of Shakespeare study and performance worldwide.
The investigation of plays like Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and A Mad World My Masters, or even the extracts from Lyly’s Mother Bombie, which I saw recently by the younger boys in the “Schoolroom” have all thrown fresh light on this repertoire, and for me as a Shakespeare director, with particular interest in the repertoire of these contemporaries, these productions have proved invaluable.
I noticed too that the boys are getting more skilled, as the productions have grown in confidence, and was particularly impressed with their comprehension of difficult text, and the clarity of their diction which would put some of our own actors to shame. So quite apart from the scholarly value to us in the profession, and their own palpable enjoyment of this very special, and I suspect unique process, the boys are developing skills of self confident self expression that must stand them in good stead in later years.
Forgive me for going on at length, but I think the school is producing something rather miraculous, and I suspect it is too easy for that to go unsaid. So I am saying it.
Gregory Doran, Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company
We all know that there were boy companies in the time of Shakespeare. Watching the extraordinarily talented boy company of King Edward VI School, however, is a revelation. The boys have the age-range, voices, physicality, and androgynous beauty for which the plays they perform were actually written. Their productions revel in cross-gender and cross-age casting – both emerge as equal constructs – creating scenes that are touching, outrageous and wild by turn. Yet these performances are also moving, thoughtful and lyrical: the boys speak brilliantly, attentive alike to the elegance, humour and raw sexuality of the drama, thanks to the brilliant direction of English teacher and deputy head, Perry Mills. Skilful instrumentalists and actors, the boys also bring contemporary music and modern gesture to their performances, resulting in productions that are youthful, energetic and distinctly ‘now’ as well as ‘then’. That is what is amazing about Edward’s Boys: they combine the best of the past and the present to create a wholly new and extraordinary theatrical experience.
Professor Tiffany Stern, University College Oxford
Edward’s Boys are a firm fixture on the map of the English theatrical scene—and they have also changed the map of how we think about early modern theatre (not just boys’ company plays). The boys – of all ages – are simultaneously innocent and knowing in performance, keeping city comedy teetering on the brink of send-up and making revenge tragedy able to confront its own excess.
Perry Mills directs plays with exquisite attention to language and an imaginative ludic spirit that relishes every moment of every scene. He creates an ensemble able to interact with energy, intelligence – and impeccable timing. This is a vibrant inventive approach to drama that reveals linguistic nuance and dramatic possibility previously hidden on the page.
And for sheer theatrical fun these productions have no rivals!
Professor Laurie Maguire, Magdalen College, Oxford
I freely admit that when I first heard about Edward’s Boys I was sceptical about the likely level of performance and about the value of the experiment in general. Then I saw one of the shows (Mother Bombie, it was) and my attitude shifted wholesale.
Since then it has been a remarkable experience not only to witness the sheer quality of the boys’ performances – and thus to be jarred into realising that Hamlet’s dismissal of the ‘eyases’ really could have had a genuine basis in professional anxiety about the boys’ potential to steal the market – but also, in just a handful of years, to see the younger boys in the group grow up to become experienced actors, and thus to get a sense of the development curve that must have been a significant element in the fluid and generative repertoire of the Elizabethan/Jacobean boys’ companies.
If you have never seen an Edward’s Boys’ show – and especially if, like me, you were by no means convinced you wanted to – I urge you to go and see for yourself just how good they can be, and to share in something of the experience you might have had in London’s theatres four hundred years ago.
Professor Gordon McMullan, King’s College, London
Edward’s Boys show us what boys’ companies can do — which is to say, anything. Their productions are not excellent ‘for children’ or ‘for amateurs’ – they are excellent by any standards. They draw energy from two vital sources: first, painstaking attention to the text, which enables each actor to understand his lines and communicate clearly with the audience; second, the ensemble ethos of the boys and their director, Perry Mills. Mills has created a culture in which the boys teach and learn from each other, releasing the exuberant will to perform in each one to great creative effect. Edward’s Boys audiences learn something about boys’ companies and early modern drama, but they also relish pure theatrical gold.
Professor Elisabeth Dutton, University of Fribourg