I used to dismiss Lucy Bailey's theatrical dishes as indigestible, but she is fast turning into my Star Baker. Using an early 17th century recipe that has been out of fashion for more than a century, she has added a mix of ingredients to create something that will satisfy the most demanding critics. Her Bake Off in the Sam Wanamaker theatre at the Globe turns into a theatrical mix of layers and contrasting flavours with not a soggy bottom in sight. A showstopper, in fact.
Years ago on the big stage at the Globe, Bailey directed a couple of shows that I really didn't like -- a Grand Guignol Titus Andronicus and an over-the-top self-indulgent Macbeth that turned the theatre into an aviary full of birds and left the actors little room to perform. More recently I saw her exquisite production of Kenny Morgan at the Arcola and realised she was far more than a director flaunting her ego. Having seen Comus, I am fast becoming a real fan.
A 1630s masque on the theme of chastity isn't at first sight the most promising material for the stage, even if it was written by the young John Milton. But Bailey has reworked it into something much more interesting -- a play within a play within a play that is crammed with subtext and works on several levels. There is plenty of comedy, but the director resists the temptation to send up the material completely. The frothy icing is there, but there are (as Mary Berry might say) some serious flavours underneath.
The Sam Wanamaker has kept the candles, though there are some additional touches of electric light from a panel built into the stage floor, illuminating the actors from below with the effect of old-fashioned footlights. Milton's text is a literary poem rather than a play for performance, but Bailey has adapted it into an intensely visual experience with a lot of movement.
The key to the success of Bailey's production is her decision to frame the masque in a believable way with extra material written by Patrick Barlow, the man responsible for The 39 Steps, a small fringe show for three actors that turned into a West End hit a decade ago. Barlow is also known as one half of the National Theatre of Brent, famous for its cut-down adaptations of the classics. So the performance begins with 15-year-old Alice, daughter of Sir John Egerton, the Lord President of Wales, announcing in the middle of a dress rehearsal that she can't and won't play the leading part of The Lady. Finally she submits to her father's orders and goes on stage, but turns the tables at the end of the show with a sparky feminist speech that announces to the world that she is no longer going to be pushed around.
Emma Curtis, a young newcomer to the Globe, makes a perfect Alice, suggesting a teenager on the cusp of adult feelings for whom playing the part of The Lady is a formative experience. She looks just right, sounds just right and creates a performance of extraordinary subtlety. Her foil is the excellent Danny Lee Wynter as the would-be seducer Comus, a dark and sensual figure who is played by the stable-boy Daniel, an interloper into this artistocratic family entertainment. There's a tingle of erotic excitement in the relationship between Alice/The Lady and Daniel/Comus that forms the core of the story.
Bailey's vision of the play owes a lot to Shakespeare, particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, in its use of fairies and in the comic use of secondary characters. Alice's younger brothers, swords in hand, are played as pink-cheeked Etonians by Rob Callender and Theo Cowan, while a team of more experienced actors including Philip Cumbus and Andrew Bridgmont double up as the Monstrous Riot, a sordid and sensual team of groping spirits that surrounds the young aristocrats as they wander into a dark forest. And there's an element of old-fashioned panto in the appearance of an oversized fairy to liberate the heroine from her shackles at the end.
I found this sweet and sour confection by far the best of the shows I have seen at Shakespeare's Globe in Emma Rice's first season. Unlike Rice, Bailey seems to know when to allow the audience to use their imagination. I left the table wanting more.