Robin Hooper’s play Foul Pages is wonderfully weird, bordering on the bizarre and although a bit obscure remains entertaining. Due to the plague and on the invitation of Mary, Countess of Pembroke, the court of James I moves from London to Wilton Hall in Wiltshire. Mary seeks the services of Will (William Shakespeare) to entertain the King by staging a performance of As You Like It. She hopes it will please the King and then he will grant the release of Sir Walter Raleigh, a past lover of the Countess.
The group of actors employed by Will are manipulated, even controlled by him, to furnish his own desires. This is a comment on the world of entertainment that still resonates today. It is a tale of sexual tension and debauchery – where anal penetration was to be expected if you were a young male actor, who were also forced to play woman roles. Rent boys, buggery and mutual masturbation are the order of the day. The cast, notably Clare Bloomer as the Countess, Ian Hallard as Will and Tom Vanson as James the King, attack their roles with a real urgency that is slightly off putting but certainly camp. The comedy elements are good, if slightly repetitive, and James King playing Chop the Dog with human characteristics steals every scene he is in.
There is also a lot to take in: murder, revenge, protestant persecution, however via forceful and passionate direction by Matthew Parker the job gets done and the 90 minutes running time makes for enjoyable silly theatre. My only complaint is the use of very loud and aggressive electric punk music to link the short scenes does get a bit grating after a while. This is an accomplished ensemble’s fruity farce and romp through 1603 Jacobean England. A tale where the ruffs are truly ruffled!