Staging the Henrician Court : Reflections on August 2009 performance - space, staging and audience

This page last changed on Jan 20, 2010 by Eleanor Rycroft.


It was surprising with the use of the tables how intimate the space of the Great Hall could become, and the dramatic action did not feel at all remote from the audience.  A potential problem was the inability to fully immerse oneself in the action because of awareness of other members of the audience, but then, as early Tudor dramatic spectacle extended to the spectacle of audience, this wasn’t necessarily anachronistic.  

In terms of installed features of the Hall, a notable example of their incorporation in the production was the Gentleman’s pointing out of the stag’s heads with reference to his hunting on the line, “We may both teyse and receyve on every syde” (line 292).   On occasion, his gesture encouraged audience members to take in the features of the Hall. 


Traverse staging ensured that at least some of the audience had good acoustics for sections of the play and involved all members of the audience, but audibility didn’t prove too much of an issue except perhaps at the extreme poles of the Hall.  I think there is still scope for the L-shaped staging Kent Rawlinson uncovered in his research for an even greater sense of intimacy, maybe aided by the use of cushions on the floor (as in the tapestries in the Great Watching Chamber).   

The problem of no Henry has been an area of comment for invited academic audience which I feel we have addressed, although it recurs as an area of discussion for the team.   

Use of the areas behind the tables provided the opportunity for the audience to observe entrances and exits of characters, while enabling their comings and goings to be theatrically varied.  There may still be mileage in formalising where the characters came from within the space of the Hall – ie. the Gentleman coming in from the dais rather than the screen’s end, to distinguish between the statuses of the characters. 


Segregating the audience along lines of gender had the desired effect of introducing a note of formality to the production (we had to jettison the idea of dividing the audience along class or age because of the sensitivity of such distinctions).  It also facilitated the notion of group dynamics which would have affected early Tudor drama, as the audience were not on equal terms.  As a female, it felt very noticeable that we were part of the spectacle of the performance at times; in fact, it was very disarming not to be able to answer back to some of the sexist passages in the text. 

On the performance of Friday 7th August, we came close to approximating the audience participation which would have been a factor in early Tudor performance. When Jupiter picked out members of the audience to stand in for the warring heavenly gods, and said of Aeolus that there was “none so evyll as he” (line 59), the audience member nominated as ‘Aeolus’ retorted, “’Tis not true”.  Colin Hurley was able to build on this when continuing the part of the speech concerning the fact that Aelous’ blasts of wind did not allow any other weather to materialise, adlibbing to ‘Aeolus’, “True?” to which the audience member conceded, sheepishly, “Aye”.  This instance seemed to free the audience members to participate at other moments of the play, as when another provided the riposte to Merry Report’s question, “Regarde ye nothynge myne authoryte?” (line 192), “Aye, ‘tis very fair”, and further when Merry Report did not have to prompt a member of the audience when he returned to the stage after publishing Jupiter’s proclamation to ask him “Where have you been?” (despite us inserting this interaction into the text) as, for the first and only time, an audience member asked the question spontaneously.  Furthermore, this same audience engaged with the Millers debate, one person taking the opportunity to suggest “bellows” when the Water-miller asked what wind is good for (line 669) for instance.  This performance therefore became the first time that audience extemporisation felt like a real possibility, and I even wondered if somebody would come forward when Merry Report asked whether anyone else would like to sue to Jupiter. 

Textual interventions were perhaps the most contentious area.  The added asides of the Laundress following her accusations that the Gentlewoman is a “simper de cockett”, “a nicebyceter” and “giglet” that they were “Tudor words for tart” may have garnered a laugh, but it is arguable whether it was of the right sort.  Having spent so long building up the spell for the audience of being transported back in time, and working so hard on the language to make it speak despite the historical distance, to break that unnecessarily (considering the onomatopoeia and sheer poetry of the words which Heywood invented, it seems specifically, for this text) was something more appropriate for commercial performance than practice-based research.

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