Staging the Henrician Court : Reflections on August 2009 performance - text and character

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

Adding the mediums of performance and actorly embodiment to the text of The Play of the Weather released semantic dimensions that the research team had neither predicted nor expected.  Colin Hurley’s decision to play a ‘paternal’ Jupiter differentiated his characterisation from Richard Heap’s monarchical construction during the 2008 workshops.  The analogy of the school headmaster came up several times during rehearsal and this interpretation enabled the character to be, by turns, approachable and authoritative, while remaining unpredictable and mercurial; helping to cohere the range of behaviours displayed by Jupiter during the play.   Jupiter’s boastfulness was revealed to be far more humorous on stage than on the page, and the comedy inherent to such hyperbolic repetition as Jupiter’s exhortation to the audience to, “Rejoyce ye in us wyth joy most joyfully/ And we our selfe shall joy in our owne glory” (lines 184-5) was confirmed by the audience’s laughter.   

The Millers were also a comedic focal point in the play when the antagonism of the duo was able to be realised in performance.  Debating for debate’s sake, a practice prerequisite for the conferral of degrees upon law students, retained its theatrical appeal over time, although the context of such rhetorical skill being produced by lower-class characters was probably diminished as a comedic feature in latter-day performance.      

The debate between the two women emerged as some of the most skilful dialogue in the play, engaging the audience and remaining relevant for debates concerning contemporary sexual politics.  On the night of the invited academic audience, the Laundress even got a round of applause from the female half of the audience on her exit – something which would almost certainly not have happened had the audience not been segregated by gender in our production.

The casting of a boy proved to engage the audience’s sympathy in Little Dick as we had hypothesised.  The naïve innocence of his desires felt starkly opposed to the grandiose formality of the Great Hall and this actor also, on the night of the invited audience, received a round of applause, in part because of his successful memorisation and delivery of his dialogue.  His reception thereby exposed the locus of the pleasure an early Tudor audience took in the verbal virtuosity of young performers.   

During rehearsals, it was decided that Merry Report should be played with a psychological consistency as a “poor gentleman, dwelleth hereby” and perform his office according to the prescripts of Jupiter.  The decision was reached primarily because the actor was finding it difficult to square the irreverence of the Vice with the officer’s obedience to Jupiter.  However a historical performance chasm opened as a result: our modern actor needing to find motivation and consistency for his character, while the original actor would presumably have had recourse to a number of stock dramatic conventions which, to both his mind and the audience’s, wouldn’t necessarily have been incompatible with his official function.  As such, a characterisation based on trusting what Merry Report says about himself in the text and using that for a basis of a psychological realisation of the character might have been a more questionable aspect of the production.  The actor should perhaps have interpreted the role in line with constructions of the clown or the fool.   

The difficulties with this role might be partly attributable to the fact that Merry Report exhibits some, but not all, of the qualities associated with the Vice.  Unlike Fansy in Magnyfycence, Merry Report is not a trickster, taking delight in engineering the downfall of the protagonist.  The character owes rather more to the writings of Lucian in that he is mischievous rather than vicious.  Despite riddling, talking nonsense, engaging in scatological humour and informing the audience of his coming and goings, Merry Report cannot be said to perform what Peter Happe calls “the homiletic function” of the Vice, “which was to bring evil in all its realistic detail to every man” (‘’The Vice’ and the popuar theatre 1547-80’ in Poetry and Drama, 1570-1700, eds – Brooks, H, Coleman, A, Hammond, A (Routledge, 1981) p22).  In this respect, Merry Report exists on the cusp of what an early modern audience might expect of a Vice: devoid of his expected moral function, his nomination on the title page appears something of a misnomer. In his commitment to making merry, he is perhaps best understood within the dramaturgical and courtly terms of a clown or jester

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