King Leir, The Famous Victories of Henry V and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, staged for the conference "Shakespeare and the Queen's Men" at McMaster University, 24-29 October, 2006.

Pamela King
University of Bristol

Pamela King. "Review of King Leir, The Famous Victories of Henry V and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, staged for the conference 'Shakespeare and the Queen's Men' at McMaster University, 24-29 October, 2006". Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 20.1-10 <URL:>.

  1. On my long-haul flights across the Atlantic this October, I read The Eyre Affair, a surreal, and highly recommendable sci-fi novel by Jasper Fforde. In Fforde's world, people can slip in and out of works of literature, change the endings and kidnap the characters. They can also travel through time. Towards the end of this particular story, a time traveller returns from Shakespeare's England to be greeted by 'literatecs' who want to solve the problem of who really wrote Shakespeare's plays. He reports, with some diffidence, that no-one did, that Shakespeare was an uninspired hack from Stratford, and everyone was glum about the quality of the theatre. The time traveller's solution was to slip them a copy of the Complete Works when he passed through on his next trip.

  2. The world would undeniably be the poorer without the Shakespeare phenomenon, but, on the other hand, if what we saw at McMaster, then at Toronto, was an example of what the London stage had before he came to prominence, they had no cause for complaint. It is to be hoped that one effect of this interesting experiment will be that these undeservedly neglected plays will now find their place more regularly in the repertoire. But the revival of neglected plays was not the sole or chief purpose of this experiment. A number of other details, from the manner in which the company was recruited, the relative status and experience of the players, the type casting and issuing of 'lines', to the final bringing together of the company with a very short rehearsal period before they went on the road to adapt unprepared to a number of playing locations, was replicated for the first time in the modern context.

    King Leir Convocation Hall, 24 October, 8.00 p.m.

  3. King Leir was the first in the run of three plays to be staged at McMaster. The setting was formal, with the audience seated in rows in the body of the hall and an elevated playing space with an on-stage audience of dignitaries. This immediately confronted the actors, for the first time, with the problem of knowing at whom to direct the action and how and when to acknowledge the dignitaries. This playing back-and-front was demonstrably much harder than playing in the round, as it involved the actors in turning their backs on what they naturally perceived to be the audience, which was counter-intuitive to them. The performance, with a run-time of two hours and forty minutes with no break, was quite an ordeal for the on-stage audience too, notwithstanding the quality of the performance. The experiment made plain that the dignitaries were on display, so also part of the performance, or at least were performing something parallel, subsidiary, or framing, especially as they were dressed for the occasion in their robes of office or other finery. This production, therefore, raised not only interesting questions about direction of address, but also fundamental issues of performativity.

  4. The auditorium audience was well-behaved, and, as the play took place on stage, removed from the action, so was probably responding according to the conventions of a standard proscenium set-up. There was some shuffling and giggling at the initial appearance of Leir's three daughters, all played by young men, but the convention seemed to gain reasonably rapid acceptance. The metrical quality of the speeches meant that I for one, though engaged by the desire to see how the narrative would unfold, found it had little affective power. Discussing this with Don Allison (Leir) later, I discovered that he was familiar with Shakespeare's text and had found he had consciously to put it on one side. He agreed about the lack of affective power which he put down not only to the metrical form, but to the fact that no single thought is sustained for more than two and a half lines, whereas in Shakespeare's play a single thought lasts for eight or nine lines, allowing for emotional build. I thought I was watching a compelling and well-made play, except that the 'murder' scene in the woods is far too long, but I was also aware that we are all too impossibly contaminated by the power of Shakespeare's King Lear to come to this play uncorrupted.

    The Famous Victories of Henry V, Quarters Pub, 25 October, 2.00 p.m.

  5. Quarters may have supplied the authentic atmosphere of a sixteenth-century inn, but it presented a more challenging spatial arrangement than the previous day's as the playing space was part of a modern open-plan bar. The setting made audience-play relations very interesting, fluid and even potentially volatile. It also demonstrated how difficult it is to get the modern audience to behave promenade fashion. Here students dragged tables and chairs from the adjacent bar area into the large open space in which the booth stage was set up, despite the protestations of staff. The play performed, therefore, as in cabaret. The audience also interestingly bled at the edges, as people stopped by to see what was going on and hung around the un-doored entrances into the space, continuing their conversations. On one occasion some students walked past and one said loudly, 'What's going on here?' This bothered the paying audience who greeted him with 'Ssssshhhhh'. This was the play with which the players were clearly most comfortable in terms of tone, pace and interpretation, and it also contained their best action which moved into and among the audience. It was huge fun, and the cast were clearly enjoying themselves. Yet what was to deliver moments of fairly rowdy interaction with the audience in the Tranzac Club in Toronto here remained decorously one-sided. I was amazed that no-one attempted back-chat or even hisses or applause during the performance; the numerous note-pads in the audience suggested that this was an experiment for study, and the students involved, possibly unfortunately, felt inhibited in reacting to the action.

    Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Faculty Club, 25 October, 8.00p.m.

  6. Played back-to-back with the very energetic Famous Victories, the third play in the McMaster run could have been a flat performance, as the players must have been tired. The play is elaborate and moderately rambling, unless one is party to all the in-jokes directed at the then academic community. It has, superficially at least, a much less cohesive plot than the other two, but has more characters and involves some very quick changes and special effects. Its strengths, no matter the production, must lie in local effects, clever repartee, satire and clowning, rather than in its overall trajectory. The setting was again challenging, but this performance was again tight and lively.

  7. This time it was set in a mock-up of the banqueting hall, with the high table on the dais at one end, the playing space at the other, and tables set at right angles between. I sat right at the front of one of the transverse tables, on one end next to one of the doors, and had a much better and more intimate view of the performance than had anyone on the high table. The consensus view at the evening's end seemed to be that Richard Southern's model needs adapting. The experiment demonstrated that this arrangement would work in a way that privileged the high table only if there were an open space between the raised staging, and the dais, creating a thrust arrangement for the whole playing space.

  8. The cast had some difficulty here too with entrances and exits. Generally they had been very constrained by the exigencies of the spaces they found themselves in, and had had to operate with a strict rule of in one side, out the other. Here there was too much choice: three doors behind the playing space, to right, and left, and a double door in the centre, which they curtained off as a tiring house. But there was also another door in the wall diagonally facing them down-stage right. They used this for the entrances and exits requiring more physical room for manoeuvre, such as where devils carried characters over their shoulders, and for the entrance and exit of the tree and the dragon. There was, however, the odd exit line where a group made to leave and had a visible hesitation about which door to use. This drew attention to the special skills and conventions required to perform in extemporary locations.

  9. There was a general sense that something wasn't quite right with the set-up here, echoed by the people at the high table who confirmed that they had felt very detached from the action and had seen everyone from the waist up only. Again the whole audience was inhibited, perhaps by the unfamiliarity of what they were seeing, but also by the 'academic' billing given to the exercise. Aficionados of sixteenth-century theatre such as the troupe met in Toronto were probably more prepared to react with spontaneity. The abiding problem for experiments like this is that you can reconstruct the play, the playing circumstances, the composition of the company, and their preparation techniques, but you can never authentically replicate the audience.

  10. All that said, the McMaster productions worked well, both as a theatrical experiment and as entertainment. They drew attention to numerous details relating to the performance and performability of these relatively neglected plays. They explored, for example, the practicability of some quick changes, and the importance (in the right place) of beards. The costumes were splendid in that they did their job without being too intricate, conveying just the right sense of each actor being temporarily got up to play his part. The experiment also explored the potential difficulties of the necessary doubling that the companies used. In particular, in King Leir there was a moment when there were two men-women on stage, one in disguise, the other an actor who had played a main role doubled as a minor character, which, to anyone unfamiliar with the plot, would surely have caused confusion. That confusion would not, however, have been connected with the convention of cross-dressing, as these experiments emphatically demonstrated the ease with which even a modern audience can accept men (not boys) in women's roles, provided they are well cast, well-coached, and played with conviction (which they were), and provided that there are no 'real' women on stage. Similarly, the decision to cast three professional actors in the three main roles across all three plays, as old king, young hero, and fool, supported by semi-professionals and 'hired men', gave the performances a particular quality. This can best be expressed, perhaps, by saying that by the end of the run I was appreciating the dynamics of the company in the way perhaps one watches a football team, so that I was watching not just a play, but that particular, and increasingly known, configuration of bodies and skills engaging with a play for my discrimination and enjoyment. And that was surely a successful recreation of something as particular as it is ephemeral about the early London stage.

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