September 12, 2016, by Peter Kirwan
Mucedorus (Hull School of Drama, Music and Screen) @ The Donald Roy Theatre
Mucedorus (one of the very few ‘apocryphal’ plays I’ve not hitherto managed to see in the theatre, and yet the one on which I’ve spent most time) has perversely suffered from its reputation as the most ‘popular’ play of the early modern period (where ‘popularity’ is understood as a count of reprints, a measure with its own problems). The play is regularly discounted as a crowd-pleaser aimed at the lowest common denominator, and thus critics and readers have often missed its extraordinary potential as a vital piece of theatre and an intriguing experiment in form. Under the direction of Pavel Drábek, a longstanding proponent of the play, a group of second year Theatre Practice students at Hull undertook the most serious and intensive practical research of recent years into the play and produced a compelling, hilarious version that they kindly revived for delegates at the British Shakespeare Association conference.
In the foyer of the Donald Roy Theatre, two figures in motley (one technicoloured, one black and white) fought for audience members, imploring them into either an orange- or a blue-tinged side of Sami Hindmarsh and Bethan Sheavills’ auditorium to take the part of Comedy or Tragedy. Building the play’s framing device into a full meta-narrative, this production – A Most Pleasant Comedy of / A Most Lamentable Tragedy of Mucedorus – set up a conflict for the play’s narrative and soul, a conflict mirrored in the company’s own wrestling of this rarely staged play into a modern idiom. Molly Robinson and Emma Bishop as Comedy and Envy became the gods of Homer or of Job, repeatedly interrupting the action to reflect on how their battle was going, and Envy recruited an extra-textual lackey (Matthew Kennedy’s hapless Brutus) to help her cause. This decision brilliantly set up the characters within their conflict as archetypal puppets, licensing a certain amount of silliness within the main play but also keeping the stakes of the play’s unique brand of tragicomic romance at the forefront.
Comedy’s human characters were put to the test by Envy using Brutus as a succession of threats, with Brutus mimicking the thematic doubling indicated in the 1598 quarto by becoming the Bear, Tremelio and Bremo. Kennedy was quite wonderful as the incompetent aggressor. We didn’t get to see him play the bear, sadly, although the bear’s severed head was brought on; but as Tremelio he combined Pyramus, Lord Flashheart and Chuck Norris (‘Death had a near-Tremelio experience’), demanding audience members appreciate his manly chest and vaunting all over the stage. His Tremelio was followed by a more sinister, hunched and snarling Bremo, wielding a club. The threat was always within a comic idiom, and stressed the folk-tale aspect of the romance by subjecting Mucedorus and Amadine to a visually repeated triple threat (and the repeated joke of the tiny Mouse, Jemma Baker, unsuccessfully trying to haul Kennedy’s body offstage).
As with any panto (an explicit reference point in the Q&A), the villains were the most interesting characters onstage. I felt the production missed a trick by not staging Segasto’s cowardly abandonment of Amadine during the opening bear assault, but Jake Smith’s Segasto drove the play’s through-line as he recruited lackeys and planned his counter-attacks against Johnny Moorhead’s Mucedorus. Mouse, continuing the pantomimic structure, became a straightforward henchperson and comic foil, brilliantly undercutting Segasto’s attempts at dignity. Their scenes were almost entirely rewritten (a programme claim that 2/3 of this production’s text was drawn from the early modern versions seemed optimistic to me) and the cast deserve credit for coming up with some inspired contemporary wordplay, especially a frenetic homophonic play on ‘bear/bare/beer’. Baker, with broad Halifax accent, owned the stage as the local(ish) clown, creating bathos by puncturing any pretensions and huffing and sighing about her business. Her relentless torrent of malapropisms were another highlight of the witty script, much of which was apparently improvised from performance to performance, and the sheer volume and energy of Mouse left more serious characters no room to defend themselves.
Against the down-to-earth energies of Envy’s team, the comic characters offered a lightly parodic image of heroism and purity, set to the beautifully performed and composed quasi-Renaissance music of Helena Marsh, Comedy’s on-stage keyboardist (accompanied also by Bishop on harp). The scenes weren’t merely the straight balance to the more uproarious comedy; a lot of humour was gleaned from Amadine (Sydney Normile) showing little restraint in her attraction to Mucedorus, a behaviour later echoed in her mother the Queen (Keri Hopwood) lusting after a concerned Segasto. The all-female court (accompanied by Olivia Haw as Collina, somehow managing to also stage manage and operate the projections while wearing a full Renaissance gown) was governed by an exaggerated hierarchy, the Queen standing on a high platform above her subjects at ground level and pronouncing sentences. I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively the court environment was rendered; the play doesn’t demand much, but it does need to balance the shifts between an easy access to the ruler and the speed with which banishments and executions are announced, and Hopwood’s shifts between levels of the stage acted as an effective shorthand for the dynamics that both Segasto and Mucedorus tentatively tried to negotiate. Most of the early modern text was retained in these scenes, again adding to their relative formality.
The play followed Q1/2 in concealing Mucedorus’s true identity until the end of the play. Moorhead thus played as a shepherd for most of the production, assuming a relative deference that only dropped when under immediate attack. While Mucedorus was (rightly, I think) the least funny of the characters, this added a delightful tone to his more improbable admissions – the sudden convenient appearance of a hermit, or his final revelation that he was, in fact, a prince. He played brilliantly against Hindmarsh, cameoing as the grudging DSM who had to keep bringing costume changes for Brutus and Mucedorus, and who shook his head in irritation as Mucedorus dressed himself as the hermit.
The hermit – who borrowed his call from George Peele’s The Old Wives’ Tale – was one happy result of the wide variety of historical research that had gone into the production. Animated projections drawn from Holinshed and other early modern sources illustrated the scenes with depictions of moral types, bears and royalty, rooting the tug and pull of Comedy and Envy’s struggle within a milieu invested in stock figures. The music and careful updating of repartee – drawing on other comic styles, but always prioritising the verbal – elevated this beyond a typical student production, ensuring that skill wasn’t sacrificed in the scramble for cheap laughs (not that cheap laughs weren’t, of course, plentiful).
While a lot of the language of Mucedorus was ejected, the spirit of it – the dominance of Mouse, the interest in verbal and aural humour, the tonal dissonance between comedy and tragedy, the (relative) respect for the formal structure of the romance – seemed to me to be on point. And many of the production’s most effective moments, especially the slow build-up to Bremo’s death as he instructed Mucedorus on how to hold and swing a club – barely needed tinkering with from the early texts. The production’s trialling of Q1/2 as a base text meant that the final revelation of Mucedorus’s true identity played as flat-out comedy of disbelief, and left me wanting to compare a version of Q3+ to see how the telegraphed and more dynastic revelation of the prince might offer a different tone; here, a sudden happy ending allowed the play to finish firmly on Comedy’s side.
The production’s success is testament to the strength of Hull’s programme, allowing students to take strong leading roles in a research-led and long-form creative process. I should acknowledge here that, while it’s much easier for me in a single performance to see the onstage contributions, the roles of Hindmarsh and Sheavills in designing and managing the production were formative on the interpretive significance of the genre battle and the integration of historical research. But perhaps more importantly, this production made a timely and enjoyable case for free adaptation in staging rarely performed plays (one that resonated for me with Susan Bassnet’s keynote lecture at the conference on translation). As I said in the Q&A, I’ve seen far too many productions of plays ‘not performed in 400 years’ that have been dead on arrival in their commitment to preserving the letter of the text. This lively young company showed that they understood Mucedorus in relational terms to the audience for which it is performed, and created something that was first and foremost a fun piece of theatre, and secondarily a coherent and stimulating revival of Mucedorus; I’m just glad to have seen a version that proves the play’s theatrical worth.