May 29, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Memorable Masque @ The Shakespeare Institute

The annual British Graduate Shakespeare Conference pleasingly put performance at the centre of this year’s plenary events. As well as a taster by the Institute’s performance research group for their upcoming Macbeth, we were treated to a staged reading of George Chapman’s The Memorable Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, first performed to celebrate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Count Frederick V in 1613, and now restaged under the direction of Jacqueline MacDonald.

A cast of Institute staff and students (including Stanley Wells as "George Chapman" reading out the authorial stage directions) walked through the elaborate masque, whose visual elements were represented by overhead projections and whose music was provided live by Cecilia Kendall-White. The aim was to give a flavour of the formality and shapes of the masque, directed towards two thrones at one end of the Shakespeare Institute Hall.

The performance included two fully-staged formal dances, one with torches and one between four couples, which were pleasingly complex and stately, the company having taken the time to give them their full prominence. More obviously entertaining, however, were Andrew Hippel, Gareth Bernard, Jason Burg and Richard Nunn who entered as baboons, picking fleas off audience members and dancing crazily in the centre of the space. As Kendall-White played, however, the baboons became entranced by her music (I couldn’t help but think of 2001!) and gradually fell into co-ordinated swaying, before she led them off the stage.

The main story of the masque hinged around the eventual marriage of Plutus (Riches) and Honour, played by José Alberto Pérez Díez and Yolana Wassersug. Díez owned the stage, walking confidently about and raising his eyebrows at the audience at some of the more outlandish moments. The first half of the masque saw him bantering with Martin Wiggins as the bellows-wearing Capriccio, whose arm first emerged from a side area of the hall, pushing aside a door standing for the split rock of the text. Capriccio was a lively presence, competing with Plutus for prominence on a raised platform.

The arrival of Helen Osborne’s Eunomia announced the beginning of the more formal masque, followed by Honour herself and Phemis (Kelley Costigan). The three women processed in in stately fashion, and their dialogue with Plutus was interspersed with the formal dancing. Costigan spoke the several songs, and the company finally assembled for bows before the thrones before leaving in procession.

Masques aren’t particularly my favourite form of entertainment, and in some ways a rehearsed reading ill-serves a medium which is so dependent on visual display. However, it was surprisingly fascinated to see a staged version. The Memorable Masque is surprisingly simple at its core, and the company did a great job of exposing the skeleton of a piece rooted in the movement of bodies in very formal patterns. I was particularly impressed with the dancing, but it was also a pleasure simply to see in three dimensions a piece of theatre so much more co-ordinated and determined than the usual plays. I was sorry not to be able to stay for the post-show discussion, but I’m very much hoping this practice-as-research project continues to develop.

Posted in Theatre review