The Adaptability of the Plays

Famous Victories

Before rehearsals began for Famous Victories we were able to recruit one student “apprentice” increasing the size of the company to 13, which was fortunate, as it would have been impossible to perform this play with 12 actors without heavy editing. As you can see from the SQM doubling plot for the play (download pdf, download Excel doc) we were only able to perform this play with 13 by cutting one speaking role, the jailor who has one line at the end of the Lord Chief Justice scene, which reads: “At your commandment, my Lord, it shall be done” (4.412).  We gave this line to the Clerk of the Office that reads out the Thief’s indictment and were thus able to perform the play with all the lines intact although we were lacking several characters. Famous Victories is less adaptable than King Leir largely because where Leir has 26 speaking roles and 38 roles in all, Famous Victories has 42 speaking roles and 47 when counting mute characters. The characters of Exeter and Oxford create additional problems. While they have relatively few lines, they are on stage an inordinate amount of time, especially if we presume, as is logical, that they are the plural “lords” mentioned whenever Henry is on stage in the second half of the play. The text does not name them in the stage directions, but then this is also true when they speak lines in the scenes, and it would be confusing for the audience if Henry appeared with a different set of lords at this stage of the performance. The characters of Exeter and Oxford effectively tie up two actors that might be used for doubling elsewhere. For our production we cast one of our less experienced student “apprentices” as Oxford and Scott Maynard, our Music Director, as Exeter, freeing the more experienced and versatile actors to double other roles.

The smaller cast had more substantial consequences in this play than in King Leir. In addition to numerous unnamed attendants and nobles, the mute Sheriff that accompanies the Lord Mayor of London on his visit to King Henry IV had to be cut. The Duke of York had to carry in the Archbishop of Bruges’ present for the King and the Duke of Exeter had to push the king around in his sick chair, which was hardly appropriate for men of their rank. The workload for many of the actors increased dramatically: Jason Gray, David Kynaston, Scott Clarkson, Julian DeZotti, Derek Genova and Phil Borg all had to take on four roles or more. We also had to break McMillin and MacLean’s rule that “boy” actors could only play women or boys. There is evidence in playhouse documents that apprentices might play female roles and mute male attendants in the same play but no evidence of them playing speaking male and female roles in the same play, unless the speaking male role is explicitly a boy, not a man. For Famous Victories we had to bend this rule and cast our “boys” as prince Henry’s youthful companions Ned and Tom, French Soldiers, and numerous other roles including the Dauphin. To enable this doubling we also had to cut Princess Kate’s two ladies in waiting. Although evidence from the surviving playhouse documents does not support it, casting the “boys” as youths worked well on stage. The problem we faced was not one of plausibility in the eyes of the audience, who readily accepted our young men switching from male to female roles but the logistical issues of costume changes and make-up. We could feasibly have kept one of Kate’s ladies in the final scene but only by dramatically increasing the pressure on Matthew Krist who had just finished playing a French Soldier and would have little time to get into his dress. The association of the French soldiers with femininity was also fun, supported as it is by all their textual references to clothes and the openly nationalistic ideology of the play but there is no evidence to consider such doubling as representative of Queen’s Men practice. Our doubling chart for this play was created out of pragmatic necessity and should not be considered even as a hypothetical version of the original company’s division of labour.

John Cobbler

Jason Gray as 1. Archbishop of Bruges, 2. French Captain and 3. John Cobbler.

It was also impossible to maintain specializations in other areas. For example, John Cobbler forms part of a double act with the main clown Derrick and the role may well have been considered enough for one actor. Jason Gray who played Cobbler had to also take on the role of the Lord Mayor and the Archbishop of Bruges, two straight characters, in addition to his main clown role and the comic French Captain. Because we were still short one actor and kept the workload at a minimum for our student actor and musical director, our production demanded many quick changes and made great demands on the versatility of many of the actors. That said, we did successfully adapt the play for a company of 13 and in doing so experienced the kind of challenges the Queen’s Men might have faced when the numbers in their company fluctuated.

The day before the second performance of Famous Victories we recruited our second student “apprentice” and decided we would incorporate him into the performance the following evening. We know that the major London companies used “hired men” to fill supernumerary roles and that the number of hired men available might fluctuate greatly.

Tom Tranmer’s arrival presented us with an opportunity to consider the pragmatics of such practice. The ease with which we were able to incorporate him into the show was one of the more striking discoveries of our experiment. Tom arrived on the day of our second performance and after a costume fitting and an hour’s rehearsal he was ready to perform in the evening. The fact that Tom could walk off the street and onto the stage after such a short rehearsal time confirms the practicality of using actors on a casual basis for small roles.  Tom remembers that night fondly and we were certainly all impressed by his ability to cope with such an intimidating situation.

Don Allison Tom Tranmer talks about his experience rehearsing and performing several small roles in the Queen's Men plays. Watch the Video.