The Adaptability of the Plays

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

Friar Bacon provided even more doubling challenges for the SQM company (download pdf, download Excel doc) . The demands on acting resources made by this play are significantly greater than the other two. The play can only be cast with fourteen if we ignore the reference to the Duke of Saxony in the 11th scene. The Duke’s entrance is not marked in the text’s stage directions but Henry does refer to him by name as if he were present and stage directions are not trustworthy in early modern texts. Following McMillin and MacLean’s lead we decided to ignore this reference and cast the play for fourteen. The problem we still faced, however, is that the playwright provides significant and challenging roles for each of the fourteen actors.

In the previous two plays we were able to keep the expectations placed on the less experienced actors lower but our student actors in this play had to take on numerous roles. Adam Fraser played one of the Prince’s companions Warren and the Second Scholar; Tom Tranmer played another companion to the Prince Ermbsy, Margaret’s friend Joan, and a devil. The play is full of striking comic characters and demands great versatility from the company as a whole. Our doubling decisions for this play were made in the interests of exploiting the particular talents of our actors that had become clearer now we had been working together for several weeks. Matthew Krist, for example, had proved himself a versatile comic character actor. Matthew played Gonorill in King Leir and the Cobbler’s Wife and the prince’s companion Ned in Famous Victories. Initially I had cast him as Prince Edward’s companion Lord Lacy on the grounds of the character’s youthfulness but at the last minute I asked him to create a boyish fool for Rafe Simnell and double as Friar Bungay wearing cassock and beard. The doubling served the SQM production well as Matthew was extremely funny in both roles but it was only possible because we manipulated the text. Rafe and Bungay appear in the subsequent scenes 12 and 13. We were able to pull the doubling off simply by having Rafe leave the stage early from scene 12. His exit was hardly noticed, and his costume change was quick. He merely needed to throw on his cassock and put on his beard and skullcap. After the first performance, this always worked smoothly. Again, there is no historical authority for doubling the play in such a way but there is evidence of characters making strange early exits in surviving play texts. John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II, for example, leaves the first scene before it is finished for no apparent reason but his exit allows Shakespeare to begin the next scene with Gaunt’s entrance into what we are to imagine to be a new location. Doubling plays is an extremely complex process and sometimes it is easier to edit the play than change the doubling.

The SQM doubling and quick changes were actually less intense across the board than they would have been if we had followed McMillin and MacLean’s doubling. Working with the historical constraint that the boys could only play female characters increases the workload that has to be placed on the other actors because there are relatively few roles for women in this play. McMillin and MacLean were only able to keep the cast down to fourteen by including a 10 line change for Warren-Bungay (comparable to our quicker change between Rafe and Bungay), by leaving out one clown from scene 3 and by making the Keeper’s friend female when the sex is not specified by the text. Adding the ‘other’ clown back to scene 3, creates a 14 line quick change for Actor 5. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay can be performed with a minimum cast of fourteen but only under extreme pressure.