Performing the Queen's Men

Famous Victories : The Sick Chair

Our Solution: The Sick Chair

Sketches of a litter and Phillip II's wheelchair.

Sketches of a litter and Phillip II's wheelchair.

I decided therefore that the king should die in a moveable chair. Our first thought was to use a litter chair but this proved impractical. It would take four actors to lift such a chair with the king in it and the poles would have to extend six feet in front and behind. Since our tiring house was only four feet deep, this would make exiting the stage impossible.

I therefore started to wonder about using a chair on wheels and after a little intrepid research I discovered that the first recorded example of a wheelchair dated from our period. It belonged to Phillip II of Spain who was married to the previous Queen of England, Mary I. There are references to characters entering on sick chairs in other Elizabethan plays and, since litter chairs would be awkward in the confined space of a tiring house, it struck me that a chair on wheels would have been a convenient solution to this staging challenge and may have been a commonly used item on the Elizabethan stage. The evidence of Phillip II’s chair at the very least confirmed that it was not beyond the engineering expertise of the period.

From a staging point of view, it gave me a chair that could be moved “a little back” and in which a king could die and exit the stage with a degree of grace, thus satisfying the majority of the stage directions in the text. (See video below)

Video

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Edward Video 2
The Sick Chair

Our sick chair remains a relatively speculative solution. The existence of one wheelchair in the period does not mean that they were common. Furthermore, maneuvering the chair on stage proved more difficult than anticipated forcing our noble lords into relatively humble postures. We would have been helped here if we had extra actors to play servants to help move the chair instead of making the Lords bend down and push the king around. The king was able to maintain his dignity but additional actors would have allowed us to carry him off stage with a comparable grace. Our solution, however, did satisfy the majority of the stage directions in the text. Even the king’s instruction to the lords to “draw the curtains” was accomplished by having Oxford draw the tiring house curtains behind him as he exited.

You will also have noted that we developed the sequence of the king dying into a brief coronation scene in which we see the prince take on his new role as king. The sequence was entirely our invention – a creative response to the stage direction "The king dieth" and our understanding that the Queen’s Men were famous for spectacle - but it was not necessary to the story since this moment is described by Oldcastle in the upcoming scene. The king's request for music was also satisfied by the introduction of a song: a sorrowful lament complemented the stage action and helped to highlight the significance of this moment in the development of the prince's story.