Queen始sMen Editions

About this text

  • Title: Shakespeare and the Queen's Men (SQM) Repertory Productions
  • Author: Peter Cockett
  • Textual editors: Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Peter Cockett. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Peter Cockett
    Editors (Text): Andrew Griffin, Helen Ostovich
    Peer Reviewed

    Shakespeare and the Queen's Men (SQM) Repertory Productions

    The "Medley" Style

    As the action of King Leir approaches its dramatic climax, two drunken, English watchmen wander on stage and start riffing on a comparison between their red noses and the beacons they are supposed to light in case of invasion. The juxtaposition of the comic and the serious is a common feature of Queen始s Men plays and to the eyes of our twenty-first century始s actors, such stylistic shifts struck the SQM actors as incongruous. Although those more familiar with early modern plays would likely be less perturbed, the stylistic shifts needed to be address by the company. Resisting our normative inclination towards unity and the connection of parts to wholes, the protocol I established in the rehearsal was to focus on the local affect of each scene and let the combination and sequence of scenes determine the affect of the whole play. The application to the local scene rather than the interpretive whole has a correlative in the actors始 use of the parts system. It was designed to explore the possibility that the Queen始s Men plays privilege variety over unity and this general directive had a significant effect on the emerging style of the SQM productions. McMillin and MacLean speak of the deliberate alternation between the “pleasant” and the “stately” as a central structuring principle of the company始s dramaturgy. They use the term "medley" to describe this approach, a term which I feel carries an unintended criticism, since the idea of a medley works contrary to the ideal of unity held so highly by long theatrical tradition. As stage director, however, I encouraged the company to embrace the idea of medley, committing to variety as a desirable quality in the performance of the plays and an important factor in the development of the SQM company style.

    I encouraged the company to find every opportunity for humour and to exploit any textual suggestion of physical comedy. However, when the text implied a more serious, dramatic treatment, I insisted that it be played without irony. We found that the plays often worked best when we pushed both the comedy and the drama to extremes, which then worked in complement with each other and the speed with which the company could move from one to the other communicated itself as an emotional playfulness. In the SQM productions, it was always apparent that the audience was watching a play: even a sad king on stage was still just a man dressed up as a king pretending to be sad. The influence of clowning practice and the insistence on direct address created the sense that the actors were playing to the audience, engaging them directly with their characters始 perceptions and their struggles, and inviting laughter or tears. The productions had many moments of emotional impact, but the quality of that impact was quite particular in affect, influenced by the overall playfulness of the performance style.

    The SQM company's ability to shift the tone from comic to tragic in the blink of an eye was one of the elements of their performance technique that I most admired, and I felt that , somewhat paradoxically, a strong sense of unity arose from the company's consistent commitment to variety. There are certainly moments where the development of the action is put on the back burner for the sake of comic interjection but even such moments only seem a 'medley' in relation to our anachronous expectations for narrative continuity. Although as facilitator/director I often pressed the actors to take certain scenes seriously and treat others comically, ultimately in the collaborative generation of the performances, the difference between the two was diluted, and the company could move fluidly between the different modes, separating them or combining them, in their playful retelling of the stories. Cushman noted this impact in his review of Famous Victories, he writes:

    There is a scene (echoed in Shakespeare, though he spread it out among various episodes) in which soldiers, pressed into service, take leave of home and loved ones, the latter represented by one alternately heartbroken and lascivious wife. It's part pathos, part broad farce; the actors played both modes, full out and simultaneously, and the results were both rich and instructive (Cushman "Play").

    The scene he is referring to, Scene 10, is an excellent example of the blend of the serious and the comic that characterized the SQM productions. This stylistic approach worked well for the Queen's Men plays and I would suggest it might work equally well if applied to other early modern playwrights. I am not convinced this dramaturgy is distinctive to the Queen's Men but rather think it was a pervasive element of the theatrical milieu in which they were working. Developing this aspect of the company style involved resisting our inclination to separate the comic and the serious, and I have documented the decision-making process around these moments in my annotations to the play texts. I wonder whether my resistance to comic treatment was at times too exact. The Queen's Men and Shakespeare both worked in a theatrical milieu that lacked a strict division between the comic and the tragic. Shakespeare was criticized for this for centuries but has been celebrated for it in more recent times. I discovered that the notion that certain things are serious and others funny is quite deeply embedded in my own theatrical practice and, in my annotations, I have tried to track how my work on these plays challenged that practice and has encouraged me to reconsider the rationale behind many of my choices as a director.