Hugey Heaps of Hilarity

At the end of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Bottom and the other “Mechanicals” present the play Pyramus and Thisby in honor of the King and Queen. This play-within-a-play boasts of an apologetic lion, sweet moonshine, a tragic double suicide and a wall with a speaking part. It is usually staged by modern directors as an absurdist romp with burly exaggeration, rough “acting” techniques and a general brawny, bumbling of brutish bellowing. It has been argued that Shakespeare was parodying his own tragedy Romeo and Juliet with Pyramus and Thisby, but at the same time, it is clear that he is also dramatizing (despite the tongue placed firmly in his cheek) a semblance of the plays written by Elizabethan playwrights and the way they were rehearsed and then performed. Clyomon and Clamydes (now playing at the Glen Morris Studio Theatre by Shakespeare and the Queen’s Men) is a play written by an anonymous writer dated tentatively between 1570 and 1590 that resembles Pyramus and Thisby far more than it resembles A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-96).
It is interesting to realize that our perception of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama is usually hinged firmly on the work of one dramatist, William Shakespeare (and maybe a bit of Ben Jonson, John Webster, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Kyd)); however, these enduring dramatists do not accurately represent the caliber of art that was being churned out of sixteenth century playhouses. Shakespeare and the Queen Men is a theatre company that seeks to research and understand The Queen’s Men (the dominant theatre company in 1580s England, of which Shakespeare was a member), their rehearsal and performance process and the plays that they produced. Clyomon and Clamydes was one play performed by The Queen’s Men, and so for this production the actors have adopted “historically accurate” rehearsal processes, as they do not have a modern director, and the actors receive only their lines and a few cue words which help them locate when they are supposed to speak in the scene. A bookkeeper (Anna Maria Lo Bianco) acts as a Stage Manager and Assistant Stage Manager, as well as a Prompter, as prompting the actors is thought to have been accepted in Elizabethan playhouses. The actors also worked predominantly individually with an “instructor poet,” who helped with memorization and contextual information. The company did not rehearse with one another until one week before Opening Night, when they stumbled through the play in its entirety for the first time. The company uses performance as a means of research, and therefore their productions are concerned more with the process than the product. That said, a play like Clyomon and Clamydes rehearsed in this manner is an event that a 2009 audience is not afforded frequently and if you have any interest in Early Modern Drama, I would recommend submerging into the past for two and a half hours because the thoughts, connections and realizations that emerge from this experience can be fascinating.
Clyomon and Clamydes is a badly written play. Or rather it is pathetically, preposterously poorly produced “poetry” packed plump with platitudes. An account antagonizingly absurdly abounding with adverbs and alliteration. However, the words themselves are succulent and when spoken by an actor who is aware of how ridiculous they sound when strewn all together in long-winded run-on sentences, the effect can be delightfully hilarious. Clyomon and Clamydes nestles in the space between a poem and a tongue twister and actually, it’s rather a fun place to be. The story reads like a Monty Python sketch oblivious to its own irony. Two knights. Two Princesses. A dragon’s head. Stolen honor. A noble quest. Mistaken identity. A clownish knave. There’s even a shepherd!
Clyomon and Clamydes worked the best when the actors played. Paul Babiak was superb as the “Fool”, Subtle Shift, each of his actions were crisp and precise and he infused the entire production with limitless energy and a sense of fun. Peter Higginson and Shelley Liebembuk were able to give striking depth and humanity to their characters (shepherd, and Queen of the Isle of Strange Marshes respectively), despite the one-dimensional writing style of the dramatist.
At times the production reminded me of a cartoon, and I found that once I realized we were a sort of parallel to the world where anvils fall from the sky and animals chase one another like a revolving door, I was able to appreciate what I saw onstage in a far richer way. Sasha Kovacs was brilliant as Neronis, Princess of the Isle of Strange Marshes, she reminded me instantly of Bugs Bunny in drag, and considering her part would have been historically played by a boy dressed as a girl, I felt she captured the ridiculousness of how women were characterized and portrayed in Elizabethan England. She also gave the production a healthy boost of energy and gusto.
In speaking to Paul Babiak briefly after the show, and reading the essays conveniently included in the programme, it is clear that academics are not sure what an Elizabethan audience’s response to a play like Clyomon and Clamydes would have been. Babiak argues that the audiences were probably more sophisticated than Shakespeare alludes to with Pyramus and Thisby. One person said to me at the reception following the show, jokingly, but with a hint of sincerity, “You were having too much fun…” and, as always, I know I’ve hit a nerve- or at least a split in opinion. Was this production supposed to be hysterical or was it supposed to be important? Does laughter somehow devalue a work of art? Can laughter not be seen as a sign of respect? Surely in some cases it is the highest form of praise. Mayhaps I’ve been living in the Improv World too long. But, is there such a difference between this production and something like Impromptu Splendor. I found the similiarity astonishing and delighting.
As I mull the question over in my mind, however, the etymology revisits me like Hamlet’s Ghost, Elizabethans, like us, went to the theatre to see a play performed by players. A Play. They went to see people playing. It seems to me, if it were supposed to be entirely Important, we would go to see a Serious instead.
Clyomon and Clamydes plays until March 8th, 2009. Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm. Sundays at 2pm. Glen Morris Studio Theatre, 4 Glen Morris Street. For tickets call 416 978-7986 or visit http://www.graddrama.utoronto.ca/ or http://www.plspls.ca/.

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