In 1642 Theatre was made illegal.
Theatre didn’t die.
Without a stage, without costumes or props, one man made it his mission to keep performing and to keep British theatre alive – stitching together half-remembered Shakespearean scenes and strange medieval interludes, soaking them in sex and violence and bawdy, unintellectual humour.
So it was that a strange and dangerous new type of illegal theatre was born: The Droll.
NEXT PERFORMANCES: TBC
You may think that you know classical theatre. You don’t. The Drolls challenge the safe, friendly, elitist and intellectual notions we have of the Shakespearean stage, cutting it all away in favour of rough pantomime, carnival, sex, farts and shouting. No other professional company has staged the Drolls since the 17th century, and all but the most specialist of scholars are completely ignorant of the fact that they ever existed. This was sketch comedy for the working man, performed in pubs and back alleys, hundreds of years before the first working mans club or comedy store. With a constantly refreshed and rotating line up of Drolls, selected randomly on the night, we redress the balance of historical theatre and look to bring back a taste of the rough, visceral, populist street performances that existed alongside the likes of the highbrow, classy alternatives.
DROLL: The Humour of JOHN SWABBER
Rough, wild, drunken theatre; illegal Renaissance sketch comedy. Utterly, unremittingly, ridiculous.
In 1642 theatre was made illegal. Theatre didn’t die. Without a stage, without costumes or props, a now-forgotten, strange and dangerous new type of illegal theatre was born, stitching together Shakespearean scenes and medieval interludes, soaking them in sex and violence and bawdy, unintellectual humour: The Droll.
It’s hard to find words that accurately describe what DROLL exactly is, let alone just how good it is. I suppose a good place to start would be to imagine a literature seminar, delivered by the coolest professor around, which then descends into utter anarchy, before looping back around to reveal intellectual pearls of wisdom at its close.
DROLL is presented by the award-winning Owle Schreame theatre company and focuses on the existence and legacy of underperformed 16th and 17th century plays, known as drolls, which emerged in 1642 after theatre was made illegal. All this information is delivered to us by the inimitable Brice Stratford, who came across as part-intellectual, part-madman, and also plays the show’s main character John Swabber, who I can only describe as being akin to Shakespeare’s Falstaff on crack. The show is semi-improvised and the ramshackle nature and sheer enthusiasm of each performer is palpable and infectious.
**** - the 720, Edinburgh 2017
The sparse set and intentionally amateurish music conjure up a sense of unprofessionalism intended to ground the drolls in their natural atmosphere, yet does not detract at all from the quality of the performance. These ditties conjure up images of impromptu sing-alongs in a pub while still being well-performed and musically enjoyable. The use of a little sign that says ‘door’ instead of getting an actual prop to act as a door also contributed to the spur-of-the-moment atmosphere, without detracting from the ability to understand the scenes. The tone set by the Owle Schreame in this performance is exactly right, as they consistently undermine the sophistication of the play while also performing exceptionally well, creating a contrast that makes them seem even more talented as actors by pulling off such a ridiculous play with ease.
DROLL is an exceptionally funny performance which strikes the perfect note between farce and historical appreciation.
***** - Blythe Lewis, the Student Newspaper
DROLL: The MUMMERS
Wild, drunken, British Winter folk theatre & its chaotic, ridiculous history. Educational, free booze.
The award-winning Owle Schreame theatre company tell the strange history of Winter festivities in England, whilst presenting an unpredictable selection of rough, wild, raucous and bawdy Christmastide, New Year, and Easter folk plays from the 1700s to the early 20th century; unique, interactive, and genuinely engaging; wyrd festivities and drunken, unmissable theatre with free booze thrown in for good measure.
Mummers Plays (no, I hadn’t heard of them either): folk tales performed by amateur actors, passed down for hundreds of years. The foundation of each comic tale involves two people who fight, one dies, a mysterious doctor turns up, brings the dead chap back to life, and then they ask for money. A simple tale, a strange tale and one that makes for a fantastically entertaining evening.
The company quickly win us over to their rowdy, feral world. They perform four different mummers plays over the hour, taking us all back to our rugged ancestral roots. The show is rough around the edges in the best possible way; the un-choreographed fights, ad lib improvisations, and what we’ll call ‘travelling’ accents (at one point we started in Sweden, ended up in Wales, and then back to Sweden again, I think…) were all part of its sophomoric charm. Drawing influences from original Shakespearean Original Practice, and it seems a bit of commedia dell'arte, it’s impossible not to be swept up by the lusty immersive experience.
The company clearly thoroughly enjoy doing the show, so it’s easy for us to enjoy it too. The six-strong cast act as conduits for cross-century travel and throw themselves excitedly into each new play, complete with pint in hand and some unexpected costumes choices. The lynch pin of the show seems to be Brace Stratford who does his best to keep the company in line and the show tripping along. Between each Mummer’s play we were treated to a Ted Talk style speech from him on the important social and cultural history of Mummer’s plays over the centuries. These little reprieves were a stroke of brilliance; they gave the audience (and the actors!) much needed time to breath and also get a handle on what was actually going on. The whole company are strong comedy performers and have honed-in on a criminally under-known part of social performance history.
But this shows success doesn’t only lie in its raucousness and wildly performed caricatures. Mummer’s plays were never meant purely as forms of entertainment; they were performed by some of the poorest people in society, during the unforgiving winter months in a bid to raise enough money to survive a few more months. This information when delivered to us at the end of the evening puts a different slant on the plays we’d seen and reminded us of the power of performance to provide people with autonomy and life. One cannot help but be deeply impressed by the stamina and dedication of the cast, as well as intrigued, entertained and moved by the history of the Mummer’s plays.
***** - Verity Williams, London Pub Theatre