Where are Will and Phil when you need them?

There is a hush of concentration in the Two Gentlemen study hall. After Sunday’s practice session in the auditorium, many of the company looked very thoughtful. All are now deeply involved with their text and the work gathers pace. How do I know? Everyone’s queuing up for verse-nursing and the diary is under serious pressure. Suddenly, four weeks to go doesn’t seem so long after all…


Two Gentlemen is a play without a surviving prologue or epilogue, at least not in the First Folio. This is not surprising, but has meant a bit of iambic pentameter for me.

So far as we can tell, prologues and epilogues were separate from the play book, and mostly written for specific performances or productions. They were not intended to last beyond their day; those that did probably just happened to be picked up and slotted into the book before it was locked away. So, in keeping with the custom of the time, I’ve written a prologue and an epilogue specifically for our show.

Writing in iambic pentameter goes a long way to persuading me that it is the ideal rhythm for spoken English poetry. It follows very natural patterns of emphasis and expression. Getting it to rhyme is harder, but I make no claim to be a poet! And it was fun, thinking about what needed to be said about the show, how best to set the scene. I’m sure I’ll be changing and correcting right up to the night before but so far, so pretty good.

I’ve also written up programme copy. Nothing fancy, but what will (I hope) prove to be a useful guide to the action. In Shakespeare’s time, the audience received an “Arguement”: a sheet which named all the characters scene by scene, and covered in some detail the speeches and events of the scenes. There are even tales of audience members calling out mid-performance to characters who aren’t saying what was listed in the Arguement. As we have different players tag-teaming the main characters, our programme goes scene by scene, and gives one sentence on the scene’s content and who is playing whom. This seemed a practical and useful document for the audience, again in keeping with the times.

Theatre documents from Shakespeare’s time, such as survive, are essentially very practical. They are the tools necessary to get a performance together from individually studied parts. Backstage documents are very rare indeed. A document known as a “plat” or “plot” seems to have been used backstage, most likely as a scene by scene guide for the prompter, or the players, or both, regarding entrances and exits. The seven surviving plats are written clearly, with characters and scenes detailed within ruled boxes. They also appear to be designed to hang on a hook or nail, so presumably are for more than one person to read backstage in the tiring house.

I’m not planning a full scale hanging plat for us, partly because our backstage environment doesn’t suit it, but our two backstage “sheepdogs” (noble volunteers Louise Devlin and Michael Walsh) will need some documents to help things run smoothly. We’re meeting next week to discuss things, but I’m thinking one full script for reference, & some kind of edited entrance and exit cue sheet. Louise and Michael’s main tasks will be ensuring the right people are ready with the right props in the right places at the right times. Good luck, guys!

Does it sound like we’re making it up as we go along? Well, we are! I’m looking ahead, practically, envisaging needs and potential problems arising from working in this way. We haven’t done it before, so we’re finding our way, step by step. As the first professional playhouses must have done. If only we had Philip Henslowe to show us how he did it!

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