Thursday, November 10, 2016

Shakespearean Costuming Conditions in The Life and Death of Jack Straw.

One of the staging conditions we don't talk quite as much about here at Bad Quarto Productions is our costume choices, which are, like everything we do, inspired by what our counterparts in early modern London did to bring these plays to life. That is to say, we perform our plays largely in modern dress, usually using items we get from thrift shops.

John Ball (James Overton) delivers a sermon to incite a revolt in Bad Quarto Productions' 2016 presentation of  The Life and Death of Jack Straw. Directed by Tony Tambasco. Photo by James M. Smith. 
By and large, costumes in the early modern era came from the early modern equivalent of the thrift shop. It was customary for the well-to-do to leave their clothing to their servants when they died, but loosely enforced sumptuary laws prohibited those from the lower classes from wearing certain types of cloth in certain amounts, which usually corresponded with the types of clothing the ruling classes wore.

Since they couldn't wear them publicly, it was not uncommon for the servants to sell these wardrobe items to the playing companies: the Elizabethan equivalent of a thrift shop.

There are, of course, some aspects of the costuming of these shows that we have to bow to. Certain characters are referred to as wearing capes, cloaks, and often certain kinds of hats, and who could forget the swords? They're not exactly part of the modern suit and tie ensemble, but we can often make them work with a modern base of the suit and tie (dressing down from there).

The Peachum drawing.

That all said, we know that early modern players sometimes costumed there plays more specifically. When the King's Men first performed Middleton's political satire A Game at Chess in 1624, for example, they took some pains to acquire the wardrobe of Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count of Gondomar, and former Spanish Ambassador to England, on whom Middleton based the character of the Black Knight. Likewise, the Peachum drawing suggests that togas might have been used for Titus Andronicus, which opens the door to their being used in other Roman plays.

Working with Joanne Famiglietti, who costumed The Life and Death of Jack Straw, when we were confronted with the question of what some of these characters might have worn, we didn't have to look too far to find an answer....

John Ball encouraging Wat Tyler rebels from ca 1470 MS of Froissart Chroniques de France et d'Angleterre in BL.
Granted that manuscript dates from about 100 years after the fact, but it gave us a pretty clear place to begin when designing the costume for James Overton, who plays John Ball in our production of Jack Straw (see the photo above). Froissart's Chronicle was also helpful for costuming the young King Richard II....

Death of Wat Tyler Froissart Chroniques de France et d'Angleterre Book II (c 1483) 175 BL Royal MS 18
We've seen that image before in our discussions of this play: while the image describes the death of Wat Tyler, the most prominent figure is King Richard II, in a blue robe atop his horse. Here is how that translated to our production....

King Richard II (Maria Pleshkevich) knights the Lord Mayor of London (Courtney McClellan) for his service during the revolt in a scene from Bad Quarto Productions performance of The Life and Death of Jack Straw. Directed by Tony Tambasco. Photo by James M. Smith

I like to put kings in lighter colored suits than the rest of the cast because it helps draw focus to them, and I wanted to use the same crown for Richard II that King Harry wore in our production of Cronicle Historie of Henry the Fift, but the blue cloak was suggested by Froissart.

Mounting a play at Bad Quarto Productions always means trying to create a modern early-modern experience of seeing them, which means, ultimately, that we filter what we know about the ways these plays were staged through a 21st century theatrical sensibility, and do so for the benefit of audiences who will likewise view the experience through their own 21st century theatrical sensibilities. It also means adapting the techniques of the early modern playing companies to the technologies and cultural institutions available to us today. How we costume our players is one of the foremost aspects of that process, even though it might not be one of the ones more commonly featured in our pre-show speeches.

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