An Evening at the Guildhall: Reflections

Since the Staging Exeter final event on May 2nd, the weeks have passed in a blur of celebratory meals, multiple birthdays, and feedback forms.  Apologies for the delay, but here is an outline of what happened on the night.

Staging Exeter: An Evening at the Guildhall took place on the first May Bank Holiday, at Exeter’s beautiful Guildhall–the historic civic centre at the heart of the city, and itself a former playing space. In its rich history, the Guildhall has functioned as court and prison, hosting civic entertainments and public humiliation. We thought it was an apt venue to bring together performances from the various spaces we have been working with, combining different sites and styles.

Having promised not to burn down the ceiling in one of our first blog posts, audience members were no doubt alarmed when they arrived at at 6.30pm to find us all gathered in the high street in the shadow of a shrill alarm and a fire engine. We had planned to mimic early modern pyrotechnics by using flashpaper as a modern equivalent. Worryingly accessible on the internet, flashpaper does what its name suggests: these long strips of innocuous looking paper flare up when lit. They then burn out when the paper is exhausted, leaving nothing but a puff of smoke in their wake: like magic.

Unfortunately, when we decided to test the flashpaper prior to the performance, the fire alarm system did not find it as impressive as early modern audiences might have. Instead, the alarms went off, cuing an evacuation of the building and the arrival of several firemen in their blaring truck. This all occurred at approximately 6.28pm: two minutes before the doors of the Guildhall were supposed to open to members of the public.

Thankfully, the porters at the Guildhall were very generous about it, allowed us back into the building, and the real entertainments still started promptly at 7pm. It may also have been a good advertising strategy, as about 60 people attended the event—a strong showing just 9 shy of our full capacity.

The evening started with an informal and entertaining lecture by Professor Philip Schwyzer. Prof. Schwyzer asked one seemingly simple question: where is the theatre? From that point, the listeners were taken on the trail of Shakespeare’s Richard III, as Philip gauged whether the play may have been performed in Exeter before its first printing. We then got the audience up, moved the chairs, and performances started happening round the space—itself a temporary exhibition.

As regular readers will know, the nature of the Staging Exeter project was collaborative and interactive. In keeping with this spirit, we were inspired by immersive theatre practices when creating the final event. “Immersive theatre”, pioneered by companies such as Punchdrunk, asks the audience to join the actors’ performative journey: those watching the performance are therefore also part of the narrative, and experience different versions of the event. Our event utilised some elements of this avant-garde style, such as the inclusion of objects which our audiences could touch, pick up, and move about. There were therefore a number of options for our audience members, and items in the exhibition that they could peruse. We had several boards with information about the historical records from which our workshops were derived. Tamsin Bailey, an expert on Exeter’s history, also provided us with details about the kind of characters that may have been attending local performances in the early modern period. We also had a number of early modern snacks for people to take away, with do-it-yourself recipe cards, and a demonstration of how early modern fireworks were made.

These immersive techniques, however, were not strictly out of keeping with the historical focus of our project: although the style is usually associated with companies such as Punchdrunk, practitioners at Shakespeare’s Globe in London and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia (USA) have experimented with forms of immersion and interaction that might have been familiar to early modern audiences. Techniques such as universal lighting, in which the audience is not in darkness for the performance, and performance styles that explicitly acknowledge and make use of the audience are hallmarks of what is often dubbed “original practices”. Proponents of original practices contend that early modern plays are best understood when they are produced in performance conditions that mimic those of the early modern theatres; therefore, they say, Stanislavskian concepts such as the “fourth wall”—an imaginary barrier between actors and audience—are inappropriate to these plays. Our event, therefore, sought to recapture some of that early modern sense of camaraderie between audience and actor. Picking up on this past-to-present connection, one audience member remarked that the event made her think about “past times” and the way performance could be experienced as a “whole event”, rather than just “sitting stuffily in the theatre”.

Over the ensuing hour, the Staging Exeter actors performed a series of the texts we have been working with over the past few weeks. The performances started without warning, which can sometimes surprise people (at first, there was a little confusion from the audience about when it was and was not ok to clap!). The first sketch—an adapted prologue from The Taming of the Shrew—occurred around the drinks table, with the actors disguised as a guest and a drinks-server. Their antics brought some eye-brow raising and confusion before our audience realised that it was part of the plan and not a drunken altercation! By the end of the evening, though, audience members seemed to have embraced the performance style. One audience member commented that: “It was so interactive and fun—and it kept you guessing”.

One of the most interesting aspects of the performance, from our perspective, was seeing scenes that we have performed elsewhere transposed into the Guildhall space. Within this intimate setting, with its oak panelling and soft lights, the early modern dance that we had performed in Exeter’s Forum (to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Thriller) seemed more eerie but also more amusing. The early modern songs that we sang as a group in Cathedral Green, projecting wildly to be heard, adopted a folksy familiarity within the Guildhall space. Overall, we were thrilled to have so many people sharing the experience with us, and it seemed like a fitting way to celebrate all the Staging Exeter participants have achieved this term.

Thanks to everyone who came: and to all readers for keeping up with the blog. We are, still, making our way through the leftover wine!

You can view a selection of our performances, not brilliantly recorded, on our YouTube channel:

Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus Damnation Scene (1)

Doctor Faustus Damnation Scene (2)

 Taming of the Shrew

 Noah (of The Ark)

Guest Post: Early Modern Inn-yard Performance Spaces

Staging Exeter has been working with two scenes from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew–connected with the performance of plays in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in taverns in England.  Although no explicit records of performances in Exeter’s inn-yards and taverns survive today, records elsewhere show that entertainment was played in coaching inns and yards–in venues similar to The White Hart.  We thought about the staging of scenes by taking inspiration and a pint of ale in a few of Exeter’s historic pubs (like Francis Drake’s old haunt, The Ship), and the long history behind some of the city’s drinking houses has influenced our version of Shakespeare’s scenes.  Looking to existing records elsewhere in the country helps us to understand the importance of performances in inns.  Dr Sally Templeman is an expert on the subject, and she has kindly written a brilliant introduction to inn-based playing that provides context and reasoning for Staging Exeter’s decision to explore The Taming of the Shrew.


Dr Sally Templeman is a theatre and culinary historicist critic, who has studied and taught at the University of Exeter.

Early Modern Inn-Yard Performance Spaces

Inns have hosted plays since professional secular drama emerged in England during the early decades of the sixteenth century. From the off, early modern authorities sought to regulate this budding theatrical business; fortunately for modern theatre historians, extant documents of control provide valuable evidence of performances, or attempted performances, in inns. The earliest London record dates from 1543, when the Court of Common Council banned William Blytheman, George Tadlowe (or Gadlowe), and Thomas Hancokkes from permitting plays to be performed in their “dwelling houses” (Lancashire 268 n. 82). David Kathman has identified these houses as the White Horse tavern and the Bishop’s Head tavern in Lombard Street, London (Inn-Yard Playhouses 154 n. 4). Much, although by no means all, of the extant evidence of inn-based playing beyond London has been uncovered by REED (Records of Early English Drama); the record closest to Exeter concerns the King’s Players, who, in 1535, performed at the Saracen’s Head in Bridgwater, Somerset in (REED n. pag). Despite the fact that purpose-built playhouses began to be erected on the peripheries of the City of London (on Bankside and in Middlesex) from 1576, inns continued to host plays.  In 1599, for example, Tomas Platter recorded that his London hostelry, probably the French Lilly in Mark Lane, “was visited by players almost daily” (10, 31-2).

Such was the relationship between inns and drama that some inner-City London landlords took the significant step of constructing formal playhouses in their yards: during the 1570s playhouses were erected at the Bull, the Bell, the Cross Keys, and the Bell Savage. During the twenty-five years or so that these inn-yard playhouses operated, their inn businesses were run concurrently with their theatrical enterprises (Berry, Playhouses 295).  A fifth playhouse was constructed in 1598 at the Boar’s Head Inn, which stood just outside Aldgate. This performance venue also continued trading as an inn, at least for two years, and possibly longer, after its playhouse was constructed (Berry, Boar’s Head 3207). In fact, the owners devised an inn-specific entry system for this playhouse. One of the partners had the right “to shut the gates of the inn at eleven o’clock on playing days to discourage those who might be willing to wait [in the inn] a little while to save a penny or two ” on the cost of admission to the playhouse (Berry, The Playhouse 53).  When the Boar’s Head playhouse was expanded in 1599, Herbert Berry has calculated that it “could easily have held 1,000, more if the … extremities of the yard were used” (Boar’s Head 122). This playhouse remained in use until, at least, 1607, when the Queen’s Men were in residence (Berry, Playhouses 564).

These venues differed from other performance locations because each stood at the heart of

a catering establishment and, thus, would have been characterised by a pervasive smell of cooking. Three factors contributed to the inn-yard effect. Firstly, humoral dietetics urged consumers to eat meals at regular times so that food would be digested correctly and, for the same reason, to avoid snacking between meals: the correct time to take supper was between five and six o’clock in the evening (Boorde 1:17; Bulleyn fol. Xxxvii). Secondly, during the second half of the sixteenth century, Privy Council regulations began to create a performance window for public performances: they were ordered to begin by two and conclude by five o’clock (Chambers 4:302, 316). Thirdly, unlike purpose-built playhouses (which had no kitchens) and unlike private residences (which generally located their kitchens a distance from their Great Halls—the most likely performance site for visiting players—specifically to prevent cooking aromas seeping into the eating/performance space), the Boar’s Head’s kitchen (and probably those at most inns) opened directly onto the yard-cum-playhouse (Berry, The Playhouse, 50). In inn-yard venues, then, as plays progressed and suppertime approached, playgoers’ innate hunger mechanisms would have been ignited by temporal and culinary triggers.

Can we place Shakespeare at these uniquely aromatic venues? Chambers claims that Shakespeare was contributing “to the repertory of Strange’s [Men]” by 1592 (2:126). Possibly, then, he was also with this company on 6 November 1589 when, despite a prohibition on playing in the City, they had “in very contemptuous manner” played on at the Cross Keys (Berry, Playhouses 302). In 1594, Shakespeare, like many former members of Strange’s Men, joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In October of that year, the Lord Chamberlain applied to the Lord Mayor to obtain toleration for his “nowe companie of Players” to play that “winter time within the Citye at the Crosse Kayes” (Chambers  4:316). The Lord Mayor’s response has not survived, so we do not know whether or not the Mayor granted permission. Nevertheless, the Lord Chamberlain’s request does tell us that the men in his new company, which included Shakespeare, had “byn accustomed” to play winter seasons at this inn. Berry contends that “[w]ell-known companies of actors played at one time or another in” all of these [inn-yard] venues and Andrew Gurr suggests that up until 1594 “the professional companies used the city inns for playing as frequently as, and perhaps more frequently than, the purpose-built playhouses” (Berry, Playhouses 295; Gurr 71).

As I have argued elsewhere, evidence from early plays, such as The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1592-4), suggests that Shakespeare recognised the dramatic potential offered by inn-yard venues and shaped important food-based scenes to interact spatially, temporally, and culinarily with their smellscapes.[1] In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, Shakespeare brought food properties onstage (which in his cannon is quite unusual); he brought them onstage close to offstage suppertime (when the inn’s kitchen would have been operating at full swing); and he altered the source play’s menu in order to use inn-specific food properties:  roast meat was traditional inn fare. This onstage/offstage sensory bombardment had the potential to create a site specific response to Petruchio’s attempt to starve Kate into submission.  As suppertime approached offstage, playgoers bathed in cooking aromas might have felt an unusual level of sympathy for Shakespeare’s shrew, if not her shrewish disposition, as both hungry player and hungry playgoers salivated for roast meat.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s foray into interactive appetitive theatre was short-lived because by 1596 the Chamberlain’s Men, Chambers contends, were at the Theatre, from whence they went to the Curtain, and then, in the spring of 1599, to the Globe (Chambers 2: 192-209, Knutson 62-3).

[1] See “What’s this? Mutton?: Food, Bodies, and Inn-Yard Performance Spaces in Early Shakespearean Drama.” Shakespeare Bulletin. 31.1 (2013):79-94.



Bate, Jonathan and Eric Rasmussen. William Shakespeare, Complete Works: RSC Shakespeare. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2007.

Berry, Herbert. “The Boar’s Head Again.” The Elizabethan Theatre III. Ed. David Galloway. London: Macmillan, 1973. 33-65. Print.

—. The Boar’s Head Playhouse.  London and Toronto: Associated UP, 1986. Print.

—. “Playhouses, 1530-1660.” English Professional Theatre. Ed. Glynne Wickham. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 287-649. Print.

—. “The Playhouse in the Boar’s Head Inn, Whitechapel.” The Elizabethan Theatre. Ed. David Galloway. Toronto: U of Waterloo, 1969. 45-73. Print.

Boorde, Andrew. The Breviarie of Health. London, 1575. EEBO. 11 Jan. 2010.

Bulleyn, William. The Gouernement of Health. London, 1558. EEBO. 12 June 2010.

Chambers, EK. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1945. Print.

Gurr, Andrew. “Henry Carey’s Peculiar Letter.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 56.1 (2005): 51-75. Print

Hodgdon, Barbara. Introduction. The Taming of the Shrew. By William Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara

Kathman, David. “Inn-Yard Playhouses.” The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre. Ed. Richard Dutton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. 153-167. Print.

Knutson, Roslyn L. “Adult Playing Companies, 1593-1603.” The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre. Ed. Richard Dutton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. 56-71. Print.

Lancashire, Anne. London Civic Theatre: City Drama and Pageantry from Roman Times to 1558. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Platter, Thomas. “Travels in England in 1599.” The Journals of Two Travellers in Elizabethan and early Stuart England: Thomas Platter and Horatio Busino. London: Caliban, 1995. 1-106. Print

Records of Early English Drama (REED).

Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Shakespeare. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: Norton, 1997. 133-202. Print.

“The Taming of a Shrew [A Pleasant Conceited Historie, Called The Taming of a Shrew].”  The Taming of the Shrew. By William Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Hodgdon. London: A & C Black P. Ltd., 2010. 343-394.Print.


Renaissance Flashmob in Exeter Cathedral

Please find spectator footage of our flashmob over at our YouTube channel and here:

Renaissance Flashmob at Exeter Cathedral

Further thoughts about that pop-up, and more blog posts about the project, are coming soon.




Staging Exeter: An Evening in the Guildhall

Staging Exeter: An Evening at the Guildhall is a FREE performance event on FRIDAY MAY 2nd at 7PM.

The Staging Exeter Project team warmly invite you to Staging Exeter: An Evening at the Guildhall. This exciting performance event will include an informal talk on community history by top university professor Philip Schwyzer, a small exhibition of the history behind the project, a series of performances by the talented acting team and a wine reception. Expect fireworks, foolery and a bit of Doctor Faustus!

Over the past 12 weeks, the Staging Exeter team has explored Exeter’s theatre history, bringing old texts and spaces back to life. This final performance on Friday May 2nd will interactively showcase the project’s work, explaining more about the city’s past performances and exploring what they can mean today.

Funded by the RCUK Catalyst team, the event is entirely free and open to all students and members of the public. Doors open 6.30pm and the event starts at 7pm sharp. There are no advance tickets and the capacity is limited to 90, so arrive in good time to guarantee your entry.

Read more about the project via this blog or email to get in touch. We look forward to seeing you on 2nd!

You can find the facebook event here:

Doctor Faustus in Exeter

This year Christopher Marlowe turns 450. Marlowe’s bold and spectacular plays have been enormously successful with audiences since they were first written and staged in the 1580s and 1590s.  Doctor Faustus is a case-in-point, with a number of exciting and experimental productions staged in the last year (at the Globe, the Rose on Bankside, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Marlowe in Canterbury, and so forth).

Faustus is exciting, wickedly funny, and wild; one minute, it dabbles in damnation’s theological and emotional effects, and the next it conjures fun out of high farce and fake limbs (as in the passage: “[He pulls off Faustus’ leg]. Alas, I am undone! what shall I do! I have pulled off his leg. FAUSTUS. O, help, help! the villain hath murdered me. HORSE-COURSER. Murder or not murder, now he has but one leg. I’ll outrun him, and cast this leg into some ditch or other. [Aside, and then runs out.]”)  The play’s diabolic doubleness has led one critic to characterise Marlowe’s approach as an “interrogative drama” that allows contraries to be true (Sara Munson Deats, “Marlowe’s Interrogative Drama”).

There were two early published versions of Faustus, known as the A-text (1604) and the B-text (1616).  Critics have long been engaged in a complicated argument questioning the extent of Marlowe’s input in either version, the likelihood of memorial reconstruction, and the contemporary politics to be found in each text–but it will suffice to state here that the B-text is markedly more spectacular than the A: it visualises much of what is only implicit, or imagined, in the A-text.

Regardless, Marlowe’s play was an early modern blockbuster and, more or less, an instant classic. It contains many of the exciting special effects available at the time and is still deeply poetic and at moments profound: it’s a powerful piece of verse that leads Ben Jonson to celebrate “Marlowe’s mighty line” in a poem praising Shakespeare.Seventeenth-century audiences were treated to reruns, revivals, and reimaginings of Faustus year on year.  John Melton acknowledges its visual power in 1620 while complaining about the Fortune theatre:

behold shagge-hayr’d Deuills runne roaring over the Stage with Squibs in their mouthes, while Drummers make thunder in the Tyring-house, and the twelue-penny Hirelings make artificial Lightning in their Heauens. (E4r)

Woodcut from the 1616 “B-text” of Faustus

Why are Staging Exeter looking at Faustus?

Faustus was not only a London-hit; it toured the country, too. Most exciting (or perhaps most sinister, depending on your persuasion), the play caused a commotion when it visited Exeter:

Certain Players at Exeter, acting upon the stage the tragical storie of Dr. Faustus the Conjurer; as a certaine nomber of Devels kept everie one his circle there, and as Faustus was busie in his magicall invocations, on a sudden they were all dasht, every one harkning other in the eare, for they were all perswaded, there was one devell too many amongst them . . .” (Chambers, Elizabethan Stage 3: 424).

Repeating this anecdote, John Aubrey, who was a seventeenth-century antiquary famous for his Brief Lives, botched it by mixing references to Marlowe with Shakespeare. Still, he adds the intriguing detail that Edward Alleyn was one of the actors surprised (in Natural History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey). Alleyn was one of the great actors of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean stages and was the man who made famous Marlowe’s bold and bombastic protagonists, from Tamburlaine to Faustus. The story might be apocryphal, as the manuscript on which the original account is based no longer survives, but its repetition suggests an urban myth that surrounded and still surrounds the Exeter performance of Doctor Faustus.  Something of the play’s supernatural power translates, it seems, to performance!

In this week’s rehearsal, we are looking at three scenes–Mephistopheles’s appearance, the conjuration of Helen, and the closing scene in which the good angel and the bad angel argue over Faustus and he is eventually (and literally, in the B-text) “torne asunder by the hand of death.” They are beginning, middle, and end scenes respectively that reflect, we feel, the play’s central themes. And they’re also fun episodes to experiment with!

Interior of the Exeter Guildhall

As we look towards the final performance at the Guildhall on May 2nd, it is exciting to think that some four hundred or so years earlier, perhaps in the same room, the man who first made Faustus famous was frighted by a “shagge-hayr’d Deuill” who was not a part of the earthly company.

— Nora, Anna-Marie, and Callan.

PS: If you are interested in Faustus, we also used aspects of the play for our first flashmob, pop-up performance in the Forum.  Marlowe’s engagement with issues of study, learning, knowledge, and power translate provocatively into a University space with a library entrance.

Pop-Up in the Forum: Text

Sarah: O for a muse of fire that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention.


Leanne: With divine inspiration, our play might rise to the highest levels of imagination!

If only we had a stage as big as a kingdom—real kings and queens to witness the spectacle—


Charlie: O pardon, ladies and gentlemen, since that’s not the case.

And let us, ciphers to this great account,

On your imaginary forces work.



Becky: Judging students,

Our scene is Exeter, ‘cause we would make known

No city’s mirth is greater than our own.


Josiah: No clime breeds better matter, for your Whore,

Ben: Bawd,

Becky: Squire,

ALL: Imposter,

Josiah: many persons more,

Whose manners, now call’d Humours, feed the Forum.


Richard: [silencing the others]

Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin

To sound the depth of that thou will profess.

Perhaps some Aristotle? [gives F a book]


Jemima: [opens the book, reads a sentence or two, and approves:]

Sweet Analytics, ’tis thou has ravished me.


Ben: Bene differere est finis Logicis. 

[beh-neh diff-erh-reh-reh est fee-nis Low-gee-sis]


Jemima: Is to dispute well Logic’s chiefest end?

Is this the most Aristotle can teach me?

Then I’ll read no more; I’ve achieved that goal:

A loftier subject suits my intelligence.


[a conversation between Faustus and his thoughts begins to emerge]


Sarah: [bringing another book]

Be a Physician Faustus, heap up gold,

And be immortalised in a miracle cure:


Ben: [opens the book and points to a passage]

Summum bonum medicinae sanitas. 

[sue-moom boh-noom med-ih-sin-eh sah-nee-tahs]


Josiah: The goal of medicine is bodily health:


Leanne: But haven’t you achieved that goal?


Charlie: Aren’t your bills hung up as monuments,

Whereby all of Exeter escaped the plague?


[all encroach on Faustus]

Richard: Yet thou art still but Faustus, and a man.

ALL: Mortal.

Richard: Someday you will die.


Jemima: [sending them away]

Medicine, farewell.


Leanne: [brings a Bible]  

When all is done, Divinity is best.

Read the Bible, Faustus:


Ben: [opening the book for him]

Stipendium peccati, mors est:

[stip-en-dee-oom peck-ah-tee mores est]


Becky: The reward of sin is death? That’s hard:


Ben: Si pecasse, negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veratis?

[see peck-ah-seh, neh-gah-moose, fah-lee-moor, et null-ah est in noh-bis ver-ah-tis?]


Richard: If we say we have no sin,

We deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.


Jemima: Why then, belike we must sin,

And so consequently die,


Sarah: Ay, we must die an everlasting death.


Jemima: What doctrine call you this?


ALL: [mocking] Che sera sera

Whatever will be, will be…


Becky: [throwing away the Bible]

Divinity, adieu!

[offering a new book, from a distance. Will F take it?]

These are metaphysics of Magicians.


Jemima: [considers carefully before reaching out to take the book]

Necromantic books are heavenly.


Josiah: Lines,

Ben: circles,

Sarah: letters,

Charlie: characters:

Richard: Are these what Faustus most desires?


[transition into zombie dance!]

Settle thy studies! A flashmob in the Forum

Since the royal opening of Exeter’s Forum building in May 2011, it has become the glassy heart of the university campus. Sometimes likened to an airport lounge, the Forum provides a bridge between scholarly and social activities. It is placed beside the Great Hall and houses the biggest student shop on campus, whilst the central “Street” often gets filled with extra stalls as students sell wares from vintage clothing to cakes. The building also connects the university library to the social hub of the Students’ Guild, acting as a popular walkway for students of all subjects.

This Thursday, the Staging Exeter team will appropriate the Forum for our first pop-up performance. As Staging Exeter is designed to give students and members of the local community a new perspective on Exeter’s spaces, we want to stage performances on campus and in the city centre. These short sketches will put into practice—and into interesting spaces—the collage of Renaissance texts we’ve been adapting, modernising, and experimenting with in rehearsals.

The Forum is a great location for our first pop-up performance: this relatively new space offers an enticing testing ground for public performance, but it also brings a wide range of students into contact with the project. The bustling mixture of economic and academic activities also suits it to the content of our “script”—which turns out to be involved with Doctor Faustus, subjects of study, and demons of mind and matter.

What and why?
Before taking the idea to the whole group, Anna-Marie, Nora, and Callan selected a series of scenes that seemed well suited to the space. These extracts appealed to the Forum from a variety of angles. First, remaining faithful to the classical connotations of a forum, we chose some snippets from William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (c.1607-8) and Julius Caesar (1601).

We also thought it would be important to draw attention to the function of the Forum building as a shopping centre. Our second series of texts therefore considered sales-scenes and early modern street life, including snippets from Ben Jonson’s play about London’s Bartholomew Fair (1614). Finally, to take account of the fact that the modern space is used primarily by students, we picked some choice references to scholars in early modern drama. These included Friar Bacon’s address to the “masters of our Academic state” in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590), and Dr Faustus’ less adulatory decision that law was fit for “a mercenary judge […] Too servile and illiberal for me” (sorry, lawyers—not our words!).

We then took these options to the whole team, dividing them into two groups and giving them this wide range of material. The groups were asked to create a performance from the texts, including a mix of the pieces that they thought would work well and modernizing the language as they saw fit. At the end of the session, we came together and performed the different options. Whilst the performers took different approaches, so that the first group used a variety of texts and the second focused primarily on a single scene, some similarities still stood out. For the most part, much of the archaic language had been retained, and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus was the most popular text.

Building on this rehearsal, we put together a flexible script, but we also wanted to find a visually effective conclusion for a performance of this nature. Because each Staging Exeter session starts by introducing some commonplace early modern performance traditions, such as folk songs and dance, we decided to adapt one of the dances for the first pop-up. We decided to work with Selengers Round, which was a popular dance at social gatherings in the early modern period still practised in some folk circles today. Bearing in mind the supernatural side of the Dr Faustus scene, and the energy of the Forum as a youthful hub, we reset the steps of the Selengers Round to Michael Jackson’s famous Thriller track.

By using this familiar music and incorporating the iconic steps of the Thriller dance, we want to make the early modern performance comprehensible for its latest audience of students: but also use the familiar student hub in an unfamiliar way—and, of course, keep it lively and amusing!

So there you have it: this Thursday March 20th the first Staging Exeter pop-up performance will take place in Exeter’s Forum Building. It is a mishmash of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Shakespeare’s Henry V (1600), an early modern dance, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. There will be zombie masks on display and bibles getting thrown. Keep your eyes peeled and your ears tuned! The next post will explain how the performance came together on our makeshift stage.

—AM, NW, CD.

Staging Exeter Does Mystery Plays

One of the country’s longest standing dramatic traditions, mystery plays have taken place in England from the medieval period to the modern day. Mystery plays are public pageants designed to celebrate the Christian calendar’s Corpus Christi festival, which usually takes place between May 23rd and June 24th. They are often associated with a particular city, which hosts a procession divided into a series of stations.

City guilds, which are collectives of local tradesmen, sponsor and arrange the performance of snippets of the biblical history. They often took the opportunity to direct the performances as a means of medieval/early modern product placement.  In the particularly violent York pageant, for instance, the crucifixion scene is sponsored by the pinners, or the nail-makers, of the city.  They craft the nails that pin Jesus to the cross, and upon his crucifixion they offer the familiar tradesman’s guarantee that “this werke will holde” (353 l.121).

In Staging Exeter rehearsals last week, we were looking at the Mariners’ and the Fishermen’s version of Noah and the Great Flood, from the York cycle. Whilst our modern-day performers connected to the material through references to climate change and the recent tempestuous weather, the  medieval performers were tradesmen who knew how to man a boat, and would probably be eager to advertise their props.

As the mystery plays brought together a variety of actors, stories, and spaces, they also encouraged a degree of liberty with the biblical text. Surviving documents of the performances merge secular and spiritual themes in unexpected ways.  The Cornwall pageants, for instance, seem to be quite satirical, with henpecked husbands and amateur ironmongers; they’re also ludicrously local, and include the sourcing of wood for the cross from a copse by a Cornish brook.

Although there is no surviving Exeter cycle, we know that Corpus Christi performances took place. In 1413, as one example, the Exeter skinners took responsibility for pageants within a Corpus Christi play. For the Staging Exeter workshop, we took snippets from the York mystery cycle and the second Cornish Ordinalia play (a collection of Corpus Christi plays but without the structure of other surviving cycles). The first scene shows a dispute between Noah and his wife, as he tries to convince her of impending doom for the rest of the world. Mrs Noah is not on board with the idea, and the scene that ensues gives a comic scrap between the pair. The second scene shows a battle between Christ and Lucifer at Hell’s Gates.

Our first step was to map a route for the city, asking which guilds would have performed these scenes in the medieval context and where they would be based today.

Having drawn up a route map for a modern mystery pageant, we then thought about how those texts could translate to their modern spaces. Set by Exeter’s recently flooded riverside, our Noah is troubled by the threat of global warming. Alarmed by gloomy weather reports and unstable weather conditions, Noah attempts to build a raft and is criticised by his sceptic wife. After drawing up scripts for these alternative and modernised versions of the mystery plays, the group swapped scripts and started testing them out. Here are some of the results:

CORNISH ORDINALIA, rewritten by Staging Exeter:

 SPIRIT OF CHRIST. Ye princes of the devils,

Open the gates at once!

Else, if you do not, there shall be woe certainly before passing on;

For the everlasting gates also

Shall be opened

So that the King of bliss

May go in

LUCIFER. King of Bliss?

Who the hell do you think you are!?

And what do you want with me?

Tell me immediately

SPIRIT. A mighty and a potent Lord,

And in battle marvellous.

Therefore open surely

Ye princes!

LUCIFER. King of Bliss?

Who the hell do you think you are?

Like seriously?

There’s no way in hell you are coming in here!

Go away at once!

SPIRIT. A lord potent and mighty;

Against him the gates shall not stand

Indeed before passing,

Because my grace is so great.

He is mighty in battle

And King of Bliss,

Ye princes!

SPIRIT. I shall pass! [Gandalf style]

The gates of hell are broken

LUCIFER. Ah! Help! They’re escaping!

Back ruffians! Get back here!

You filthy, filthy scoundrels

 [Calls Beelzebub and Leviathan on the phone]

LUCIFER.  Beelzebub, Leviathan, guys—they’ve escaped!





NOAH. [tree-hugging hippy] That weather man that gives ever-lasting life,

I love thee ever with my heart and hand,

That would rule me by reason rife,

Six hundred years to live in land.

There seemly sons and a worthy wife

I have been able in my life to stand;

But now my cares are keen as knife,

Because I know what is commanded,

There comes to all countries,

Yea, cares both ken and cold.

For Michael Fish has warned me,

This world wasted shall be,

And certes the sooth I see,

As BBC News has told [. . .]

I would to Michael it wasted were,

So that I should not tend theretill

My seemly sons and daughters dear

Take ye intent unto my skill.

SON: Dad, we are already here,

Your bidding ready to fulfil.

NOAH. Go call yourmother, and come near,

And speed us fast that we not spill.

SON. Dad, we shall not resign

Till we’ve done your will

NOAH. All that lives on this planet

I think, perchance, will go to shit. . .


WIFE. [Northern accent] What says thou, Kevin?

SON. Mother, certain

My father thinks to flit full far.

He bids you hasten with all your main

Unto him, that nothing you mar.

WIFE. Yah, Kev luv, hie fast again

And tell him will come no nar.

SON. Dayumm [“Damn phonetically], I would do your bidding fain,

But you bus wend, else it be war! [irony: Noah is steadily hammering]

Son grabs mother’s hand and drags her across bridge towards Noah

WIFE. War? That I would wit,

We jest all wrong, I ween.

SON. [Still persistently dragging Mother] Mum, I say you yet,

My father is bound to flit.

WIFE. [Resisting] Now certes, I shall not sit

Until I see what he means

SON. Dad, I’ve done as you commanded

Mum comes to you right away. [Mother/Wife looks very reluctant and put out]

NOAH. She is welcome.  For, woe, I well warrant. . .

The Met Office shall soon be wasted away!

WIFE. Where art thou, Noah!? [i.e. pretending to ignore her husband, who is in front of her, with implication that she doesn’t recognise this new crazy man who is building gan art and wants her husband back]

NOAH. Lo, here at hand.

Come hither fast, my lover, I thee pray!

[Takes her hand and she has to look at him]

WIFE. Thinkst thou that I will leave the hard land

And go over rocks, raging away?

[Tearfully] No, Noah, I’m not born

To wander now over these fells.

Do kids, go wee now to town.

NOAH.  No, certainly, smoothly then . . . MUST YOU DROWN!

WIFE. In faith, thou were as good come down. . . [pulls away from him]

Go do. . . someone else!

Over the next two weeks, we will be preparing some of these snippets for a pop-up performance in the city centre. Keep your eyes peeled: and your fingers crossed for sunny skies!

— AM, NW, CD

Pop-up Text Digital Workshop

After a really productive rehearsal last Friday, we’re starting to work in more detail on the hybrid text that will be used in our pop-up performance(s) around Exeter. Included here is a very rough representation of some ideas that participants came up with on Friday evening; feel free to comment below with suggestions for improvement. We’re talking cuts, additions, swaps, updates…you name it! The aim is to come up with a text for performance that is coherent, relevant, and relatable. Of course we’ll still adapt and adjust this text in rehearsal, but we’re looking to develop the starting point here.

For reference, the texts represented here, in order of appearance, are:

Henry V, by William Shakespeare

The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson

Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe


Have fun!



O for a muse of fire that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention.


With divine inspiration, our play might rise to the highest levels of imagination!

If only we had a stage as big as a kingdom—real kings and queens to witness the spectacle—


O pardon, ladies and gentlemen, since that’s not the case.

And let us, ciphers to this great account,

On your imaginary forces work.


Judging Spectators,

Our scene is [Exeter], ‘cause we would make known

No country’s mirth is better than our own.


No clime breeds better matter, for your Whore,

Bawd, Squire, Imposter, many persons more,

Whose manners, now call’d Humours, feed the stage.


Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin

To sound the depth of that thou will profess.


Perhaps some Aristotle?

Sweet Analytics, ’tis thou has ravished me.


Bene differere est finis Logicis. 


Is to dispute well Logic’s chiefest end?


Is this the most Aristotle can teach me?

Then I’ll read no more; I’ve achieved that goal:

A loftier subject suits my intelligence.


Be a Physician Faustus, heap up gold,

And be immortalised in a miracle cure:


Summum bonum medicinae sanitas. 


The goal of medicine is bodily health:


But haven’t you [I?] achieved that goal?

Are not thy [my?] bills hung up as monuments,

Whereby whole cities have escaped the plague?


Yet thou art still but Faustus, and a man.


Medicine, farewell. What about law?


Ugh! petty cases of inheritance:


Exhereditari filium non potest pater, nisi…


A father cannot inherit his son, unless…blah, blah, blah.

Such is the subject of the institute,

And the universal body of law.

This study fits a mercenary drudge,

Who aims at nothing but external trash.

Too servile and illiberal for me.


When all is done, Divinity is best.

Read the Bible, Faustus:


Stipendium peccati, mors est:


The reward of sin is death? That’s hard:


Si pecasse, negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veratis?


If we say we have no sin,

We deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us.


Why then, belike we must sin,

And so consequently die,

Ay, we must die an everlasting death.

What doctrine call you this?


[singing] Che sera sera

Whatever will be, will be…


Divinity, adieu!

These metaphysics of Magicians

And necromantic books are heavenly,

Lines, circles, letters, characters:

Ay, these are what Faustus desires [I desire?] most.

Week 2: Imagining Exeter (C)

Joseph Hall: Bishop of Exeter and controversial pamphleteer. These character descriptions might seem ill-matched in a world where a Google search for the term “bishop” mostly conjures images of earnest men wearing funny hats (apart from this guy). But Bishop Hall was very much a man of his times. Fierce print wars were waged between different Christian sects throughout the early modern period, especially during pressure points like the 1640s. Hall engaged with these debates throughout his career in Exeter and afterwards as the Bishop of Norwich. Prior to his elevation to the Devonian see, Hall also wrote a series of character descriptions that are particularly relevant for our investigations this week.

In Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608), Hall built on a long-standing tradition which emulated the classical author Theophrastus (stay with me). These works used written character descriptions to amuse but also educate readers. In his preface, Hall draws attention to the didactic potential of these sketches to cultivate their readership. In Hall’s words:

These were the overseers of manners, correctors of vices, directors of lives, doctors of virtue, which yet taught their people the body of their natural divinity […] Their papers were so many tables, their writings so many speaking pictures, or living images; whereby the ruder multitude might, even by their sense, learn to know virtue, and discern what to detest […] And if pictures have been accounted the books of idiots, behold here the benefit of an image without the offence.

For Hall to emphasise the sophistication that came from written living images provides an interesting contrast with the pictures we have been looking at this week. But the tradition of character writing was more subversive and satirical than Hall’s ideal of an image without the offence suggests.

In the final section of this week’s workshop we’ll take some of the stereotypical countryfolk from Callan’s images, some of Hall’s richly moralised characters, and some of the people from a more comical version of the Theophrastian tradition: Thomas Overbury’s New Characters (1615). These character sketches include personality types but also occupational traits, such as early modern watermen (possibly the taxi drivers of the C17th). What picture of early modern society can we construct if we put all these people together? Can we find equivalent character types or job roles today? How would they work together in an adapted, modernized context? Look forward to exploring these issues with you all tomorrow.

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