Theatre company The Owle Schreame describes themselves on the Vault Festival’s website as, “dedicated to the research, exploration and evolution of historical theatre practice” and they strive to bring a rough, visceral, interactive experience of 17th century theatre to modern audiences. On the same webpage, Droll is advertised as populist theatre for the working man, loud, gross, up-close and personal, cutting away the elitism and intellectualism that surrounds early modern and Shakespeare studies today. The Owle Schreame thus presents this tantalizing paradox of sophisticated research performed as stupid, bawdy material, and handles it with carefully constructed sloppiness, refined nasty humour, and goofy intellectualism.
A droll, we are told as we are brought into the in-the-round space, is a short, illegal performance put on by amateur actors in the 17th century when theatre had been outlawed in England. The drolls were amalgamations of Shakespeare and medieval archetypal stories, composed by folks who were writing Shakespeare’s plays from memory. These plays were like a knock-off DVD of the original content – horribly lost in translation, delivered in secret, and with the reputable, artistic content replaced by sex, violence, and gross-out humour. But it was all people had, and the people certainly embraced it. And we’re encouraged to embrace it, too, as we’re given a plastic cup filled with whiskey, told to take a shot, and shout, ‘Droll!”
What follows is three performances of drolls, each feeling more and more like abandoned plots from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and misremembered quotes from Shakespeare and Marlowe. A cocky Jack Swabber gets his comeuppance when the barber gives him a make-over of smeared shit and the word ‘twat’ written on his forehead; a fat shepherd is taught to woo a loose woman (played like a white-trash hillbilly); and a woman who has multiple lovers is caught at her game. Each droll is followed by a folk song, in which we’re told the lesson we’re supposed to learn, and a brief off-the-dome talk from the actors as they do quick costume changes, about the history of drolls. The plots are overly convoluted, filled with classic devices of mistaken identity and situational humour turned up to 11. But it’s not really the plots that we’re here for: it’s the experience as a whole.
And the experience is all about the mistakes. An actor greeted her friend as we queued for entry into the venue and confessed, “So, we’ve lost my costume.” Lines are stepped on and forgotten. The fat shepherd “makes a meal of his lines, too,” one of the actors quips after a particularly garbled line-delivery. An apple juice box used to create the illusion of urination sticks out a little too far from the actor’s skirt, so she pauses, sighs, rolls her eyes, and keeps going. Litres of milk that are wildly poured onto a poor actor’s face splatter and flood the bucket strategically placed underneath, but also spatter the audience’s benches and faces. The staging of two ruffians having a very bizarre threesome with a woman comes off as just plain… weird, so an actor comments on it. “This is your vision!” the other actors retort. “This is what you wanted!” The third droll must be performed at double speed in order to finish on time, or else the Vault ushers will give us all the boot so the next show can come in. “This is why they only gave us two nights!” one actor says, laughing and shaking his head. And yet, no illusions are shattered. If anything, these mistakes are the performance. After all, as the actors explain to us, these pieces were done by amateur actors in back alleys, pubs – they’re supposed to be shit.
But it’s good shit, something organic and wild that we’re tickled to be a part of. And ironically, it requires a bit of intellect and willingness to see double to enjoy. While audience members had no problems being smeared with face-paint, or raising up their legs to act as a trunk-lid, we also had to listen hard in order to follow the metre and language, particularly as it was delivered in naturalistic patter in the echoing chambers of the Vaults. The humour in part comes from being familiar with early modern performances (and Irish folk songs). We’re meant to be the populist audience of the 17th century, but we have to process the history, the historical performance practice, and get over our own contemporary habits as a silent audience in order to join in.
Droll is on at the Vault festival until 19th February 2017. Click here for more details.