Cover image by Nigel Frith for the programme of ‘Commedia’.

Nigel Frith’s plays reflect his immersion in Medieval and Renaissance verse forms and traditions. The following is his own introduction and explanatory notes for five of his plays that were written and performed in the 1980s and 1990s. More material specifically relating to Nigel Frith’s play ‘Commedia’ can be found here.


Three Verse-Plays

Performed in Oxford 1987, 1989 and 1994 and a Musical Performed in Tokyo 1995 and on tour in Japan 1997

Commedia, Magic, The Angel and Hamlet, The Musical

Note on the Style of the Subject Matter of the Three Verse-Plays

The style of Commedia and Magic is that of the Renaissance West, that of The Angel of the Medieval Japanese East. The Renaissance West style is basically grand, exalted and heroic, tackling subjects, often historical, involving a whole community, but relieved by passages of the humdrum or comically prosaic; that of the East is basically prosaic but contemplates a historical setting and gives way to lyrical suggestiveness, bewitchment and rhapsody.

In the Renaissance West type of play, a typical character is a young lover, there are nearly always two sets of lovers in the comedies and often the rest of the family – nurses, mothers, crabby fathers, family servants – join in their love-plot (in comedy they are bourgeois, in tragedy noble) – then there are warriors or adventurers, queens or enchantresses and an older monarch or duke or abbess, who will weigh in to establish a sense of hierarchy.

In the East a typical character is a gentleman scholar or a monk, or else a traveller, similar to a Victorian using his Baedeker in Italy, and they will often set the play going by asking a villager about the background to a certain monument or grave. The fantasy element will then be introduced, until gradually the lyric form takes over from the prosaic. The typical character of the latter section will be a spirit, such as a ghost, a god, or an angel.

Commedia, being a comedy, has two sets of lovers, who act in a noble and love-struck fashion, and then has the series of grotesques for which the form of commedia dell’arte is famous: the old lecherous and avaricious merchant, the fat, otiose and scholarly doctor, the zany servant, the bombastic but cowardly captain. A comic Napoleon enters at the end, as the glorious era of the Venetian Republic draws to a close.

Performance photograph of ‘Commedia’ featuring Nigel Frith as Arlecchino (left) and Robert Booth as Capitano (right).
Dress photo of some of the cast of ‘Commedia’ in front of the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, with (from left): Colin Burnie as Pulcinella, Katy Buswell as ‘Flaminia’, Nigel Frith as Arlecchino, Alexandra Cichon as Columbina, Lindsay Sandison as Isabella, Robert Booth as Capitano.

Magic, being a historical tragedy, with comic relief, features lovers, princes, shahs, magicians, a comic fisherman and the Caliph of Baghdad – prior to the foundation of the city. It tells of the moment when the ancient civilisation of Persia, which for nearly a thousand years had dominated the Middle East, succumbs to the Moslem invaders and embraces Islam.

The Noh Play, The Angel, has an ordinary husband and wife whose sick child is in Oxford’s Radcliffe Hospital, a chorus, and for the fantasy element in the setting of the Botanic Garden and the entry of a mysterious she-gardener, who in true Noh Play fashion, is later revealed to be a troubled spirit, in this case the Angel of the title. As is the Eastern fashion, it celebrates the historical fame of a site, here that of the Rose Garden built to commemorate the scientists who, during the Second World War, developed the production of Penicillin, and the use of antibiotics.

Nigel Frith “pounting” produced for the Noh Play ‘The Angel’.

Note on the Style of the Verse

In the West, during the Middle Ages, the convention evolved of writing what in English is called iambic pentameter and in Italian endecasillabo, which is basically that of five disyllabic feet, most of which are iambic (the underlying pattern of stresses in English being x / x / x / x / x /). It was influenced by the earlier Provencal troubadour poets, who used it now and then, and the French epic poet of Chanson de Roland who used it passim. But it was established in its highest form in the sonnets of Petrarch, the narrative of the Divina Commedia of Dante, and Chaucer’s greatest work, his love novel, Troilus and Criseyde.

By the time of the English Renaissance therefore, this metre was so well founded, that, when the Classical fashion for writing comedies and tragedies was revived, it seemed natural to use it for the dialogue, particularly because it so nearly followed the Classical example. In Classical tragedy the metre for dialogue – as opposed to the choruses and odes – is what in English would be called iambic hexameter. With the verse form of iambic pentameter already so well established, it seemed appropriate to appropriate it, being more or less the same, but one foot shorter. Relief from the stateliness of this verse was provided by scenes of a less heightened nature using prose.

In Commedia and in Magic prose is used for passages of comedy – in Shakespearean fashion – but the serious parts are conveyed not in iambic pentameter but iambic hexameter.

In Japanese Noh Plays, prose is used in humdrum passages of introduction and transition, but when the lyrical mood is evoked, the speeches are in verse. The poetic passages have the basic form of the Japanese tanka, which is to say lyrics of 31 syllables, divided into the stanza form of 5,7,5,7,7.

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Note on the Style of the Staging, Scenery and Movement

The Noh Play, The Angel, was performed in a private venue and had no scenery but an arrangement of space similar to that of the Japanese. The Japanese Noh Play stage has no scenery apart from the painting of an old pine tree on a back wall, the rest of the stage being functional to the conventions of what in theatre parlance is called “blocking”. The blocking of a Noh Play involves seating a chorus of twelve in two banks stage left, an orchestra of two or three drummers and a flautist upstage in front of the pine tree painting, the main square of the stage used centrally for movement to and fro imaginary location and for dancing, and a long walkway stage right proceeding from a far-off multicoloured curtain to backstage. This blocking was reproduced in the stage and audience grouping for the performance in the United Reformed Church Hall, Summertown, Oxford.

Noh Play costumes are expressive beyond words, and range from the most gorgeous brocades to the plainest homespun, as befits the character, and the more striking characters wear slightly-less-than-life-size and highly characterful masks. Attempts at all this were made for the performance, and the movement-training was conducted by the main actress, Emma, who had studied under a Noh master in Tokyo. The casting was such as would be found in a Noh Play, with certain neutral characters played straight, a chorus of two rather than twelve, also two young boys, and a star part who appeared in two manifestations with two different masks, as is the convention.

Magic was performed in the Oxford Union Debating Hall, and a style of staging was invented to suit the subject matter, derived from Persian miniatures. Two black-dressed characters, in the manner of the Japanese Kabuki stage-hands, moved the scenery and manipulated cut-outs, as for example when cut-out horses capered across the desert in I i. The stage-hands also revolved the periaktoi, on whose three sides were painted in Persian style a palace setting, a garden and a jungle. The main set was a massive backcloth in the shape of a pyramid, depicting an Islamic dome and palace, with a sky of stars and moon. Parts of the sky, the stars and moon were not just painted on the backcloth but were sewn into it as gel cut-outs, so that in transformation scenes the lighting could fade on the front and be replaced with back lighting which would highlight the shapes and colours of the gels, as the stars and the moon came out. The scenic effects were timed to accompany the music, all taken from Respighi’s orchestral works.

Photomontage of a performance of ‘Magic’. Click for larger image.

Commedia was performed as a gala production in the Oxford Playhouse, and used a form of scenery based on the Baroque style of proscenium, backdrop and wings. In place of the normal single proscenium arch, however, it had two, one inside the other, which gave a total of three increasing stage areas. The scenes could thus be played before a front-cloth of russet velvet and a proscenium painted in russet and gold with commedia masks, this could then be raised for a scene to be played on a deeper stage before a proscenium painted in black and white, and an oyster cloth, and finally this curtain could be raised to reveal the full depth of a Baroque stage with wings and backcloth for the three main acts. These acts comprised the cemetery of San Michele Island with a very distant view of the Venetian campanile, a canal and backstreet in Venice, with a closer view of a larger campanile, and the Piazza of San Marco with the domed basilica as a large cut out.

Photomontage of a performance of ‘Commedia’. Click for larger image.

The company began every rehearsal with training in commedia dell’arte movement, which was taught by Suzy, who had trained for a year in Italy with a professional commedia troupe. It is held that the basic classical ballet positions are derived from commedia movement, and it is probable that both styles themselves came from Medieval dance movements and court etiquette. And, as with the difference in Renaissance drama between the exalted form of dialogue in verse and the more comic or homespun dialogue in prose, so the movement of the commedia characters reflects this distinction.

The lovers have noble movements, the first actor and first actress crossing the stage in larger, more expert steps than the second actor and second actress who play the younger lovers, and need more steps to cross, while also making more eager, bouncy movements. The comedy characters are the range of grotesques, and each one has an elaborate training to produce the right effect, Pulcinella, for instance, being butch and brawny on his upper torso, while showing in his legs the chicken walk, which is probably derived from the movements made a thousand years before the Renaissance by the chicken-man character in Roman farces, Pullus Gallienus, from whose name Pulcinella probably derives.

[N.B. The programme for ‘Commedia’ can be viewed here and a flyer for ‘Magic’ can be viewed here. The artwork for both was produced by Nigel Frith.]

Notes on Hamlet, the Musical

Cover of the programme for ‘Hamlet, The Musical’.

Hamlet, the Musical was derived as a vehicle for the chantreuse and actress, Rei Asami, who was famous in her youth as a male impersonator in Tokyo’s all-girl theatre troupe, had become a singing star of Japanese stage, media and recording, had then, under the direction of Giles Block, made a name as a classical actress, especially as Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard and as Lady Macbeth, and to satisfy her fans, she just had to take the stage as Hamlet and make it a male-impersonating singing part to boot. The Shochiku Company, who run the main Kabuki Theatre in Tokyo and mount many stage and television shows, was the producer, and Giles Block and Nigel Frith collaborated on the book, adapting Shakespeare by cutting the text by about a half. Frith then matched the shape of the drama with a series of songs and song-snatches, for Asami-san alone, with music written by Dominic Muldowney. The stage set was by Johan Engel, Giles Block directed it and it used all the conventions and strengths of modern theatre production.

Since the production demanded a blending of the styles of the classical play and the musical, the lyrics were written into the text, so that a complete song would follow the main structure of the play, and snatches of those songs could appear mixed in with the dialogue to increase its effect. The first song, which begins “The thunder speaks for some” takes up the concluding energy of the court exit, and makes the transition to a brooding song of suicide, “Death the delectable”. To contrast with this, after the visit of the Ghost, there comes a strong song of vengeance, “Hamlet, revenge!” and fragments of this appear as a kind of leitmotif as the drama is unfolding, as for instance, after Claudius has fled in horror at the revelation of the Play Scene, Hamlet can sing it in triumph to Horatio.

Sequence of music in ‘Hamlet, The Musical’ from the programme.

Since the play lightens up in Act Two, and to catch the fun of the Players arriving in Elsinore, Hamlet has a Patter Song, which begins as Hamlet is reacting angrily to Polonius, “Old men are all pedantically, frantically maddening!”, continues as a song with the Players, and, along with the Revenge Theme, breaks out when Hamlet gets over-excited, watching the passage he has written into the play. The First Part ends with a big number about the sea, “At the turn of the tide”, as Hamlet sets off to England, mounting the prow of the ship as it sails into the distance. He also has a plangent, compassionate song to his mother, “Cruel to be Kind”, a jauntily melancholy, whimsical number, sung to the skull of old Yorrick, and a sad song to end, as with a production number finale, Hamlet sails off with the Ghost, his father, to eternity.

“The rest is silence.

The ghost is laid.

There’s no more anguish this side of the grave.

O good Horatio,

You remain,

Speak well of me, my plain friend,

To the Dane.”