“The Medieval Players toured to my further education college in Nottingham in the late 1980s. My A-level group was stiff with hairspray and painted in new romantic makeup. Into our bleak college hall blasted, rocked, rolled, flipped and tumbled the Medieval Players. My memory is that it was a production of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but facts sometimes fade. What doesn’t fade is the impact that the evening had on, not only me, but all of us inner-city cool cats. It was so bloody funny, so bloody skilled, so gasp-makingly cheeky, energised, surprising and irresistible. This was not “clever” work, this was truly accessible work for, and of, the people. They were sexy – truly “fit” in the most unpretentious way and we shrieked at the best sex scene I have ever seen. I still dream of acrobatic sex involving push-ups, rolls and flips. I am smiling now, and know that it was partly their influence that made me wash off the makeup and hairspray and get down to the serious job of entertaining, communicating and celebrating with an audience.”
Emma Rice, former Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre and current Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe
The best performance I’ve ever seen:
The Taming of the Shrew, the Place, London, 1985
“In 1985 I saw Mark Heap play Kate in the Medieval Players’ production of The Taming of the Shrew. Heap later became famous as obsessive Dr Alan Statham in Green Wing. He has also been a TV comic and a juggling cabaret artist. Anyway, at that stage in his career he was the most charismatic actor I had ever seen. He had a way of focusing the attention of an audience through a mixture of awe, delight and fear which I have never seen since. I saw the show twice – at the Place theatre in London and in a Worcestershire garden – it worked well inside and outside. Before the show Mark appeared juggling two scythes (that looked as though they could cut your leg off) and an apple which he ate as he juggled. It was a cross-gender cast: some male characters were played by women and it was directed by Mark’s brother, Carl. The play was released from the oppression of its political incorrectness because it was clear that the character of Kate was a male invention. Mark’s Kate was funny and subversive about the male attitudes surrounding her story. The sparring with Mark Saban’s Petruchio was as fiery as you could hope for. There was a performed theatrical element to the shrew’s submission at the end that made it fascinating in a narrative way, without being demeaning to the character playing Kate. This was achieved through a combination of playfulness and originality which goes back to a Shakespearean tradition of outdoor performance.
I found it inspiring. It made me want to work in the theatre because it was a performance style that embraced and celebrated the presence of an audience. The work I had seen prior to that wanted topretend the audience was not there. Now all we have to wait for is for Mark Heap to give us his RSC Malvolio.”
Tom Morris The Observer, Sunday 28 March 2010
Formerly an associate director at the National Theatre, where his productions included War Horse and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Tom Morris is artistic director at Bristol Old Vic.
Founded in 1981 by Carl Heap and Dick McCaw, the Medieval Players became one of the leading small and middle scale touring companies of the following decade. It is likely that their very popularity with wide audiences rendered them suspect in the eyes of a ‘relevance’-favouring Arts Council, and they never progressed from intermittent project funding to more secure revenue funding. However, relentless regional touring, supported by some key regional arts councils, won them an almost cult following that meant that some later tours were entirely sold out in advance. Three highly successful three-month tours of Australia (‘85/’86/’88) and two collaborations with the Open University brought in valuable funding that bridged the gaps in Arts Council support.
The company defied the misguided (and still sadly prevalent) notion of the medieval performer as being some sort of rude mechanical, and took the touring commedia dell’ arte troupe as a kind of alternative model. Ironically, for a company drawing inspiration from the past, it is now seen as having been somewhat ahead of its time in the use of circus skills, masks and puppetry and an acting style that thrived on the acknowledgement of an unpatronised and lit audience.
As well as significant works of European early theatre in original dialect or commissioned translation, our larger cast work for middle scale included:
Piers the Plowman William Langland (adapted by CH with James Pettifer)
The Great Theatre of the World Pedro Calderon de la Barca (Commissioned translation by Adrian Mitchell)
The Taming of the Shrew Shakespeare (featuring Mark Heap as Kate)
Doctor Faustus Marlowe
Gargantua Francois Rabelais (adapted by CH and company)
Gammer Gurton’s Needle Tudor farce by ‘Mr S’
The Apple Tree* Dutch comic folk morality play
The Farce of Pierre Pathelin* French farce
The Shepherd’s Play* a.k.a. the Second Shepherds Play by The Wakefield Master
The Enchanted Bird’s Nest Jacob Grimmelshausen, adapted by Julian Hilton
Mankinde 15th C morality play
The Croxton Play of the Sacrament 15th C miracle play
The Pardoner and the Friar Tudor farce, John Heywood
Jhan Jhan the Husband Tudor Farce, John Heywood
Courage Jacob Grimmelshausen, adapted by Julian Hilton
The Marriage of Panurge Rabelais, adapted by Julian Hilton with CH
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale Geoffrey Chaucer, adapted by CH, the latter two with ‘adult’ puppetry.
(* Three commissioned translations by Edwin Morgan)
Reviews – a selection
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1981)
Brilliantly presented by an expert cast who skilfully defy the layout of the theatre to maintain the intimate player/audience contact… The theatre of involvement at its most powerful – and quite superbly interpreted.
The Scotsman 3/9/81
Gammer Gurton’s Needle (1982)
The admirable Medieval Players… Truly, my masters, one of the most delightful evening’s entertainments.
The Guardian 27/7/82
The Medieval Players shower an audience with an almost non-stop barrage of the most generous helpings of Rabelaisian ribaldry imaginable … I for one would walk 50 miles to see the smashing élan with which they perform the knockabout slapstick.
On this showing the Medieval Players must be one of the most exciting touring companies currently on the road.
Birmingham Post 18/5/83
Supremely good theatre and supremely well done. The Cast of 8 are entertainers in the true sense; they sing and dance and dive into the audience; they are puppeteers and tumblers and mimes and accomplished performers on all manner of medieval instruments.
Times Ed. Supp. 5/8/83
The Reeve’s Tale/ Peter Pathelin (1983)
Both plays are immensely enjoyable, presented with a natural humour that is transferred magically to the audience … I can’t think of anything more likely to please the whole range of generations than this.
Financial Times 16/11/83
This young company … is simply the best thing since sliced bread … To see a packed house almost rolling on the floor with mirth at Chaucer is a measure of this company’s achievement … some of the best value for money in modern show business … the most stunning display of juggling I have seen since I last saw the Medieval Players … If you miss them this time, don’t miss them next time.
Birmingham Post 18/11/83
The Great Theatre of the World (1984)
A blazing masterpiece performed with a light touch and all-round theatre skills in a virtuoso translation.
The Times 18/8/84
Their production of Calderon’s Great Theatre of the World, a seventeenth century sort-of-morality play, was sheer delight.
New Statesman 9/84
A spectacle that remains inspiring, intellectually challenging, and enormously entertaining.
The Scotsman 9/84
The Shepherds Play (1984/5)
There is a list – somewhere in John McGrath’s book of lectures A Good Night Out – of the characteristics he feels are essential to popular or working class theatre. They include music, variety and plenty of comedy, intellectual directness and emotional frankness, a greater dependence on practical performance skills and moment-by-moment effects than on the slowly-achieved dramatic climax; and it’s striking just how accurately this description fits the work of the Medieval Players.
The Guardian 6/11/84
Wholly successful in what they do … one of this year’s highlights.
National Times (Sydney) 4/4/85
Their excellence is based in a successful retranslation of the principles of medieval playing style into contemporary terms … Mankinde combines spirited comedy and moral message beautifully.
National Times (Melbourne) 8/3/85
Taming of the Shrew (1985/6)
The production by the Medieval Players has transmuted all the barbarities into a welter of laughter such as I have seldom encountered before. There is always the feeling, vital to good fast playing, that the actors are talking with the audience as much as one another …giving every sentence, indeed every clause, its full measure of understanding, is something you do not often meet .. worth making every effort to see.
Financial Times 10/10/85
Bawdy, boisterous and always cheerful, it is, quite simply, the funniest show in Perth since… well, since the Medieval Players’ last visit.
The West Australian 14/6/86
A brilliant night of carnival comedy …the best adaptation of Shakespeare’s early farce that I have ever seen … The nine-strong troupe did not approach their canvas with wispy strokes from a water-colour set, they attacked it with a loaded paint-roller.
Oxford Mail 14/8/85
The whole production works so well that the bard would have chortled himself silly over it. In fact, silliness, the innocent fun of the fools of God, characterises this extraordinary production… The company takes its time, takes the audience into its confidence, and very soon takes the cake for inspired tomfoolery in the service of great theatre.
Canberra Times 16/5/86
The approach is a bubbling success. Actors double, treble, quadruple characters with lightning changes of costume and mien; they sing, dance, and tumble boisterously, perilously close to the edge of their tiny stage; they manipulate the minimum of props effectively; they speak the words with a clarity that is the best form of respect to Shakespeare.
Hampstead and Highgate Express 19/7/85
The Medieval Players go one step further by having women play the male roles as well as men playing both Kate and Bianca. It is a brilliant move; for not only does it add an extra dimension to the role-reversal comedy; it also undercuts the sexism of the text. In this production no one is what he or she appears to be … It is popular theatre, full of mirth and merriment. I warmly recommend it.
Melbourne Age 29/5/86
The Enchanted Bird’s Nest (1986)
…lifts clear of theatrical archaeology and springs to dramatic life.
The Observer 26/1/86
…great liveliness and timeless humour … The Medieval Players are a brilliant company … the whole production is beautiful to look at and altogether a feast.
Oxford Times 15/8/86
The Marriage of Panurge (1986/7)
Making lively use of masks, mime, puppets and music they catch the flavour of good-natured vulgarity and fantastical grotesquerie that characterises Rabelais’ exuberant style … hugely comic without being offensively gross … utterly engaging gusto.
Glasgow Herald 29/10/86
… riotous assembly … might well have been the last of the season’s pantos … exquisitely entertaining.
Brentwood Gazette 13/1/87