A rarely-performed play which was first staged in London after an 18-month plague 400 years ago has been brought back to the stage by Glenalmond College.
Glenalmond is one of very few schools in the UK to stage a play in the midst of restrictions and allow pupils to experience fully a performance while adhering to COVID-safe measures.
The show - which will not be seen by a live audience - is Epicene, the 1609 Renaissance comedy by Ben Jonson, which caught the eye of Glenalmond’s Director of Theatre, Liz Moss.
The play was originally performed after a long period when London theatres were closed due to the plague, so the timing of its Glenalmond revival chimes keenly with the present day.
Online auditions for the play started during remote learning in June 2020, when pupils from all year groups were assessed for the parts via Google Meet interviews with Mrs Moss, from Scotland to Italy to Thailand.
The pupils’ enthusiasm to take part in a play when they returned to school after the summer spurred Mrs Moss’s determination to make it work, and so during the summer holidays she began the meticulous task of adapting the play to ensure it could be performed to meet COVID safety requirements.
“We also wanted to adapt the play to make sure the production was really pacey and fun and absolutely relevant,” said Mrs Moss.
“We’ve created a surreal world, blending a Renaissance aesthetic with a 1980s New Romantic look and sound. Both genres, though centuries apart, explored androgyny, so it seems to work! The electropop music and graphic neon makeup put a fun spin on the Jacobean text.
“The script, acting and backstage ways of working have all been adapted to meet social distancing constraints such as strict limits on the number of performers on the stage at any one time and to ensure our COVID-safe year group bubbles were kept physically distanced at all times.”
There were a great many factors to consider to ensure we are fully compliant, she said. “We’ve had to respond and adapt but we have managed it. We’ve even inverted the classic Commedia half-mask, to create face coverings for the actors to use during the performance.”
One key aspect of the play which Mrs Moss is also very enthusiastic about is the way it embraces the subject of gender performance. This production of Epicene has girls and boys playing both male and female roles, challenging the audience to think about gender and how society expects men and women to behave.
“It also raises questions about how society reacts when people confound those expectations - this is an aspect of the play which the pupils have really taken on board and which feels incredibly relevant and modern,” said Mrs Moss.
“The pupils have really embraced this aspect of the play and it has generated considerable discussion and input from them. The cast contributing their own ideas has made the whole process of adapting the play very collaborative, exciting and enjoyable.”
The plot of Epicene centres on Sir Dauphine (played by Henry R, Upper Sixth), a young aristocrat who is threatened whose uncle Morose (Matthew B, Upper Sixth) is threatening to disinherit him, by marrying. Dauphine hatches a plot to prevent this, by planting a stooge as Morose’s bride Epicene (Zac G, Fourth Form), who comes across as a demure young woman. In reality, she is anything but.
The play also sees excellent performances from Arthur R (who plays Truewit), Scarlett M (Ned Clerimont), Niall D (Ted Monteclaire), Freyha K (Mistress of Revels), Giulia R (Sir Gianni Taccola), Jake C (Sir Amorous La Foole), Kyla G (Mistress Otter) and Samuel H (Tom Otter).
Glenalmond’s Artist in Residence, Christopher Moss, has produced a stunning set for the play, working late into the night and through the weekends to recreate a London street of the period meticulously.
“The attention to detail in the set design is exceptional,” said Mrs Moss. “We were aware that a live audience would never be able to see the set, but we were determined the pupils would not miss out on any aspect of their play experience.
“As a result we have the most amazing set for the play which has given all the pupils involved a huge lift, along with the costumes and props our staff and pupils have been working hard on, and the make-up looks created by our Art department.”
The play, which really is a whole-school effort, features adaptations of ‘80s music produced by the school’s Director of Music Tim Ridley and recorded by school musicians, both staff and students.
“We are very aware that not many schools are set up the way Glenalmond is, and how very fortunate we are to be able to put on this play. We are in a unique position to be able to do something like this, with our own theatre, staff living on site and a very tight-knit community of people willing to go the extra mile,” said Mrs Moss.
“The whole experience of pulling Epicene together and finding ways to overcome all the hurdles placed in our way since the auditions in May, is a reflection of what is so special about Glenalmond. We feel we are doing this for everyone who is missing making theatre right now.
“The arts have a hugely important role to play in connecting people and helping them cope with whatever life throws at them, and we are thrilled we have been able to give the pupils a stage experience they will never forget at this incredibly challenging time for everyone.”
Epicene will be premiered in film form via Glenalmond's social media channels on January 23rd at 7pm.