Performing for the King

Performing for the King

(Banqueting House, Whitehall, until 1 September 2013)

In the reign of Charles I, Banqueting House hosted some of the most extravagant entertainments in English history: the court masques. Combining music, song, dance, poetry and cutting-edge special effects, these remarkable plays were performed by the King, the Queen and their courtiers and, despite the eye-watering expense, held only once. This summer Banqueting House has a special display focusing on the various elements of the masque, with a special emphasis on Tempe Restored, performed in 1632.

I’d heard about the show through Madame Guillotine‘s blog, where she described her experiences at the press night, and it sounded like immense fun. Following on from our visit to Vermeer and Music at the National Gallery, my friend and I popped down to Whitehall to find out more. Unfortunately, it turned out that reading about the press night had given me slightly false expectations, because for the everyday visitor the display is modest to say the least. Of course, it’s included in the £5 entrance ticket and I feel churlish complaining when it’s essentially free, but it’s the truth. (I’m aiming for ‘honest’ rather than ‘churlish’.) The ceiling by Rubens in the upper hall is worth the entrance fee alone; but if you’ve been to the Banqueting House before and have decided to come especially for the exhibition, you might feel a tiny bit underwhelmed. And, if you’ve come for the ceiling, then all the panels and boxes of the display will probably spoil the view.

On entering the room with that magnificent ceiling, you find a series of panels explaining aspects such as the writing, design, music, and so forth. There are also five or six boxes, on which you can press buttons to (very enjoyably) activate different kinds of mechanical scenery. These show you how the designers could counterfeit effects such as the sea, which was represented by four long wooden spirals one behind the other, each painted blue. These would be spun round to suggest the rising and falling of the waves while a painted ship jiggled around among them. Other boxes showed how, through a series of winches, cogs and pulleys, clouds could be made to descend. When they opened, they would reveal some allegorical personage: in this case, the Queen in her role as Divine Wisdom.

Scenery could be quickly changed by having the backdrop split between three panels, each forming one of the three faces of a triangular construction. To change the scene, you simply turned wheels to spin the panels until each showed the next backdrop in sequence. Beyond these mechanical delights were information panels focusing on dancing and costumes. The dancing panel has a built-in screen showing you the steps of some of the popular dances, so that you can try to follow them if you wish; while at the side of the hall there is a small selection of costumes and hats you can try on, if you’re so minded. (We were.)

Performing for the King

The exhibition panels and layout

We arrived, rather fortuitously, just in time to see a ‘rehearsal’ for a masque, in which Inigo Jones (with a rather stentorian voice) put his performers through their paces – this involved Queen Henrietta Maria, one of her ladies-in-waiting and Nicholas Lanier, all of whom were in masque dress. The costumes were wonderful. I was particularly impressed by Lanier, who was kitted out in a gloriously extravagant affair: a doublet with puffed sleeves; a long fur-trimmed kilt folded back from the front and pinned up; a classical-style skirt of strips of fabric beneath that; bare legs; and long sandals strapped up to the knee. And then there was his hat – a towering helmet with plumes all over it which, as he observed at one point during his dance with the lady-in-waiting, was in imminent danger of falling off. The music, all of which was live, was beautiful – and seeing a viola da gamba, flute, bass viol and theorbo all in action was rather wonderful, so shortly after having been looking at their painted counterparts at the National Gallery. The lady’s singing, though, was regrettably slightly less accomplished than you might have expected from a Stuart courtier.

I just couldn’t help feeling there had been a missed opportunity. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the quality of Tudor and Stuart exhibitions that have been on offer this last year, but the court masque is such a marvellous subject that I felt a great deal more could have been said, and shown. I wouldn’t have minded paying a little more. Admittedly, masques were ephemeral by their very nature, leaving little behind after their single performances except dazzling memories; but it might have been fun to see some examples of Inigo Jones’s original set or costume designs. (Perhaps Banqueting House’s insurance policy limits what can be displayed here, but since the insurance already has to cover an amazing ceiling by Rubens, you wouldn’t think a couple of additional drawings by Inigo Jones would be too much of a problem).

You have to be quite careful with your visiting time as well, if you want to catch some of the performers in action. We stumbled across the rehearsal quite by chance; and even that wasn’t quite what I had expected. It seemed rather ad-libbed rather than actually being a carefully-planned out performance and, although the leaflet and website had all implied that audience participation might be encouraged, there was nothing of the sort. I was a little disappointed: for once, I’d conquered my crippling self-consciousness and readied myself to agree to a sarabande, or whatever might be asked of me. Those who went to the press night certainly seem to have had a much more interactive and memorable experience than we regular visitors did. The leaflet which we were given on entrance suggested that we could have tweeted @Ask_Inigo in advance ‘to be cast as a character for today’s performance’, with the tags #Man, #Woman, #Boy or #Girl, but I honestly don’t know whether that’s just another little bit of interactivity which brings you a reply tweet with a suggested role, or whether it means that you would actually be brought up on stage. Has anyone tried that? And what happened, if so?

Perhaps the best way to look at this display is as a bonus. If you’re visiting the Banqueting House, you will be able to see it for free and to get a little taster of how magnificent it must have been to attend one of the Stuart masques. The key thing is not to be misled by the publicity, as I was, which leads you to expect something slightly more substantial. Despite being neither as dazzling nor as in-depth as I’d expected, it’s an amusing diversion for an hour or so and, with the interactive models, the costumes and the dancing steps to try out, it’d be a great thing to go to with children. If you can’t visit in person, there’s a lot of background information on the website, so you can get a pretty good idea of what the display is like. I just wish I’d got my act together in time to get a ticket for the one-night-only performance of Tempe Restored which took place in the hall on 27 July. That would have been quite something.

Find out more about Banqueting House

Performing for the King

A glimpse of one of the scale models of stage machinery

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