A new Enterlude called Thersites. This Enterlude following doth declare how that the greatest boasters are not the greatest doers.

Generally attributed to Nicholas Udall because it’s so close in style to all his other attributed plays, Thersites is a short interlude for a maximum of five actors (six if you cast someone separately as the snail). You can very reasonably double the play for four actors.

We ran a First Look Exploring Session in March 2020 on zoom (which was very entertaining and can be viewed here), and noted that it was an extremely fun play which featured a snail fight. Every home should have one. A little under a year later we were commissioned to do a reading for MeTh, Medieval English Theatre Conference online from the University of Lancaster. We thought we could go a step further and do a fuller digital performance. We didn’t cut the text, working around elements that worked less well online but not cutting them, and produced this video which was performed to our regular Beyond Shakespeare zoomers on 26th March 2021. A section of the play was performed at the conference the following day.

The Cast was…

Thersites – Alexandra Kataigida

Mulciber (i.e. Vulcan) and the Snail – Aliki Chapple

Mater (Mother) – Liza Graham

Miles (Soldier) – Simon Nader

Telemachus – Valentina Vinci

Rehearsal Management – Robert Crighton

The process of producing this version was somewhat chaotic, we had a month to pull together rehearsals around our normal full schedule of readings (nine two/three hour sessions a week!) and we were still all in lockdown for the plague. Within those limitations the cast created props, and settings, for the play, and explored ways to perform a very audience relationship heavy play without a responsive audience. As the next question is always, what shall we do next?, we’re looking at how this play can be worked for a live audience as part of some kind of double bill.

THE SNAIL: Text and Images by Aliki Chapple

The techniques I use for making performance masks, as well as drunkard’s noses, and once, for a degree show, a nowhere-near to scale model of our solar system to suspend from the lighting rig, would surely prove adequate, I thought, for a snail shell. My research consisted of Google image and rummaging for snail shells in the garden – it told me the crucial thing was the rate at which the coil of the shell widened as it grew outwards. There are people who could tell you what that ratio is, but your dilettante prop-maker is one of nature’s eye-ballers, and eye-ball it I did.

I made a long thin cone of all the plasticine in the house and coiled it on itself. It was a bit smaller than I had hoped, but the proportions were right. I would cover it with papier-mache, then remove the plasticine, and be left with a perfect, hollow shell. I thought I could perch it on my wrist perhaps, smartphone-style, and use my hand to play the mollusc. That idea lasted until partway through the first rehearsal, when I realised my hand was far too large to look right with that arrangement. Also, someone – who shall remain nameless unless you want the blame, Rob – said “Wouldn’t it be great if the snail emerged from the shell?”. Yes. Yes it would.

Plasticine, it turns out, is a material I underestimate my need for. I ordered more, and still could not get a solid spiral out of it. Instead, I built the wide end up in coils, to an almost trumpet-like opening, plenty wide enough to fit my hand through. At this stage, the plan was to cut an opening in the paper shell very near the trumpet mouth – once I’d removed it from the plasticine mold – and just put my hand in it, leaving the rest of the shell sitting hollow on my wrist. Unable to visualise this in detail, I decided it would help to cut off part of the bottommost coil just short of the mouth, put the mold cut side down on my work-surface, and build the shell without a bottom. Apart from anything else, it would make it easier to take the paper off the plasticine.

Cheerfully, I started layering glue and paper, and, when it was all dry, reinforced the opening with epoxy dough, the secret weapon in my prop-makers arsenal, light, easily smoothed and sanded, takes paint far better than glue-soaked newspaper. It was only when all this had dried hard that the obvious occurred to me. The mouth of the shell, though far too wide for the body, was not wide enough for more than my wrist, limiting the expressiveness of my moving hand-snail. It also looked wrong. The opening of a real snail’s shell faces the ground – mine, the sky.

I’m embarrassed it took me so long to work out, but I got there eventually. Using the failed shell as a mold, I filled out the rest of a larger spiral with tinfoil, plastic bags, scrunched-up newspaper, and the original plasticinere-used, and got the approximate size and shape of the finished object. I covered that in plastic wrap to make it easier to unmold, and set to with the glue and paper again. I get very into my materials so I will reveal that I used, in alternate layers, copies of The Stage and leftover construction paper from a storytelling workshop I used to do with kids. I had ten layers down and dry over a weekend, and then it was time for the epoxy. This stage, the actual making of the snail shell, took less than a week. The working out of the shape, that took nearly three weeks of trial and error – mostly error.

I had deliberately made the snail more three-dimensional on one side than the other, and as the paper was drying, it occurred to me that opening a hole the flat side was the only way to get my arm in up to the elbow. I used a glass to draw a circle, cut it out with a razor, and then opened it further still after rehearsal reminded me my sleeve ans sock-puppet snail both had bulk the hole needed to accommodate. On the other side, I used the epoxy dough to even out the shape and fullness of the spiral. It’s sticky when fresh, and you sort of glob it on, but in a couple of hours it’s easier to work with and I smoothed and carved it with my fingers, a few drops of water, a teaspoon, and some toothpicks, and left it to dry. By now it looked pretty good, and was enormous fun to tinker with, but I dreaded the painting.

Molding things out of plasticine, or the half-sculptural tinkering with papier-mâché that I so enjoy are imprecise arts. You accumulate some general skills along the way, but really you learn how to make any particular object by actually making it. In this it’s a bit like rehearsing, you get it wrong and wrong, and wrong again, until you find out what right might look like by building on top of all your errors. Painting, never my form, is not like that. Visual art is precise, and acrylic paint allows little in the way of correction. Snails tend to have two patterns. The subtle striping of having beeen built outwards, layer by layer like the rings of a tree is common to all snail shells. Many snails also have spiralling stripes of varying widths and spacing. I was reasonably certain I could imitate the former, but very nervous about the latter, which I thought would require a steadier hand and more precision than I have ever managed to bring to any task.

I tried the subtler texture first, by mixing paint badly, so that streaks of chocolate brown and buttermilk swirled onto the brush and this onto the shell. When that was dry, I attempted a spiral. It looked awful. The line was too thick and too thin, wobbled frequently, and entirely ruined the shell effect – the opposite of what I was trying to achieve. Fortunately acrylic paint is pretty opaque. I painted over it, and recreated the layered effect, which, while not filly as snails as I liked (most snails have at least one pigmented spiral on their shells) at least did not look like it had been drawn on by a two-year-old. The final step was a layer of matte varnish, and here we are.

The snail in action from the show… Alexandra top left, Aliki top right, Simon bottom.

MOTHER’S HOUSE: Photos by Liza Graham.

Email sent from Liza Graham on 14th March at 13.58pm

“Re Thersites: I was thinking of possibly making myself a backdrop of some sort, indicating Mater’s home/hut/hovel/cottage… what would you think of that? Appropriate, or Too Much?”
Robert said go for it. This is what happened next…