By Danielle Farrow
The School of Night is an improvisation troupe and takes its name from a theorised group lead by Sir Walter Raleigh, sometimes also known as The School of Atheists. In the hands of these talented ‘Fraters’ (brothers of the order), the group is imbued with historical mysticism, channelling the great William Shakespeare to create new masterpieces on the spot.
The usual improvisation techniques are in full flow, skilfully managed, with five of the full troupe of seven appearing on this occasion. Audience ideas are gathered for use in the new play, through books collected, suggestions taken for type of Shakespeare play (comedy, tragedy, history, romance – the latter here) and other audience participation that is worked in along the way. Stops are called to point out methods, and classic Shakespearean devices, with amusing wit and some quick literary lessons that include an improvised sonnet where a pair of Fraters alternate lines until being forced to create the final rhyming couplet in exact unison.
The performers are very much at home with their material and if certain stock fallbacks are apparent for their Shakespearean characters, situations and phrasings, the Fraters’ humour and the audience’s good will takes these in stride and makes them part of the fun. Only further visits would illuminate just how much of the material is constant – in the manner of Commedia dell’ Arte ‘lazzi’, where set patterns can be repeated in many different situations and so in various plays – but certainly the play created, which included subterfuge, a banished queen with loyal servant among natives in a far flung exotic location (Africa) and a resolution with her previously tyrannical husband, after a musical interlude, provided great entertainment.
Individually, Frater Meggido as The Fey Prince actually kept to each specific task declared while also retaining meaning in his well-phrased words (something lost quite often in the doggerel of others); Frater Chance, the Neophyte, poured forth lyrical poetry which, for all its “bests”, mostly also kept sense; Frater Darcy, known as Gastromancer, told the story with clarity and a good deal of deadpan, well-timed dry and grounded humour; Word Serpent (Frater McCann) lead proceedings and background knowledge with a firm expositionary hand and swift tongue, and Frater Emery’s Troubadour shone in a Noel Coward section where modern playwrights were channelled to make the newly minted Shakespearean first act scenes perfectly clear – supposedly. The Fey Prince and Gastromancer also managed occasions of some depth of feeling in among all the entertaining silliness.
The School of Night provides a highly amusing entertainment that parodies Shakespeare’s work, gets the audience firmly on board with them and pops in some history, pseudo-history and literary instruction. The rougher edges are part of the charm – though a little more attention to meaning in among the comedy nonsense phrasing would have been even more impressive – and its imagined historicity and Shakespeare-channelling provides a decent and well-integrated conceit that focuses and heightens the troupe’s improvisations, lifting these brothers above many other such groups.