Two Roman Comedies

Written by Titus Maccius Plautus (adapted by David Penrose)

Fishbourne Roman Palace: Tues 1st - Sat 5th July 1980

Havant Arts Centre: Weds 9th - Sat 12th July 1980

Adapted & Directed by David Penrose

The first time in 2,000 years that Roman plays have been performed in a Roman palace in Britain.

"Since Plautus is dead,
Comedy mourns,
Deserted is the stage;
then Laughter, Jest and Wit,
And Melody's countless numbers all together wept."
Epitaph - Titus Maccius Plautus.

AuthorTitus Maccius Plautus

Titus Maccius Plautus (c254 BC - 154 BC)

There can be few greater barriers between us and our understanding of a historical figure than the fact that he lived and died the best part of 200 years before the birth of Christ. Titus Maccius Plautus was born in about 254 B.C. and died in 154 B.C.

History records little about him; even his name is misleading - Plautus is no more than a nickname meaning flat-foot - at least we know that much. Likewise Maccius is no name by birth; it refers to a well-loved clown character from the crude village farces, that Plautus most probably played in as a young man, when he first worked as an actor. Even our popular knowledge of Roman history tells us little about him. Shakespeare and the BBC's 'I, Claudius' have given us some familiarity with Imperial Rome from Julius Caesar's death through the reigns of his successors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero (who died only a few years before work began on the Palace at Fishbourne). But Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., over a hundred years after Plautus' death.

Plautus' dates span the great years of Roman expansion. The Rome he knew was an aggressive city state, already with all Italy under its rule. To the east it was fast conquering all that had once represented the civilisation of Ancient Greece. There Rome found the inspiration for its own organised theatre. By the third century B.C. Greek drama, established in its great classical period, two centuries earlier in Athens, was already in decadent decline. The tradition begun in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides has been superseded by the comic tradition of Aristophanes. Although his satires had complimented the tragedies in their artistic purpose, they nevertheless centred themselves on the real concerns of a complex urban community, introducing recognisable human types to the stage in place of idealised mythological heroes and heroines. By that token, the popularity of a drama characterised by the foibles of its own audience was assured.

Over the ensuing centuries a battery of stock characters was evolved, worked by the playwrights into a tightly proscribed series of situations. It was these plots that the Romans brought back with them to Italy. There they mixed with an already visual crude and exuberant domestic farce performed in the villages of the Roman countryside. It was in there rural farces that Plautus first gained his theatrical experience.

His craft was as an adaptor of these ready-made situations and as a manipulator of these stock characters: the foolish old man; the callow, youthful lover; the artful slave; and the self-centred sponger; all these were created for him elsewhere. But his genius lay in the way he was able to develop new situations for them; to work into their broad characterisations an independence of character which constantly varies them, and to devise a language for them which was sharp-edged, raw and above all, contemporary. His subject matter is universal; the constant lubrication of a prosperous, confident society in its domestic affairs by the lure of sex and money.

All this accumulates to give Plautus' comedies the unique gift of timelessness. In both the plays performed here (two out of the dozen or so in existence) we can recognise these men and women as ourselves at our most base; their fundamental drives are ours. Only the extreme simplicity of their world, as opposed to the complexity of our real world, allows us to feel superior to them. Above all, both plays show how effortlessly Plautus could create a plot together.

AdaptationDavid Penrose

David Penrose (b 1950)

David Penrose is an amateur actor, designer, director and writer with Bench Theatre, where he has been a member since 1976.

David penned his first writing, revue sketches, at Leeds University when he was an under-graduate. Apart from these, most of his writing has been adaptations for the stage of extant work. In 1980 he adapted 'The Brothers' and 'The Merchant', originally written by Plautus, both of which were staged by Bench Theatre in the open air at Fishbourne Roman Palace. He has adapted Martin Chuzzlewit (also performed by The Bench), compiled the 1981 musical revue 'The Only Way to Cross' and (together with Dik Bird) adapted the Bench production of 'A Frankenstein' which was taken to the Edinburgh Fridge Festival in 1982.

David's creative flair has been employed many times with Bench Theatre where he has been responsible for countless poster and set designs and he has occupied committee roles on many occasions - notably as Chair for five years - during his membership. As an actor, David's first Bench role was as Orlando in Ingrid Corrigan's production of 'As You Like It' in 1977. He appears regularly in Bench plays and reviews of his performances are consistently outstanding. He has won numerous acting awards including The News 'Guide' Awards and an All-England Theatre Festival Award. His directorial debut with Bench Theatre was 'The Philanthropist' in 1978. David was instrumental in the formation of the annual Havant Literary Festival in 2008 and continues to work with its organisation. He is also part of 'The News' theatre review team and his reviews of local productions appear regularly in print. David is currently Bench Archivist and lives in Havant with his wife Jacquie.

PlayThe Merchant

Plautus spins a simple rivalry between a father and a son over the same woman into a glorious web of confusion. 'The Merchant' is a translation and adaptation of the original play, 'Mercator'.

A young man Charinus has fallen in love with Pasicompsa while on a business trip for his father, and he brings her back to Athens. Charinus' father Demipho shows up at the boat while it's still in the harbour with Pasicompsa on board, and Charinus is away. To explain the girl's presence, Acanthio, a slave of Charinus, makes up a story that Charinus bought her to be a slave for his mother. Demipho falls for the girl as well and hatches a plot to get her for himself. He comes across his son and argues that he needs to sell the girl. Charinus has his friend Eutychus bid on the girl, however Demipho has his friend Lysimachus, the father of Eutychus, get the girl first. Upon hearing the news of Eutychus' failure, Charinus is distraught and considers leaving the country for good. Meanwhile, Lysimachus takes Pasicompsa home with him temporarily until Demipho can arrange a better place for her to stay. Lysimachus' wife discovers the girl, and thinking Lysimachus is cheating on her, confronts her husband. Soon Eutychus discovers that Pasicompsa is at his house and brings Charinus. When Demipho discovers his son is in love with the girl, he gives up his attempt to obtain her for himself and Charinus gets her in the end.

PlayThe Brothers

Plautus works up the mistaken identity format into a classic farce which in turn was to inspire Shakespeare to write 'A Comedy of Errors'. 'The Brothers' is a translation and adaptation from the original play 'Menaechmi' (sometimes known as 'The Brothers Menaechmus').

Moschus had twin sons, Menaechmus and Sosicles. He took one of his twins, Menaechmus, with him on a business trip when he was only seven. They were separated and Menaechmus was adopted by a businessman who lived in Epidamnus. His original father died of grief, and his twin brother was renamed Menaechmus after his long-lost brother. After years of searching, "Menaechmus" Sosicles is ready to give up hope and return home and makes one last stop at Epidamnus. The play contains many cases of mistaken identity, which is driven by the two characters never meeting for a large portion of the play. The mistaken identity causes Sosicles to view the people of Epidamnus as being rude and crazy and Menaechmus to get into a lot of trouble with both his wife and his friend Peniculus. The end of the play is when Menaechmus and Sosicles finally meet and are confronted that they are twins. Sosicles's slave Messenio is the hero as he sorts out that they are twins and Menaechmus is the missing brother that they had been searching for. Messenio is granted his freedom at the end of the play.

The Bench Production

Two Roman Comedies poster image

These plays were first staged for five performances, in the open air, at the historic site of Fishbourne Roman Palace. They were later staged for a further four performances at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.

Characters - The Merchant

DemiphoDavid Penrose
LysimachusRay Osborne
CharinusDik Bird
AcanthioKeith Woodason
LycissaEllie Constad
DorippaJill Sawyer
PasicompsaJill Pothecary
CylindrusLezley Picton
EutychusChris Shaw
SyraJanet Simpson
PeristrataRuth Prior
ServantJim Charlton
ScullionDavid Brown
ScullionDiane Lloyd

Characters - The Brothers

Old FatherDavid Penrose
PeniculusRay Osborne
DoctorDik Bird
SosiclesKeith Woodason
MaidEllie Constad
ErotiumJill Sawyer
WifeJill Pothecary
CylindrusLezley Picton
MenaechmusChris Shaw
MessinioJim Charlton
PrologueDavid Brown
CuddlesDiane Lloyd
WomanJanet Simpson
WomanRuth Prior


Director David Penrose
Stage Manager Jacquie Penrose
Assistant Stage Managers Rod James
Amanda Payne
Janice Clausen
Lighting Terry Cattermole
Electrician Tony Terribile
Costumes Lynda James
Janice Lloyd
Set John Wright
Peter Bain

Programme Notes

Ray Osborne

Ray is a founder member of the Bench and last year he took part in the 10th Anniversary production of 'The Love of Four Colonels' by Peter Ustinov, which has also been the Bench's first production in 1969. He claims an interest in the occult and hopes one day to be an actor.

David Penrose

Since 1976, David has been involved in many plays with the Bench, including 'A Day in the Death of Joe Egg', 'The Philanthropist', 'Private Lives' and 'Waiting for Godot', in which he played Estragon. He was partly responsible for planning and organising the trip to the Edinburgh Festival. In his spare time he also directs plays at Havant College, such as 'Marat-Sade' by Peter Weiss, and 'The Real Inspector Hound'. He does not yet speak Latin fluently.

Dik Bird

A new member of the Bench, but he has done a number of productions at Havant College, where he is still a student, notably playing Michael in 'The Golden Pathway Annual'. He gets violent if called Dickie.

Keith Woodason

This is Keith's 3rd production for the Bench. He played an extraordinary number of parts in 'Twelfth Night' last year and was also in Shaw's 'Pygmalion'. He is showing recent signs of temperament as a result of giving up smoking.

Ellie Constad

Ellie runs a Honda 50 (low mileage, taxed) and played Clara in 'Pygmalion'. This is her second production for the Bench. If she sells the Honda, it may be her last.

Jill Sawyer

Jill is reasonably sure that it was 1974 when she joined the Bench. Last year, she ran the risk of typecasting when she played several tarty ladies in a row; in 'The Love of Four Colonels', in 'The Birthday Party' and now in the present production. But she has also played puck in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' Viola in 'Twelfth Night', as well as directing. She does have a phone number.

Jill Pothecary

Jill is another new Bench member, but a relatively old Havant College one. She was in 'The Golden Pathway Annual' and her immediate and modest ambition is a holiday to France.

Lezley Picton

This is Lezley's first Bench production but she has achieved some notoriety doing bass guitar for Rox and Rawdeal. She played in the band for The Golden Pathway Annual'. She has been known to sing real music too.

Chris Shaw

Actor, writer and director extraordinaire. His involvement with the Bench also includes photography and the designing of posters. He gave a memorable performance as Don in 'The Philanthropist' by Christopher Hampton.

Janet Simpson

Janet says she is a struggling actress and budding grandmother, or vice-versa. She has been a fully active member of the Bench; recently she played Meg in 'The Birthday Party'.

Ruth Prior

Despite appearances, Ruth has only acted in two Bench productions, 'The love of Four Colonels' and 'Pygmalion'. She is also renowned for her excellent coffee.

Jim Charlton

Jim played Stan in 'The Birthday Party' and has made himself indispensable as a stage manager. He has no interesting hobbies and refused to invent any.

David Brown

David has moved from Havant College productions to Bench ones. He makes a great scene-changer but he played Feste in 'Twelfth Night'. In his earlier college days he played the Marquis de Sade in 'Marat-Sade'.

Diane Lloyd

A new Bench member who joined to do props for 'Pygmalion'. She is not the least bit ashamed of being new, nor of her passion for gardening.

Jacquie Penrose

Jacquie joined the Bench in 1976. She acted with a Hoover in 'Habeas Corpus' by Alan Bennett, and fleetingly in 'Ways and Means' by Noel Coward. On the whole she prefers the relative safety of backstage, from where she directed 'Private Lives' by Noel Coward and 'Twelfth Night'.

Janice Clausen

Janice used to be a librarian and will shortly be training as a teacher. She used to sing for the Havant Choral Society and among her other skills she lists being able to milk a cow - she does live on a farm!

Lynda James

Lynda is bravely doing costumes for the second time; her first excellent undertaking being for 'Twelfth Night'. She has also taken on in the past the thankless task of handling ticket sales, and somehow survives being married to a sociology teacher.

Rod James

Rod is really a sociology teacher but ventured out to play Orsino in 'Twelfth Night'. For this production, having double-booked himself over dates, he decided to work backstage.

Amanda Payne

Amanda joined the Bench as one of the crowd in 'Pygmalion'. Otherwise she works for Plessey and claims to divide her time at the moment between the Bench, the pub and needlework.

Tony Terribile

Tony used to work professionally for the Overground Theatre, Kingston. He has been with the Bench about eighteen months, during which time he has worked backstage on 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' and 'Habeas Corpus'.

Terry Cattermole

One could say that Terry is one of the mainstays of the Bench. His most recent performance was as Henry Higgins in 'Pygmalion', while at Christmas he terrified audiences with his villain in the Music Hall. He has now taken on the quieter role of lighting man.

John Wright

John is a teacher at Havant College; before that, in Durham, he staged managed for the Phoenix Players. He has been involved in stage design throughout his teaching career, and has created some incredible decorative schemes for the annual Havant College Ball.

Peter Bain

Peter is Head of Art at Havant College. He is also a professional artist, and has long been involved in stage designing.

Tim Mahoney

During the rehearsal of this production, Tim Mahoney, who was to have played Demipho in The Merchant, died suddenly after a heart attack. Not only does his death man a considerable loss to this production but as a founder member of the Bench and a great to its members he will always be remembered with great fondness.


The News F.W.

Roman romps out in open

When in Rome, do as the Romans do... and last night in Fishbourne we did just that. We sat in the formal gardens of the largest Roman residence discovered in Britain and watched two comedies from the pen of a playwright who lives around 254 B.C. It was a double first. The first time Roman comedies have been performed in a Roman palace in Britain and also the first time the Bench Theatre, of Havant has stepped into the great outdoors to show its acting talents. The combination was a great evening's entertainment, which was the climax of a join enterprise between Mr David Rudkin, the young enthusiastic director of the Roman Palace, and the Bench Theatre team.

Two Plautus comedies, 'The Brothers', and 'The Merchant', have been adapted from translations to bring broad smiles and laughter from a responsive audience. A great team of actors took us back hundreds of years to perform a couple of frolicking tales - and the amazing thing was that the comedy was as fresh as if it had been written last night. The jokes could have come from this week's Punch, which either goes to show that man has not made much progress as far as humour is concerned, or that old jokes are the best ones. Each character mastered his role splendidly. But special mention must be made of young Dik Bird, who played the love-lorn son outbidding his father for the affections of a lusty young slave.

David Penrose and Ray Osborne, as the 'elder statesmen' of the cast, gave added zest and sparkle to witty lines and a great sense of timing brought well-deserved applause. The actors used the space and freedom of the Palace grounds to full advantage and hearty congratulations go to David Penrose who adapted and directed the plays. Mr Rudkin was delighted with the way outdoor theatre has "brought the Palace alive" and is hoping to stage similar events in the future. The plays continue until Saturday and will then move to the Havant Arts Centre, East Street, Havant from July 9 until July 12.

The News, 3rd July 1990

Letters to the Editor

Bench Marks

Congratulations to the Havant Bench Theatre and to the organizers of the production of the two Roman comedies (The Merchant and The Brothers) performed so well in the grounds of Fishbourne Roman Palace from July 1-8. Whoever had the idea of putting on the plays at the Palace deserves a pat on the back! Let's hope they do it again! After going to see the plays I can only say how entertaining the evening was. Despite the cold, the actors and actresses put on a performance of which to be proud.

The News, 3rd July 1990

Production Photographs