Pieter Brueghel the Younger, A Village Festival in honour of St. Hubert and St. Anthony. Antwerp, 1632. FM: 1192 © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

This painting by Brueghel shows a play being performed under very different circumstances, reminiscent of the earlier medieval tradition. When the playhouses in London were closed by the plague, companies went on tour, probably performing on makeshift stages like this one.

The scene recalls Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Quince the carpenter declares ‘here is a play fitted’ (1.2.123). Here, we get the sense of a play being almost artisanally put together by ‘rude mechanicals’ (3.2.9) with basic properties which mark stage space, banking on a certain shared knowingness with the audience, and an acceptance of both the limits and technologies of theatrical illusion. At the heart of the festivities, a company of travelling players are staging a well-known comedy, ‘The Trick-Water Farce’. The captured scene shows a couple stealing a (possibly clandestine) kiss or a grope, to one side of a figure who seems to be the unsuspecting (or complicit) husband. The curtained-off ‘tiring house’, where actors would retreat to change their costumes or ‘attire’, offers glimpses of other alluringly half-knowable, half-revealed secrets, suggesting the theatre’s associations with concealment and discovery.