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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: August ::
Re: Shakespeare in Performance
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1453  Friday 20 August 1999.

[1]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 19 Aug 1999 12:43:20 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.1446 Shakespeare in Performance

[2]     From:   Karen Peterson-Kranz <
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        Date:   Friday, 20 Aug 1999 08:06:06 +1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.1446 Shakespeare in Performance


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Thursday, 19 Aug 1999 12:43:20 -0700
Subject: 10.1446 Shakespeare in Performance
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1446 Shakespeare in Performance

With apologies to Todd Lidh, he made comments about a review of an
outdoor Hamlet in Eastern Tennessee, I want to go way beyond his
reaction to the reviewer.  I think the issues are complex.  (I won't
blame those who skip to my conclusions and then decide if they want to
read the rest.  Well, OK, I won't blame anyone who hits the delete
button right now.)  These comments can apply to any Elizabethan or
Jacobean playwright, but since the review in question was about
Shakespeare and I find it syntactically easier to direct my comments to
"Shakespeare's" theater, I have used language with that bias.
Basically, I wanted to avoid writing Elizabethan/Jacobean again  and
again.  I thought of substituting Tudor or early modern, but both cover
more than I really intend.

I have been thinking about this for some months and have reached only a
few conclusions.  I am still thinking, so I shall left a lot out and
probably did a poor job justifying my ideas.

It is too simple to say, as some do, that Shakespeare was originally
performed outdoors and so the best way to do his plays is in an outdoor
theater.  It is too simple to say, as some do, that Shakespeare's plays
were performed on a certain type of stage and under certain rehearsal
and performance conditions and that is the best way to recreate them.

Performing Shakespeare outdoors and on mock Elizabethan stages has
really paid off for theater professionals and audiences alike.  The
indoor experiments of Pole and Granville-Barker opened a lot of eyes in
their generations.  Today, visits to Ashland, Santa Cruz, Cedar City,
Toronto, and many other festivals in addition to the Globe and Open Air
theaters in London show that Shakespeare can work under conditions
similar to those of the original performances.  Productions can also be
bloody awful, sometimes because actors and directors have not figured
out the space.

DISTRACTION
The reviewer in Tennessee found the outdoor space distracting.  Using an
outdoor theatre does not guarantee an ideal space for Shakespeare.  I
don't know the theater in Tennessee nor the reviewer, but to pick on The
California Shakespeare Festival, their outdoor theater can be
distracting.  Past the stage the audience can see rolling hills with
cattle walking about.  Newspaper reviewers sometimes comment on the
pleasant view they enjoyed while the play was going on!  It is sometimes
very windy.  People are encouraged to bring picnics and some bring a bit
too much wine.  Of course it is distracting.  I dare say the Globe, both
Globes, were as well, what with vendors of one kind or another making
sales, groundlings moving to better positions or having conversations.
Speaking to the actors must have been a source of distraction as well,
perhaps more so than the distractions in Tennessee.

CHANGES IN PRODUCTION METHODS
One characteristic of theater design after Shakespeare is the way it
concentrates attention on the stage.  Indoors, dark in the house but lit
on stage, the focus of attention could not be on cattle (well, maybe in
a production by Tree) and was less likely to be drawn to your neighbor.
This allows those attending a performance of Shakespeare a concentration
and intimacy (in a small theater) that it probably didn't have on the
first two Globe stages.  I'm not saying it is better.  It am saying it
gives the interpreters different opportunities for exploring the text.

I would defend the Tennessee reviewer on the basis of the two points
above by saying:

1) If he found the space distracting, he found it distracting.  You have
to give him that.

2) It depends on what you are used to.  Again, I don't know that space.
Maybe an Elizabethan audience would find it distracting.  I do know that
the first time I saw outdoor theater it was more distracting than the
proscenium theaters I'd grown up visiting. I was used to the greater
concentration on the stage in an indoor theater.  I find outdoor
theaters even more distracting during daytime performances when the
audience and actors share the same light.  The trick is for the company
to find the advantages of the space.

DOING IT WRONG BUT DOING IT WELL
I'll give one illustration of how going against Jacobean convention made
a play moving for me.  It is likely that revealing the "statue" of
Hermione in The Winter's Tale was accomplished by pulling aside a
curtain to discover her standing very still.  She must have been facing
the audience and the rest of the characters facing her either directly
or from an angle.

The most moving version of this scene I have seen was an ACTER
production several years ago.  Hermione had her back to the audience,
everyone else faced her and so faced the audience.  Instead of looking
at Hermione for a sign of life, we looked at the other characters and
saw how very moved they were.  We were moved ourselves.  They had it
wrong by Jacobean practice, but it was an amazing moment.

TENTATIVE CONCLUSIONS
Everything has built in advantages and disadvantages.  Shakespeare's
theater did and so do modern venues.  It is not a matter of a right way
or a wrong way, but of finding a way to make a text work today.
(Jonathan Miller's book Subsequent Performances is very good on this,
though he is not very interested in performance spaces.)

There is also subjectivity at work in audiences.  On the one hand are
fans of a certain Shakespearean Festival in the American Southwest.
They put out a mediocre product, but their fans, including some on this
list, think they are "glorious."  The other hand has someone like Terry
Hawkes who enjoys proclaiming his superiority by sneering at most
endeavors to put Shakespeare on stage.  We have all had the experience
of a production we loved that was despised by a friend and visa versa.
I think we have to give one another our subjective responses.  That is
why I find Terry's frequent sneering annoying.  His pronouncements
aren't right for anyone but Terry.  It is why I am inclined to give the
reviewer in Tennessee his distraction.

This really does go way beyond Prof. Lidh's comments and I certainly
don't mean to imply he holds any of the ideas I have debated.  His
comments gave me a platform to air some things I have been thinking
about and I am glad he made them.

Best,
Mike Jensen

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Karen Peterson-Kranz <
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Date:           Friday, 20 Aug 1999 08:06:06 +1000
Subject: 10.1446 Shakespeare in Performance
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1446 Shakespeare in Performance

No, it's not just you, Todd.  The "outdoor" comment is irritating.
Another comment which I noted was the reviewer's assumption that
"action" will, inevitably, be more interesting than the play's language.

I recently did Hamlet with a course of undergraduates in an
"Introduction to Literature" survey class.  The group was mostly
sophomores, mostly 18-20 in age, many from non-Western cultural
backgrounds and/or English as a second/third language.  Their background
in Shakespeare, for the most part, consisted of the (inevitable) viewing
of the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet film during high school, and
Shakespeare in Love.  We read the play, then watched the Zeffirelli film
with Mel Gibson, then watched Branagh's full-text version.

The papers they wrote afterward comparing the two films were
interesting.  I expected them to universally prefer the shorter, more
"action-packed" Zeffirelli-Gibson version.  But they didn't.  Almost all
of them preferred the Branagh version, simply because it did include all
of Shakespeare's poetry.  They reported that the Zeffirelli version,
lively though it may have been, was confusing because of the many
cuts...they especially noted that the initial report of Fortinbras'
designs on Denmark in Act I made absolutely no sense in the Zeffirelli
version, and that the ending seems abrupt.  They also noted that the
Zeffirelli version pretty much eliminates any clue to what Ophelia might
have been like before she goes nuts.  In contrast, they appreciated the
Branagh version because, with the full text, it was easier to
understand.  (One student did write that he thought Branagh was over the
top to build such an extravagant palace just for the movie, and
suggested that he might have gone to the White House if he wanted
something fancy...can't win them all, I guess!)

Cheers,
Karen Peterson-Kranz
Dept. of English & Applied Linguistics
University of Guam
 

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