Printer Friendly

Doubling the swan recipe: the transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

ON JULY 29, 1926, addressing a correspondent who shared his opinion "that the only possible theatre in which to act Shakespeare is the E[lizabethan] P[layhouse]," William Peel wrote:

I am glad to find that you are so optimistic about the E.P. at S[tratford]-o[n]-A[von]. Why I am not, is because I don't believe the Governors care one rap about the suggestion, and therefore would soon regard the E.P, if they built one, as a white elephant.... (1)

Poel's pessimism concerned debate over a replacement for Stratford's Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which had been destroyed by fire five months earlier. (2) Designed by E. J. Dodgshun and W. F. Unsworth, that theater had opened in 1879; a wing containing a library and art gallery was added in 1881; and an observation tower containing a water tank was inserted in 1884. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium initially seated 711, distributed as 53 in the stalls, 158 in the dress circle, and 500 in the gallery and in the pit at the back of the stalls. From there, behind the stalls, iron girders and brick piers supported the dress circle, from which in turn slim pillars in turn supported the gallery, and through that, a dome. Seating in the dress circle and gallery curved around the auditorium wall, following its "U" shape; but at ground level, in the stall seats and the pit benches behind them, theatergoers sat in straight lines parallel to the stage, from which the front row of the stalls was separated by a shallow orchestra pit. (3) At 26 feet wide by 27.5 feet high, the proscenium opening was nearly square, but its height was reduced by a third and its decoration simplified in 1913 when the dress circle was also modified. Behind the opening was a stage just over 53 feet wide and just over 48.5 feet deep, with 46 feet above to the scenery grid and 18 feet below to the basement floor. (4) Limited evidence indicates very good sightlines between the stage and the more expensive seats in stalls and dress circles, albeit initially not from the cheaper ones in the gallery and the pit. Acoustics were excellent: the word of William Shakespeare, from whose work a quotation was painted at the base of the dome over the auditorium, was audible throughout. Surviving photographs suggest that the overall appearance of the building was somewhat garbled: an abundance of vaguely Gothic arches, both inside and out, competed with mock-Tudor brickwork and external half-timbering. (5) The total cost of the theater, library, picture gallery, and tower was about 20,000 [pounds sterling]--equivalent to some 966,000 [pounds sterling] in 2005. (6) Almost all of that sum had come from the pocket of single benefactor: Charles Flower, childless head of his family's firm of brewers in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Although successive measures (including that water tank in the observation tower and asbestos paint on both sides of the stage curtain) had been taken to protect it from fire, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre burned down to a shell on March 6, 1926. Costumes and scenery perished in storage under the stage; but books and paintings were rescued from the library and art gallery, which, physically separate from the theater, remained standing. Since 1919 the theater had had its own resident company, engaged to play festival seasons in the spring and summer of every year and led by Walter Bridges-Adams. While arrangements for their spring 1926 season went ahead in a converted cinema, an appeal was launched for funds to build and endow a new theater: gifts from the United States of America would make up the greater part of the sum which was eventually raised. (7) As had been done for the building of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, the design for its successor was put to competition. Despite--or perhaps because of--his youthful directorial experience in the Globe Theatre reconstruction at the 1912 World's Fair, Bridges-Adams opposed any such simulacrum for Stratford-upon-Avon. (8) Among the various specifications that the Governors of the theater laid down for competitors, repeated reference was made to a proscenium stage. (9) Relative to the original theater, the new one was required to have greater seating capacity (about 1000), higher fly space (70 feet) above the stage, and deeper excavation (30 feet) below it. Greater account was taken of the architectural importance of the theater, with its riverside site making it visible on all sides. The competition was put under the auspices of the Royal Institute of British Architects, with final choice made by three professional architects (Robert Atkinson, E. Guy Dawber, and Raymond Hood). Among the designs that reached the finals of the competition, only one included "a Tudor stage"--and housed it in "a romantic castellated monastery." (10) The successful design by Elizabeth Scott was strongly inflected by cinema architecture, an expanding field in which one of the adjudicators had worked. None of them, nor she, had any professional experience of theatrical architecture.

Their specific inexperience soon showed. Opened on April 23, 1932, Scott's Shakespeare Memorial Theatre spoke the architectural idiom of its time with monumental clarity. Opinions of its exterior were mixed: "Some say it looks like an unfinished cathedral, others like a finished factory." (11) Long after its time had passed, the building would be likened to "a contemporary Cunard ocean liner berthed on the banks of the Avon." (12) Its interior was distinguished by Art Deco features, beautifully wrought from an international array of materials, including three different kinds of marble and fourteen different woods, mostly exotic. (13) As a specifically theatrical building, however, it was unfit for purpose from the start.

Astonishing blunders had been perpetrated backstage. For a single example, the wings, although wide, were not wide enough to permit full use of a pair of rolling stages. A novelty in England and a feature of particular pride in 1932, it was removed in the 1940s. Yet the most egregious errors in the 1932 building were out front, where they ultimately proved fatal. Like its 1879 predecessor, the 1932 auditorium was divided into three levels, now cantilevered rather than supported by piers and pillars. There was no pit at the back of the stalls, but otherwise the audience were divided as they had been in the Victorian building: stalls (now seating 494), dress circle (239), and balcony (267). (14) Where the old auditorium had been shaped like a horseshoe, however, the new one was shaped like an open fan: the flattened-out shape of the auditorium made the different sections of the audience invisible to each other. Moreover, the new stage was a very far-off vision at best--i.e., as seen from the expanded stalls. Between them and the proscenium there intervened a 20-foot gulf, walled with wood on the audience side, which variously accommodated a forestage, an orchestra pit, or a flight of steps. Baliol Holloway memorably described the actor's point of view in 1934: "On a clear day you can just about see the boiled shirts in the first row. It is like acting to Calais from the cliffs of Dover." (15) Visibility was even more deficient in the opposite direction. Requiring every seat in the new theater to be at least 16 feet, and at most 75 feet from the proscenium arch, the terms of the competition had stated "that each seat should have a clear view of the stage" and had required particular care for sightlines in front of the proscenium opening. (16) Sightlines in Scott's auditorium would have been satisfactory if the objects of sight had been moving lights projected onto a static screen across the opening rather than figures moving around a stage which was always mostly (and as a rule totally) behind it. The proscenium opening was 30 feet wide but only 21 feet high, and the depth of the stage behind it was 45 feet. (17) The view from the "gods" in the gallery was thus topsliced by the proscenium arch, which was massive. The arch was eventually somewhat reduced, but the opening eluded radical adjustment on account of the structural importance of the proscenium wall in the 1932 theater. In the middle of the building, a huge tower--providing 65 feet of fly space from stage floor to lighting grid--soared above the stage, and the proscenium wall carried the weight of the flytower.

One attempt after another was made to bring actors and audience closer together in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Anthony Quayle, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Festival 1948-56, extended the stage with wings in front of the proscenium and extended the dress circle (which had been "set so far back that you were almost sitting outside the theatre") (18) with boxes at the sides and another row at the front; Peter Hall, Director of the rechristened Royal Shakespeare Company from 1960-66, raked the stage and added an hexagonal forestage; Trevor Nunn, Director from 1968-1986, tried out Jacobean galleries running through the proscenium arch and across the back of the stage. One cumulative effect of successive alterations was an expansion of seating capacity from 1000 in 1932 to 1500 in 1986. (19) Nothing, however, solved the fundamental problem, which came to be recognized as insoluble, of the theater's structural unsuitability for theatrical performance. Writing in 1928, Bridges-Adams had declared that the new "Stratford theatre has to serve us for at least the next 100 years." (20) Its term of service was, however, just under 75 years. On March 31, 2007, Scott's building--no longer the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre but, as of the formation of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre--gave place to its last performance. This was, appropriately enough, a production of Coriolanus so old-fashioned in decor, direction, and acting that it seemed like a gesture to decades long gone, and perhaps best forgotten.

By the time of closure, the transformation of the 1932 theater had been determined by several factors. (21) One factor was the powerful, albeit partial, protection of English Heritage, a quango (or quasi-autonomous national government organization) also known as the Historical Buildings and Monuments Commission. Classifying Scott's building as II *--"a particularly important building of more than special interest"--English Heritage prevented total demolition of the theater but agreed to a radical transformation of its auditorium and stage. Agreement came with the proviso that some conspicuous features of the theater were to be retained: transformation would have to be effected "without damaging historically significant features of the building, such as the Art Deco foyer, that justified its listing." (22) A second determinant lay in the 1932 building itself. Architectural necessity demanded the preservation of the flytower--and with it, most of the proscenium wall supporting that structure--in order to preserve those exterior walls which English Heritage insisted be retained. A third was the resolution of Michael Boyd, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 2003, that what would be put in place between the irremovable foyer and the indispensable flytower was an auditorium wrapped around a deep thrust stage. In other words, the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre would combine the horseshoe-shaped house of the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with something like Poel's platform stage.

Commitment to this configuration was grounded in recent Royal Shakespeare Company experience, principally in its Swan Theatre, which had opened in 1986, near the end of Trevor Nunn's directorship. The Swan was built alongside the 1881 library wing, which had escaped the flames; and it incorporated, albeit at one architectural remove, the 1879 auditorium, which had perished. Shortly after the completion of the 1932 theater the burnt-out shell of the 1879 auditorium had been rebuilt as a conference center, which in turn became the horseshoe-shaped auditorium of the Swan. Intended mainly for production of plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries and near-successors, the Swan was given a deep thrust stage--19 feet wide and 33 feet long from the back wall. The audience surrounded the stage on three levels: stalls, stepped up from ground level; first gallery; and second gallery (topped by technicians' territory). Capacity at opening was 430 persons. (23) Stage balconies were available at the levels of both audience galleries and could be carried across the back wall of the stage. Entrances and exits could be effected by various upstage routes: through ground-level doors on either side, or via flights of stairs linking the ground level to the galleries, or, if the back wall were closed off, through any opening(s) in the closure. They could be made downstage through the audience via steps or ramps from the corners of the thrust. The auditorium was fitted out in light-colored wood, and the effect against the bare brick of the old walls was astonishingly beautiful. The intimacy, energy and flexibility of the Swan Theatre soon secured its popularity with actors, directors, and theatergoers. None of the numerous, and very various, other venues used by the Royal Shakespeare Company over the last fifty years has provided its ilk, let alone its equal. (24)

The twenty-first-century transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, then, has been modeled on the Swan: audience on three levels around a thrust stage. The same template was used for the Courtyard Theatre, which served as the company's temporary main house in Stratford for four years between the closure of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the spring of 2007 and the full reopening of the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the Royal Shakespeare Company's fiftieth anniversary year. Transformation was a package deal. The Swan, backing onto the main house, closed at the same time. The two theaters were joined up, both backstage and also by an external colonnade, with memorabilia (including the control plate from the sliding stage from 1932) built into its walls and vintage costumes on display. An observation tower was erected. Above all, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was reconstructed. The transformed theater can accommodate 1060 people: 502 in the stalls, an area that comprises both a stalls yard on the flat at ground level and a tier of rear stalls; 266 in the circle; and 278 in the upper circle. No one is more than 49 feet from the stage, which is about 24 feet wide. The total length of the stage is 80 feet, of which less than half--about 32 feet--projects in front of the old proscenium opening, while the rest lies below the flytower. Flyspace into the tower is now about 62 feet and about 49 feet over the thrust stage. (25) Access/egress is possible downstage through the audience via a flight of steps at the center of the thrust and at the corners via diagonal ramps, and upstage via exits to either side and through whatever opening(s) may be built into structures across the proscenium opening.

So far, so like the Swan. However, there are problems. The crucial issue, which was evident in the Courtyard, is of scale: the Swan recipe does not double all that well. The dimensions of the transformed theater discourage intimacy, and at points they baffle audibility. Another problem, carried over from the 1932 building, is that occupants of the circle and upper circle, especially on the sides, have more or less imperfect sight of the cavernous depths of the stage behind the proscenium. Moreover, and again as at the Courtyard, the actors in the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre apparently find it difficult to look above the first circle: anyone in the upper circle sees rather a lot of the tops of heads below. At ground level, on the other hand, one sees much too much of feet. Approximately double the height of its counterpart in the Swan Theatre, the stage in the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre positions theatergoers in the stalls yard as seated groundlings or ringside fans at a wrestling match. Sight lines improve as one ascends into the back rows of the rear stalls, from which there are eyeline matches with the actors. (There is also, however, a lighting console taking a bite out of a couple of those rows.) Also obtrusively high are the diagonal ramps from the downstage corners of the thrust: although their primary function is to give passage to/from the stage, they can also provide extensions to it. As long as an actor, or even a large object, is stationed on the ramps of the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre, s/he, or it, blocks sight of the stage from seats in the center of the stalls yard. Above ground level, permanent obstructions recur throughout the auditorium. The circle and upper circle (plus the technical level at the top of the house) are only too conspicuously supported by double columns that severely restrict the view from 99 seats--9 percent of capacity--throughout the auditorium. (26)

On the evidence of the 2011 season (the first post-transformation), Royal Shakespeare Company directors and designers need to make some adjustments of practice in order to fit the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Its reopening, which coincided with the company's fiftieth anniversary, was prolonged. After an assortment of onstage celebrations through the winter of 2010/11, the first performances in the transformed theater were of productions that had been designed for the Courtyard Theatre and which had crossed the Atlantic to play in a mock-up of that theater in New York's Armory. Finally, the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre gave place to fresh productions rehearsed for it: Macbeth, directed by Boyd and designed by Tom Piper, opened on April 16, 2011; The Merchant of Venice, directed by Rupert Goold and designed by Tom Scutt, opened on May 13, 2011; and A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Nancy Meckler and designed by Katrina Lindsay, opened on July 29, 2011.

All three productions made use of the old proscenium arch and its environs at the top of the new thrust stage. For Macbeth, a shallow balcony, at the height of the first gallery and across the width of the old proscenium opening, gave place to three robed women: not witches, nor Fates, but cellists. To their left was a church bell. The old proscenium opening was closed over as the facade of a ruined church, with fragments of painted images at ground level and, above these, statuary niches--one emptied and the other blasted open, with lighting effects through it. After the interval, all traces of the images had disappeared save for the empty outline of a crucifix. An upstage door in these "bare ruined choirs" became, across a production heavily freighted with religious significances, ever more obviously marked as the route to death and to damnation. It led to Duncan's chamber, and through it Banquo's Ghost made his first appearance, banging open the door in a noisy intrusion upon Macbeth's banquet. The knocking at the gate of Macbeth's castle came not from backstage but from the theater lobby--in the opposite direction and at maximum possible distance from hellmouth upstage center. The role of the Porter was amalgamated with that of Seyton (insistently pronounced "Satan"). This figure, distinguished by a red greatcoat, was waiting there, at the gate of hell, when Macbeth made his final exit through the door up center. Lady Macbeth was likewise last seen stepping, very slowly, into hell-mouth, as her Lady-in-Waiting and Doctor departed via the downstage corners. The coronation of Macbeth and his queen was acted out onstage as a sacramental rite. Its celebrant was Ross (the role elsewhere assimilating that of the Old Man), wearing clerical costume and singing Latin liturgical hymns in an exquisite countertenor. Later, visibly drunk, he pulled off his priestly stole. In this Macbeth, the theatrical narrative--the story that Boyd's production superimposed on the play--was not so much usurpation as the Reformation.

The theatrical narrative in Goold's production of The Merchant of Venice was also cued, and to a large extent carried, by the set that it put upstage, in and around the old proscenium. Here a curved double flight of steps--15 outward to the bend, then 5 on the return--led to a balcony at the level of the first circle. Metallic palm trees stood to either side of a row of three slot machines below the balcony. Above the balcony a huge lightboard, with a wheel of fortune at its center, rose to the top of the building. The pattern on the lightboard was picked up in big, mainly blue, tiles covering the whole of the thrust stage. The stair carpet repeated the colors of the stage tiles, while the railings on the stairs and balcony corresponded to their pattern. The performance began with a song-and-dance routine centered on an Elvis impersonator (Launcelot Gobbo, as was later made clear) delivering "Viva Las Vegas." Packed though it was with Presley songs, the production was not "The Merchant of Vegas" but rather "The Lady of Belmont," pronounced "Belle-mount." The romantic subplot was recast as a TV gameshow hosted by Portia and Nerissa in skimpy costumes, enormous hairdos, and spike heels. Identified by the flashing lightboard as DESTINY, the show was broadcast live, from cameras fixed stage-side on the first of the audience balconies, on large and small television screens upstage. After the interval, the cheesy, high-tech glitz of the gameshow diminished, disappearing altogether by the trial scene. Portia, having divested herself of blonde wig and killer shoes in order to give Bassanio a congratulatory kiss in her own persona, was finally seen to realize that he, wholly in love with Antonio, had desired her only as a gay icon.

For A Midsummer Night's Dream the mise-en-scene was relatively simple: another upstage center opening, not far beyond the proscenium line, and another flight of stairs. Visual meanings were made less by setting than by costume and business: these introduced the Athenian court as a modern brothel, run by gangsters and staffed by illegal immigrants. While this theatrical narrative diminished after the first scene, the production dispensed with Theseus's speech about the musicality of his pack of hunting dogs.

All three productions also took account of the flyspace over the thrust stage of the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This was most noticeable in the production of Macbeth. Here, as with his Courtyard Theatre productions of the Histories in 2006-8, Boyd's directorial practices put theatergoers, for whom sudden descents from the flies grew rather wearisome in the course of a performance, at risk of repetitive strain injury to their neck muscles. For the coronation ceremony in Macbeth, water splashed down from on high into a basin on the stage floor. Later, in her guilty sleepwalking, Lady Macbeth would scrub the floor as well as her hands. When the Witches--two boys and a girl, their pre-Raphaelite faces pale above sober Jacobean costume--made their first appearance, they dropped from the flies to balcony level and sang a phrase from the Latin Mass as they hovered in the air. When Macbeth returned to the coven for his private consultation, he climbed in, through the open niche in the church facade, onto a stage overhung with the Witches' flying harnesses. The little Witches, each carrying a doll/puppet, then ran onstage from the upstage center door, whence they returned as the Macduff children. News of Lady Macbeth's death found Macbeth standing on a chair, having dropped thus from the flies. After his arming by the Satanic Porter, he ascended to the sixth rung of an eight-runged ladder that had risen from the stage floor. It began to look as if Boyd, given stage height and equipment to match, were trying out ways of playing with the vertical axis on which he evidently imagines his productions.

The directors of the two other Shakespearean productions in the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre made more limited--and judicious--use of the high and well-equipped space above its thrust stage. In the first half of The Merchant of Venice a circular rig hung over the stage at balcony level: carrying 16 lightbulbs, it repeated the pattern of the wheel of fortune upstage. For the trial scene, which was set in an abattoir, a metal ring carrying meat-hooks descended in place of the ring of lights, and another meathook dropped downstage left. From this hook Antonio, half-stripped of his prison coveralls, was strung up for butchering, and Shylock proceeded to mark his chest for carving. Far upstage, beyond a central opening hung with strips of plastic, dangled other animal carcasses: their invisibility to many in the audience exemplifies that limitation of sightlines that the transformation of the 1932 theater has not fully corrected. (27)

The flyspace over the stage in Meckler's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was as busy as Heathrow's airspace, but the air traffic was all of one kind: seating. Its movements served in part as visual linkage between the Athenian court/brothel and the forest: a white sofa and matching armchair that furnished the former returned in the latter. There the chair dropped down to serve as Titania's throne, went back up with her in it, and came down again for her infatuation with Bottom. It did not serve as her bower, but chains of flowers were used to link the armchair visible onstage with the bower imagined offstage. Occupied by Bottom, the armchair returned for his awakening, whereupon he tipped it over. Also in motion over the stage were numerous chair frames: small, straight, shifting colors under light, these came and went as the lovers slept, dreamed, and awakened. The production also made inspired use of the space under the stage to open and close the performance. It began with the opening of a trapdoor downstage left: with clouds of steam billowing out onto the thrust, the Mechanicals clunked in from upstage center, climbed down into the trap, and closed it behind them. Loud banging on metal pipes ensued. Emerging from the trap for their first scene, they brought up a 6-foot piece of piping insulation, which Bottom put to work as a prop for his histrionic rants. After their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, the Mechanicals' final departure from the play was cued by lights shorting onstage. Down they went into the trap, and again loud banging followed their descent from sight. With such repairmen at work, of course, the stage lights were bound to remain off, but the houselights came part way up for the fairies' dance.

Finally, the three Shakespearean productions in the transformed theater dealt variously with the presence of the audience on three sides of the thrust. Playing a great deal of canned applause and laughter to indicate its own invisible audience for the gameshow DESTINY, the production of The Merchant of Venice made scant overt acknowledgment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre audience. Only at a few points, such as Aragon's delivery of his sneer at the "barbarous multitude," were the real and imaginary audiences aligned with each other.

The production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was more playful. A spotlight scanned the stalls yard on the speech about the natural disasters caused by the quarrel between Oberon and Titania. During the Mechanicals' rehearsal, Flute visibly responded to the theater audience's laughter at his Thisbe wig; and during the Mechanicals' performance, Demetrius not only addressed his aside about Moon's horns to a man in the audience but then, by gesture, attributed the line to his target. He and the other lovers, lying prone, watched Pyramus and Thisbe from the downstage corners of the thrust; but they had hung their coats over railings in the audience, with whom Theseus and Hippolyta watched from the central aisle. Throughout the forest scenes, much use was made of the diagonal ramps from the thrust through the audience: the use was often stationary, notably for somnolent fairies whom the lovers ignored in walking over them. Mildly comic and admirably efficient as a reminder of invisibility, this blocking obstructed sight for some in the stalls yard.

In Macbeth a lot of minor business was blocked into the audience. Having cut the witches' scene that begins Shakespeare's play as we have it, the production began with his second scene: here the battle report was reassigned to Malcolm, "that bloody man" being so badly wounded that he needed prompting by Ross from a corner of the first balcony. In the next scene but one, five of Duncan's courtiers were placed in the first balcony, where they banged on guard rails at the bottoms of aisle to applaud--and then to signal a change in the plane of onstage reality. From the stage, however, actors' recognition of the audience around the stage was infrequent and perhaps ill-considered. Lady Macbeth addressed occupants of the upper balcony as her banquet guests. The Satanic Porter, whose greatcoat covered a suicide bomber's belt full of fireworks, handed one to an old man in the front row of the stalls yard; and he located an "Equivocator" in the second row on the right. Less amusing soliloquies were addressed to the audience in general: Lady Macbeth turned them into a collective of "spirits that do tend on mortal thoughts"; and Macbeth made them privy to his musings on a dagger which, imagined to be in a haze-filled light upstage, was not made visible to them.

Over in the Swan Theatre, however, the 2011 productions exhibited the advantages of its small scale--visibility for audiences and intimacy between them and actors. For Philip Massinger's The City Madam, in a production directed by Dominic Hill and designed by Tom Piper, a painted image of the Prodigal Son's reunion, watched by his brother, with their father hung as a drop across the upstage end of the thrust. At its center was a pair of functional doors, with a bare wooden chair on each side. Both the carving of the chairs and the painting of the drop suggested seventeenth-century Dutch style. In a trompe l'oeil touch that reinforced one's sense of being inside a Dutch genre painting, the chairs had been painted across with continuations of the lines in the image behind them. When the doors opened in the first part of the performance, a red curtain--like the background of an Early Modern portrait--was visible beyond. As the tone of the play soured after the interval, the curtain gave place to a bare brick wall, finally opening up into a snowfall for the dismissal of Luke Frugal. The domestic interior of his wealthy brother, the Merchant Sir John Frugal, was signaled by chandeliers over the thrust stage, while an abundance of red light characterized the bedchamber of Shave'em the Wench, and her mother Secret the Bawd. Her bed and other large props were pushed onstage and off again as--and only as--demanded by the dramatic situation; and the use of a shiny tray as a reflective spotlight was a reminder of how little may be necessary for theatrical effect. The masque was managed with no more stage furniture than a false-topped table placed center stage, with boxes alongside and a trap below. There was a great deal of interaction between stage and audience. Although much of it involved Luke, the outsider in the dramatic fiction, the metatheatrical game was not confined to this liminal figure. When the Merchant's wife made an exit in triumphantly high style, she gave the audience a royal wave; and when the Merchant asked if the musicians were ready, the Royal Shakespeare Company musicians replied affirmatively from their part of the upper gallery above the stage. Lord Lacey sat in the second row of the stalls to observe unobserved (by other characters, not the audience): when he rose, he started to pick up the handbag of the woman next to him, and he was helped onto the stage by a woman in the front row.

The 2011 Swan Theatre production of Cardenio was directed by Greg Doran and designed by Niki Turner. Holding overall responsibility for both the Jacobeans Season in 2003 and the Gunpowder Season in 2005, Doran has repeatedly exploited the possibilities of the Swan Theatre for utterly memorable performances of relatively forgotten texts by Shakespeare's professional contemporaries and successors. Assisted by Spanish playwright Antonio Alamo, Doran acted as his own dramaturg, but his production of Cardenio was a better advertisement for the theater than for the play. At the beginning of the performance, a gallery-high grille, gated at the center and with a functional window in its metalwork, stood at the upper end of the thrust stage. The grille provided a window for one female character, while another was located in a section of the first gallery alongside the stage. Downstage of the grille, a screen hung with portraits indicated "an apartment"; and upstage of it, "an altar prepared with tapers" became visible when needed. An arras for concealment was provided by the downstage right ramp: the Swan stage is low enough that audience sightlines are not much damaged when its ramps are used as spaces adjacent to, but distinct from, the fictional space onstage.

The Double Falsehood, the playtext from which Doran and Alamo derived their adaptation, calls for numerous changes of scene in the manner of stage practice in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with shuttered scenery opening to discover characters and/or show distant prospects and with use made of windows, probably located above the stage doors in the proscenium. That mode appeared to be imitated--just about recognizably--by the first part of Doran's production. And, as usual in this theater, small scale enabled interaction between the thrust stage and the house: soliloquizing after a violent sexual encounter, a character asked himself "Was that rape?" Before he could reply to himself negatively, as the rest of the line requires, someone in the audience beat him to the answer and shouted, "Yes!!!!!"

The 2011 productions of both Cardenio and The City Madam were both of the sort that audiences have relished in the Swan Theatre since its opening twenty-five years ago. As Colin Chambers, then Literary Manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has written:

In many ways the Swan is the quintessential RSC theatre, emblematic of what the company had become: celebratory, wistful, questioning, irreverent even, but without transgression. The demeanour of the space and the radiance of the interior ... were welcoming, informal and liberal ... The Swan makes a statement and imposes itself on whatever production it houses as much as on the audience. The immediacy of the auditorium is more engaging than the distance between audience and stage in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre ... a "human" proportion that makes it satisfying to so many people. The design of the theatre places the actor and performance at its heart. No one is more than 30 ft away from the action. The audience can see each other ... the theatre is a vibrant space that evokes a "never never land" of honest, decent, non-sophistication, a blend of the warmly domestic and sanitised rustic, far away from the grime of the contemporary world. (28)

In the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2011 Stratford-upon-Avon season, both the Swan Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre accommodated an abundance of transgression; but it was far more seriously shocking in the Swan than it was in the transformed main house. For its fiftieth anniversary year, the company returned to two plays that had been outstanding productions in its first five years of existence: Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade (English version by Geoffrey Skelton and Adrian Mitchell), first presented on August 20, 1964; and Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, first presented on June 3, 1965. Both plays had been written for a proscenium stage, and their Royal Shakespeare Company premieres had been staged at the same theater--the Aldwych in London.

Weiss's play might be thought to have transgressive advantage over almost any other in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company. As its full title gives notice, The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade was scripted as a play-within-a-play in which French Revolutionary events are reenacted by inmates of a Napoleonic asylum. The reenactment is watched by visitors to the asylum: as events spill over from onstage fiction to onstage audience, this violation of theatrical boundaries implicates the modern audience in their real theater. Directed by Peter Brook as part of the company's now-legendary "Theatre of Cruelty'" season, the 1964 London production of Marat/Sade had been the first in English--and only the second worldwide, opening within four months of the premiere of the original at the Schiller Theater in Berlin. (29) The Royal Shakespeare Company's fiftieth-anniversary production, directed by Anthony Neilson and designed by Garance Marneur, opened on October 14, 2011 in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. There five turnstiles upstage led onto the thrust, and Marat's bath stood on a pedestal at its center. On either side, two pairs of 9-runged metal ladders arched over the stalls to a railing built out from the bottom of the first gallery. The proscenium end of the thrust carried a balcony, with an orchestra on one side and the Charenton audience for the play-in-a-play taking their seats on the other side. Remaining there, overlooking the thrust, the Charenton observers were mostly out of reach: at the beginning of the performance of Marat/Sade, the asylum inmates pulled cellphones from the tops of their boots and photographed their visitors. These props proved to be of paramount significance. Within the onstage fiction, the cellphones were the asylum keeper's means of control over his charges. Outside that fiction, the cell phones were visual allusions to the Arab Spring of 2011 and to the abuses at Abu Grahib: Goold's production insistently referred itself to contemporary Middle Eastern politics. In this theatrical narrative, the onstage Charenton audience, costumed as well-to-do observers from the mid-1960s, were irrelevant, and the production largely forgot about them. To the Royal Shakespeare Theatre audience around the thrust stage, however, much attention was paid--by asylum inmates, by performers dropping lunatic character, and even by both one and then the other. The Herald, for example, panhandled a man in the stalls yard out of a coin from his pocket, and then the actress of that role reproached her benefactor for stinginess and complained about rates of pay at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

That man's seat was empty after the interval; and a week into a three-week run, an average of thirty people per night were reported to be leaving the theater before the end of performances. (30) Sending out a health warning, the Royal Shakespeare Company had flagged Weiss's play as "a thrilling, confrontational piece ... which aims to provoke a response from audiences" and warned that because the new production "will contain scenes of a sexually explicit nature some of which involve religious imagery ... the production would not be suitable for audiences under the age of 16." (31) That it was arguably also unsuitable for audiences over sixty was less because of the relentlessly, even tediously, explicit content of those scenes than because the theatrical narrative was more than the script could sustain: not so much the straw that broke the camel's back as the layer that made the palimpsest illegible. The conflict that constitutes the core of Weiss's play is summarized by its short title: Marat/Sade--Marx/Freud. The mid-twentieth-century debate between two ultimately tragic explanations of human behavior was irretrievably obscured by the 2011 production.

In the Swan Theatre, on the other hand, The Homecoming was superbly well served by a nightmarish production directed by David Farr and designed by Jon Basour, which opened on July 28, 2011. Its theatrical transgression was site-specific, baffling any expectations that the audience might have brought with them about the theater. The playwright's very precise directions were realized quite scrupulously--albeit not completely, the proscenium stage of the Aldwych being bigger in area than the thrust stage of the Swan. At the upstage end of the thrust a staircase, its varnish cracked and wallpaper peeled off below it, rose in 12 steps to the level of the first balcony and then, turning back on itself, carried on to the second balcony. At ground level there was a front door (letterbox on it, coatrack within reach of it, lightswitch and keyshelf next to it) up right and a kitchen door (barometer alongside it) up left. All of this was set perhaps 6 inches above the level of the thrust, on a low riser covered with hall tiling, tatty and tired-looking. The thrust itself gave place to the miscellany of sitting room furniture that Pinter's stage directions require. A small hearth was built into the center of the stage floor at the bottom of the thrust: a character standing here would comb his hair in front of an imaginary mirror above an imaginary fireplace. Another character created an equally imaginary window along the right side of the thrust by looking through it to the front door entrance in the corner. This door, the kitchen door, and the staircase provided all entrances and exits. (32) Each of the diagonal ramps downstage was missing a piece where it ought to have met its corner of the thrust, and both ramps were further blocked by barriers. A further demarcation of the stage was provided by fluorescent strip lighting. Affixed upstage to the bottom of the lower balcony and hung at the same level downstage over the bottom of the thrust, it also acted like a pair of dramatic parentheses, marking shifts of emotional tone. The audience was never overtly acknowledged at all. Where Pinter had written The Homecoming for performance before audiences who constituted a fourth wall in front of a proscenium stage, the 2011 Swan Theatre production turned its audience into second, third, and fourth wall around a thrust stage.

The versatility of the Swan Theatre disproves part of the case against the Elizabethan Methodists in the 1920s. Opposition to their project was grounded in a common belief that a platform stage would be suitable only for the performance, in period costume, of plays by Shakespeare and his immediate contemporaries--for in other words (the first two of them deployed at the Globe reconstruction on Southwark), "original practice" productions of Early Modern English drama. Even Poel appears not to have foreseen the full potential of the sort of theater which he long tried, and failed, to get built. In 1926 he did, however, entertain some prescient fantasies about the long-term future of Stratford-upon-Avon:

To one who looks far ahead when Europe has become another United States including the British Isles, I visualize S-o-A as being financed as a world show place. All modern buildings will have been removed and the present town converted into a beautiful memorial park. No residents will be allowed to live within two miles of it and no vehicular traffic to overrun it. The river will run through the centre of this park and on its banks will be the Church, the Elizabethan playhouse, a Museum, an opera house, and a modern theatre! (33)

Notes

(1.) William Poel, holograph letter dated July 28, 1926, to [Richard] Green-Armytage, in Geraldine Womack and Norman D. Philbrick Library of Dramatic Arts and Theatre History. Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library, Claremont University Consortium. I am grateful to Lisa L. Crane for the celerity and courtesy with which she communicated permission to quote from this manuscript.

(2.) For an admirably full and exact account of the original Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and its twentieth-century successors, see: Marian J. Pringle, The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992: An Architectural History, Stratford-upon-Avon Papers No. 5 (Stratford-upon-Avon: Stratford-upon-Avon Society, 1993). For the 1932 building, see: Susan Brock and Marian J. Pringle, The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre 1919-1945 (Cambridge; Chadwyck-Healey, 1984); and John Bott, The Figure of the House: The remarkable story of the building of Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Theatre (Stratford-upon-Avon: Royal Shakespeare Company, 1974).

(3.) Plans of the ground- and dress-circle levels of the 1879 theater are reproduced in Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, 78. Plans of the same levels as they were by the time of the fire are reproduced in Brock and Pringle, The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre 1919-1945 Appendix A, 100-101. The later plans, which were prepared for architects' guidance in 1926, are less detailed and do not show seating.

(4.) Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, 20, citing Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, January 1879.

(5.) Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, between 10 and 11, reproduces four photographs of the exterior of the theater and three of its interior.

(6.) The figure for Flower's total contribution comes from Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992 19. Its conversion was made by the National Archives online currency convertor: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency/results.asp#mid

(7.) For the funding of the 1932 theater, see: Sally Beauman, The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 111.

(8.) For Bridges-Adams's opinions of "Elizabethan Methodism'" in general and Poel in particular, see: A Bridges-Adams Letter Book, ed. Robert Speaight (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1971). For his experience at the 1912 World's Fair, see: Marion O'Connor, "Theatre of the Empire: 'Shakespeare's England' at Earl's Court, 1912," in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in Ideology and History, eds. J. E. Howard and M. F. O'Connor (London: Methuen, 1987), 68-98.

(9.) The Governors' "Conditions of Competition and Instruction to Architects" are summarized and quoted in Brock and Pringle, The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre 1919-1945, 108-9. See also A. K. Chesterton, Brave Enterprise: A History of The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon (London: J. Miles, 1934), Appendix A, 55-57.

(10.) Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, 27. This design, by Robert O. Derrick of Detroit, was one of three designs by U.S. architects among the five finalists in the competition. Exterior views of all five are reproduced in Bott, The Figure of the House, n.p..

(11.) Daily Mail, April 20, 1932, quoted in Brock and Pringle, The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre 1919-1945, 35.

(12.) Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian, October 23, 2001.

(13.) The materials are listed in Bott, Figure of the House, n.p..

(14.) Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, 39. Beauman, Royal Shakespeare Company, 11, gives a somewhat different tally of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre audience in 1932:520 in the stalls, 260 circle, and 220 balcony. The two sets of figures, however, differ not at all in overall capacity, and not much in proportional distribution.

(15.) Quoted, without identification of source, in Beauman, Royal Shakespeare Company, 113.

(16.) Brock and Pringle, The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre 1919-1945, 108; Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, 27.

(17.) Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, 39, 45; Beauman, Royal Shakespeare Company, 111.

(18.) Anthony Quayle, A Time to Speak (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1990), 322, quoted in Pringle, Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992, 50.

(19.) Robin Stringer, "The Swan Theatre," RSC News (Spring, 1986): 1, 4.

(20.) Daily Telegraph, January 14, 1928, quoted in Speaight, ed., A Bridges-Adams Letter Book 20.

(21.) For a lively and well-illustrated account, see David Ward, Transformation: Shakespeare's New Theatre (Stratford-upon-Avon: RSC Enterprises Ltd., 2011).

(22.) Ibid., 34, quoting the English Heritage Website.

(23.) Stringer, "The Swan Theatre," 4; Ward, Transformation, 132. Pringle, The Theatres of Stratford-upon-Avon 1875-1992,66-67) gives the capacity at opening as 445:261 stalls; 103 (including 8 standing places) in first gallery; and 94 (24 standing) in top gallery. Pringle's account is extraordinarily exact, but in this instance, the sums do not add up. In any case, she elsewhere (69) notes that in 1991 the capacity of the Swan was increased at ground level.

(24.) These venues include: in London, the Albery, the Aldwych, the Almeida, the Barbican, the Donmar/Warehouse, the Gielgud, the Hammersmith Lyric, the Hampstead, the Mermaid, the New London, the Pit, the Place, the Roundhouse, the Trafalgar, the Young Vic; and in Stratford-upon-Avon, two Other Places (one and then another) and the Courtyard Theatre. This list, moreover, omits the Newcastle Theatre Royal, where the Royal Shakespeare Company has maintained had an annual residency, and numerous touring venues.

(25.) All figures are from Ward, Transformation, 132.

(26.) The number of seats classified as "restricted view" comes from the RSC box office staff, September 20, 2011. Assessment of the restriction as "severe" comes from experience of it: being placed in pairs, the supports are so broad as to cut off half the view of the stage.

(27.) Having been unable to see these carcasses from the seat that I occupied at the final performance of the production, I am grateful to Carol Rutter for telling me about them.

(28.) Colin Chambers, Inside the Royal Shakespeare Company: Creativity and the Institution (London: Routledge, 2004), 89.

(29.) For a chronology of productions through 1967 and a list of important reviews, see Materielen zu Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade" (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1967), 156-71.

(30.) See Matt Trueman's report in The Guardian, October 24, 2011.

(31.) Undated letter to ticket holders from Steve Haworth, Head of Sales and Ticketing.

(32.) Compare the stage as described in the published text: '[paragraph] Summer. [paragraph] An old house in North London. A large room, extending the width of the stage. [paragraph] The back wall, which contained the door, has been removed. A square arch shape remains. Beyond it, the hall. In the hall a staircase, ascending U.L., well in view. The front door U.R. A coatstand, hooks, etc. [paragraph] In the room a window, R. Odd tables, chairs. Two large armchairs. A large sofa, L. Against R. wall a large sideboard, the upper half of which contains a mirror. U.L., a radiogram.' (H. Pinter, The Homecoming [London: Methuen, 1965; 2nd edition 1966], [6].)

(33.) William Poel to [Richard] Green-Armytage, July 28, 1926, as cited in note 1 above.
COPYRIGHT 2012 Associated University Presses
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:O'Connor, Marion
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Words:8238
Previous Article:Shakespeare, the aesthetics of materialism, and the materialism of aesthetics.
Next Article:Shakespeare and Early Modern Political Thought.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |