I just flew in from London on the 11th, and boy, are my arms tired!
That’s just a little humor. Sorry.
Last week I returned from seven weeks in London. For the first three weeks, I researched at the British Library, the New Globe Archives, and, for thrilling and all-to-brief morning, at the English Dance and Folk Song Society’s Ralph Vaughan WIlliams Library. After those weeks spent primarily on research, I spent four weeks at RADA’s Shakespeare Summer School, an acting program that I hoped would give me a better sense of modern Shakespeare training.
Most pertinent to my research, though, were my experiences at the Globe Theater. I’ve spent a lot of time at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars. It introduced me to Shakespeare. My trip to London gave me an opportunity to experience the most famous Original Practices venue in the world, which showed me just how frustratingly dissimilar different “OP” comapnies can be. Here, I’ll just copy/paste from my notes:
“At the Globe I can’t be certain which opinions are mine and which are derived from what I’ve read and heard from others. I agree, immediately, with Jeremy Lopez’s assessment of the Globe’s Bankside surroundings. The area, Globe included, has a definite theme park feel to it: a high brick wall and gates guarded by ushers surround the theatre itself; there is a Starbucks to its left and the Tate Modern and Millenium Bridge to its right. Because the Globe has a reconstructed exterior as well as a reconstructed interior (as opposed to the Blackfriars in Staunton), we encounter it, and all the attendant notions of reconstructed theaters and original practice, sooner, from outside on the street, where we compare it to the surrounding modern architecture. Viewing the theatre from the street, we aren’t immersed in Early Modern reconstruction and are more aware of the Globe’s incongruity.
When I move into the courtyard ten minutes before Shrew starts on Tuesday, I consider waiting in line to buy lunch before going in. A very drunk man in an England sweater and sweatpants, with St. George’s cross painted on his cheek, is stumbling around, yelling at a bunch of worried looking Globe employees. I avoid him, thinking to myself, “poor son of a bitch.” For some reason, it never occurs to me that his behavior is out of place. After all, they sell beer and wine, and the usher worriedly following him is a thin girl about my age, so maybe she doesn’t figure she can handle the taller-than-6-ft. drunk.
Turns out the drunk is playing Christopher Sly, along with Petruchio, which I realize only when he wanders into the yard behind me and I remember what play I am seeing. The play’s induction blends reality with fiction nicely, and before we know it, though not before the drunk has urinated on the front row of groundlings, we’re moving along into Taming.
I understand Jim Warren’s sense that actors at the Globe speak less, or less directly, with the audience, although I can’t tell if I’ve been biased by his suggestion from the start. A new façade, a colonnade with two staircases and peeling white paint, has been built over the Globe’s frons scenae. The effect is to force the action further downstage, which largely solves the Globe’s problem with its two downstage columns. On the other hand, this also seems to re-proscenium-ize the space. The gallery seats that curve around the stage are cut off. The actors largely play out to the front of the house (somewhere, someone writes about “the pull of the groundlings”), eschewing the diagonals that are such a large part of blocking on the Blackfriars stage. I notice that some dialogue is played parallel to the front of the stage between the two columns, which is fine for those of us out front, but must be maddening for audience members seated to the sides.
Seeing Taming again on the 16th of July, and standing, in the pit, leaning up against stage left, I’m acutely aware of Jim’s point. The pillars definitely create a proscenium, and almost all the action occurs between them and is played to the center of the house. Despite my proximity to the actors and the light that we share, they do not look at me, interact with me, or acknowledge my presence in a world with them. They go by quickly towards their exits, never acting to us. I enjoy the show much more in the second half, after my friends and I have moved to house center.
Seeing the entirely ‘Original Practice’ Richard III on the 22nd of July yielded similar observations. The transition from ‘free-hand’ to ‘OP’ doesn’t yield a great rapport or communitas with the audience. Both are on a thrust, both have the audience right next to them, both are done with universal lighting.
Mark Rylance’s fantastic Richard does yield a greater rapport though, because he creates an immediate relationship with us from the first moments of the play. Part of that, I think, is Rylance, and part is Richard. Richard is a character that needs that relationship, that spends most of his time in the stage’s locus, who spends more time talking with us than anyone, other than Margaret, who at no point appeared in the Globe’s production anyway (darn). And then, there’s Rylance, who should be more aware than anyone of the way that the Globe theatre works, the way it [potentially] relates audience to actors in a seamless world.
The rest of it, in terms of audience actor rapport, is consistent with what I’ve seen. There’s little direct contact with us, little taking us into consideration (although Paul Chahidi’s Tyrell speaks right to us), and the vast majority of the action occurs out to the front of the house.
“OP” here means really ‘OP,’ costumes, props, etc. The costuming doesn’t particularly help. Actor’s doublets are rigid and bulge in the middle, in a vaguely-phallic-in-the-Greek-comedy-vein-but-not-quite way. When the ghosts of Richard’s victims appear to him in his dream, they’re dressed in giant white bags, gathered at the top, with holes for the actors’ faces. They look like big white lunch sacks, and while I’m certain it’s a historically sound choice based upon copious research into 16th century perception of ghosts’ appearances, it’s just silly looking here. The armor, though, is beautiful. Richard himself has a tiny, shriveled and burned up hand attached to his left side, which looks pretty impressive.
Men play all the women’s parts. James Garnon’s Duchess of York (doubled with Richmond) is great in a sort of withering Maggie Smith/Dowager Countess of Grantham way. Johnny Flynn’s Lady Anne is extremely reserved though. His major scene with Rylance, in which Richard seduces Anne, never accumulates any intensity, and it felt to me as though if Flynn hadn’t been working so hard to play a woman, it would have gotten to the place it needed to be. The performance seemed monotone, unvaried, and emotionless. The casting of men, in the aggregate, isn’t very helpful.”
I also was able to research in the Globe Archives, where I spent most of my time flipping through old reviews and front of house reports. Critical response to most Globe shows seems mixed. Usually, there’s plenty to love, but also some to hate. Interestingly, reviewers often include the audience, frequently in their complaints. 1997′s Henry V drew reviewer’s ire percieved audience jingoism (it was during the run of this show that audience members threw cabbage at actors, both French and English, depending upon who was in the audience and whether they were armed). The audience in 2005′s Winter’s Tale, an “OP” production, apparently laughed too much and in the wrong places.
I also got to look through Front of House reports, which were fascinating for the revelation that at almost any given Globe performance, an audience member will pass out. In five shows, I’d say maybe three have fainters, and many have more than one fainter. I watched a recording of the 2005 Winter’s Tale in which an audience member, standing near the stage, passed out during the first scene. Right there on the tape. It is, when you think about it, the most remarkable business model. They (Globe management) know that, at least during the summer, someone is going to pass out. They know it. You pay five pounds for a chance to stand up for three hours, and maybe, if you’re lucky, pass out at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Anyway, now I’m just plugging away at my paper. I think, though, that I was right, which is nice. Flipping through Joe Falocco’s Reimagining Shakespeare’s Playhouse and Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper’s Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment yesterday, I decided that the inspiration of a certain brand of actor-audience, Shakespearean communitas is a central impulse of the Original Practices movement. Now I have to be able to explain why.