Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

01 May 2005

Trip to VA

The training for the actors at Shenandoah Shakespeare was evident and amazing. They perform it very near the manner in which we who care about such things assume it was performed in Shakespeare's day. It was a lively, mostly interesting production with more laughs than I think I've ever seen in a production of Shakespeare, least of all Measure for Measure, which is rarely considered one of the Master's funniest. I want to stress the energy of the actors, which was, frankly, through the roof, and their own understanding of the text, which, in most cases, was exemplary. I also feel it important to mention a few Shakespearean performance techniques that the company employed: the house-lights in the Blackfriar's were kept on, as they would have been in the Seventeenth Century, and role-doubling, -tripling, -quadrupling was employed liberally, not surprisingly, to the delight of the audience.
This being said, I still don't think I would call it a good production of Measure for Measure. The doubling and the house-lights, though great assets for a troupe putting on a comedy--the early ones would especially benefit from such a tack--seemed like drawbacks for a troupe attempting to do a play about power, inner turmoil, rape and bawdry. The severity of the play was lost completely; even the most emotionally-wrought moment in the show, when Isabelle kneels before the Duke to beg for Angelo's life, got a laugh from the audience with which I watched the show. It seemed like a disservice at the time, or perhaps poor directing.
Shakespeare's theatre was a popular theatre--we all know that--and it's easy to see why Shenandoah Shakespeare's productions would be quite popular. But their performance techniques seemed mostly like gimmicks--for better or worse--and the show was hugely dependant on sight-gags. All of this is great comedic acting; I know that. All of Shakespeare's comedies were meant to be done in just such a way: at breakneck speed, rife with energy, to everyone's enjoyment. But Measure for Measure is more dangerous than most comedy, and Shenandoah Shakespeare ignored that.
More than anything, the staging reminded me of my own approach to The Taming of the Shrew last year. Shenandoah Shakespeare's Measure for Measure was my Shrew taken one or two steps further. It tells me that I'm on the right track when it comes to directing the comedies, and--always a minimalist--that I can do with even fewer set-pieces and, perhaps, fewer cast members.
I haven't mentioned language at all, yet. I think it important to note that before I go on to my interview with the Mary Baldwin faculty.

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The M.Litt/MfA program at Mary Baldwin College is all about Shakespeare in Performance. The program is called "Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance." It's a relief, because I wouldn't be the least bit interested in studying the plays for what they look like on paper. Hardly any of them read very well, yet almost all of them perform splendidly. MBC is teaching actors, directors and teachers how Shakespeare was performed while Shakespeare was alive. This is their chief interest. They have this stunning, gorgeous replica of the Blackfriar's theatre two blocks from the college, and when that was built, the program began, the question always being "how close can we get to the way the plays were originally performed?" This is done through intense study of Shakespeare's teachers, his contemporaries, and the history of Elizabethan, Jacobean, and pre-Elizabethan England. As a footnote to this--at least it seems like a footnote in discussion with the faculty and upon reading the university catalogue--experimentation is done in the Blackfriar's theatre itself. The head of the program used the following example: we have two versions of a play--the first folio and the second, let's say--and a character enters in a different spot in the text in each. Which is correct? "Well, we go down to the Blackfriar's and we check," says the headmaster, " and we usually find out that the first folio is correct." The space changes the lines of the play. Performing in an authentic space like the Blackfriar's does something to the way language is delivered. Naturally this is so.
What I am unsure of is the value of this kind of study. I mean, after all, what good is it? Is it really beneficial to know that a character enters here instead of there in the original text? I'm not trying to say it's not an interesting question: I think it very intriguing. But once again, I'm unsure of the value of such information to a production outside of the Blackfriar's. I assure you that I won't be directing at the Blackfriar's anytime soon, and when I direct in a theatre near where I live, large or small, I will ask myself on which line the character should enter, and I will decide which entrance serves my production and my theatre best. And that is where he will enter.
And now I come to the language. My assumption is that intense study of the kind offered by MBC would be of value most for its effect on language. However, I find that this is not the case, at least with the actors at Shenandoah Shakespeare. It is possible that the effect is profound on students of the M.Litt/MfA program, but if Shenandoah is the paradigm, then I find that attention to language is one element of Shakespearean staging that is given short shrift. The language becomes less important than the style in which the piece is performed, a style which, to me, seems as much a gimmick as, say, setting The Taming of the Shrew at the beach.

* * * *

For myself, my chief query is of what use all of this Shakespearean obsession is. I'm still not convinced it is of any great value to the modern theatre. I asked the headmaster who the other writers they taught were--the "Renaissance Literature" portion of the title--and he said that they don't teach anyone else. They only teach Shakespeare, although I assume they must touch on (at least) Fletcher a little. I told him that I asked mostly because I was really interested in the Restoration as a period in the history of dramatic literature. I meant Congreve and Wycherly, but he was still talking about Shakespeare: "Yes, they did a lot of weird things with his plays then, didn't they?"
While I applaud the devotion to the Master, it all seems a little bit Star Trek Convention to me. Which way the doors open in the Blackfriar's is not a question that interests me in the least, and it has no impact on the modern theatre.
There is great value in doing the plays of Shakespeare. The writing is incomparable, and I would recommend that anyone passing through Virginia stop in Staunton and see a show at the Blackfriar's, but I am sure now, that I don't want to study Shakespeare for another two years. It seems a very conservative, even reactionary, line of study, and I think I'd rather do something else, even if it means I won't have that PhD by age thirty.