The production team gathered at the Pendley Manor Hotel last weekend for a routine check-up on itself. This rather threw me off my blogging rhythm. Anyhow, seeing the space again, complete with its bushes and branches, brick-built steps and grassy knolls turned my attention to the concept of outdoor Shakespeare.
We’ve got so used to theatre being an indoorsy sort of activity since the seventeenth century that I sometimes forget that Shakespeare was writing for outside, or at least a space open unto the sky. This affected some of the logistical aspects of stagecraft, obviously, and required a healthy dose of the willing suspension of disbelief (a phrase coined by the poet Coleridge, by the way).
Take Hamlet, one of this year’s plays, for example. Somebody suggested we do the play a few years back and I remember the obstacle being raised that one needed it to be dark for the first scene (the “Who’s there?/Who’s on First?” cross-talk act, a Renaissance Abbott and Costello routine, if you will) so that their fumbling questions in the dark could be convincingly portrayed.
I found this a peculiar remark. I held my tongue of course, what with discretion being the better part of valour and so forth, but early-afternoon in the blazing summer was good enough for Shakespeare, so surely we can make do and mend with the late evening twilight? If it doesn’t work this year I will willingly eat my fedora.
I suspect that writing for open-air performance also had something to do with the language. In what I will call adverse performance conditions, the verse, the structure of the language, becomes an especial friend when the wind gets up or you have a vast audience to speak to. It gives you guidance, it gives you a frame to work in. Doing Shakespeare in prose and verse is, I suppose, rather like the difference between covering twenty miles by foot or by bicycle. You’re still tired at the end and your ‘fitness’ when you start will make a difference, but with a bike you’ve got an ally. You’ve got gears and cogs to help you and you’re on something that is designed expressly to cover the ground more efficiently.
The vast majority of actors also say that verse is easier to learn and easier to remember. In some cases actors may forget their lines but improvise in the rhythms of verse. When we did Love’s Labour’s Lost last year there was a scene in which a letter had to be passed round the group of French women and I was playing Boyet. In one performance the person supposed not to read the letter caught it and whilst others rugby-tackled her to the ground, I said ‘Madam, you must relinquish that letter!’.
Ok, so there are a couple of trochees in there, but you get the idea.