Shakespeare in Production

Dr Jean Chothia, lecturer in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, considers how productions of Shakespeare have changed over the 400 years since his death.

How often do you go to the cinema to see classic movies, even famous ones like Casablanca or Star Wars ? When drama was the major popular entertainment art – roughly from Shakespeare’s own time until the Twentieth Century – its audiences, too, wanted to see the newest plays, not repeats of old ones. The astonishing thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that they have been there in the theatre constantly, alongside the new plays. Today, you might see Shakespeare staged with elaborate scenery and lighting, or in a stark black box setting, or with no scenery at all. Costumes might be modern dress, or Elizabethan, or of the time of the play’s setting. It might be performed on a big national stage, in the round, in an experimental theatre space, or outdoors in a park or with an all-male cast on a replica Elizabethan stage. Or you might see it adapted to film; a medium which, of course, didn’t exist in Elizabethan England, and transferred to modern day California, as in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, or to ancient Japan, as in Kurasawa’s version of Macbeth.

There has not always been such variation in staging. For three hundred years after Shakespeare’s day, each successive age used whatever was the latest fashion in scenery, costumes and stage technology for Shakespeare as well as for new plays, even when that meant – as it usually did – altering the plays to make them fit. So, how do we find out how the plays were staged in Shakespeare’s own time; in the years between then and now, and how we got here from there? The further back we go, the scantier the records are and the more detective work is needed.

The theatre accounts, costumes and properties of the Globe, Shakespeare’s theatre on London’s South Bank from 1599, disappeared when all theatres were compulsorily shut down by the Puritans, in 1642. But information can be pieced together from building plans and account books of rival theatres that have survived; from eyewitness descriptions, and from clues in the plays themselves, as well as from the De Witt sketch of the Swan Theatre from 1596, the only known contemporary drawing of the inside of an Elizabethan public theatre.

We can deduce that the plays were performed in daylight, without scenery, but with necessary descriptions of place included in the characters’ speeches. Even when the play was set in the distant past, the actors wore costumes of their own day, although usually magnificent ones. Women’s parts were played by boy actors. Because there was no scenery to shift, there could be quick movement: from indoors to outdoors, from palace to forest or heath, between England and France, or Egypt and Rome. Since there were very few props, those that were used: crowns, thrones, letters, skulls, even a handkerchief, carried extra significance. Henry IV‘s Falstaff, Macbeth‘s Porter, alone on the open platform, could talk directly to their audiences, rather like stand-up comics today. Serious characters, too, could confide their secret thoughts to the audience.

When the theatres reopened, in 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy, the tradition was broken. Now, the only two permitted theatres were indoors and more expensive, and – a huge change – actresses, instead of boys, played the women’s roles. But plays were needed and Shakespeare’s were seized on. The old-fashioned language was brought up to date; comic low-life characters, such as Lear‘s Fool and Macbeth‘s Porter, were cut to match modern taste and love interest was written in. Happy endings were introduced for good characters and women’s parts added or extended – that of the virtuous Lady Macduff, for example, to balance the evil Lady Macbeth.

From then on, new inventions led to increasingly elaborate staging and lighting. Fiery torches were carried onto Shakespeare’s daylit stage to suggest night-time. The later, indoor theatre was lit by hoops of candles that could be raised high when darker scenes were played and lowered for daylight scenes. Later, lamps with reflectors were installed in the wings. As limelight, coloured filters, and pierced backcloths that allowed pinpoints of light to shine through like stars, followed in the C19th, then gas-lighting, the effects were increasingly atmospheric. Electricity was even more flexible. It was not just that sunrises, sunsets and night effects were now very subtle but, from the 1880s on, the audience themselves could be plunged into darkness, at the flick of a switch, and quite cut off from the stage action.

Everything was aimed at creating the illusion that the on-stage world was a real and separate place. The stage had been pushed back from the audience, until it was framed like a picture and, more and more, special effects ruled, with painted scenes and pieces of built scenery, wave effects for shipwreck scenes, fountains with real water in garden scenes and, in 1900, real rabbits ran among the real trees of Beerbohm Tree’s Midsummer Night’s wood. Costumes now had to be both magnificent and historically accurate for Ancient or Medieval Britain or Ancient Rome. Wires and harnesses let witches and fairies fly. Orators, like Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, spoke not directly out to the audience but to a huge crowd of extras spread across the stage. Scenes were padded out with dances and with processions that included riders on horseback. The plays had to be cut to allow time for all this, and for changing the elaborate scenery.

See an example of this type of staging from the archives of the Royal Shakespeare Company. This shows a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1939,

The belief that productions were better the more technically elaborate they became was blown apart, late in the 19th century, by the obsessive experiments in Elizabethan-style staging and costume of an actor, William Poel. Powered by the investigations of scholars and the discovery in 1888 of that sketch of the Swan theatre, he believed that the plays were suffocated by Victorian staging. The reconstructed Globe on Bankside, built many years after his death, has shown how effective shared daylight can be in enabling interaction between stage and audience and how quick and absorbing the action on a bare platform stage can be. But Poel’s demonstrations that the plays could work when staged simply and quite differently from the main-stream spectacular theatre, opened the way to other kinds of experiment. So, in 1912, Granville Barker, who had acted Richard II for Poel, kept to his insistence on a fully restored text and fluidity of movement, but abandoned Elizabethan costume and setting in favour of something much more abstract and decorative.

In the 1920s a Hamlet in modern dress offered a different take on Elizabethan practice from Poel’s and started a new fashion, while in 1937, as Hitler threatened Europe, an American Julius Caesar that put Caesar’s side in fascist uniform, showed that staging could give the plays a startling political relevance. Where Barker had replaced the sugary sweet Victorian fairies with other-worldly, gold-painted beings in his Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Royal Shakespeare Company actors, in 1970, using circus skills, juggling plates and swinging on trapezes, substituted a thrilling stage magic for the more traditional kind.

See a photo of this production from the archives of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The photo shows the Fairies and Titania on trapezes.The history of Shakespeare production is really the history of the theatre itself.

How this essay was written

I lecture on performance history and have written quite a lot about the changing ways of staging Shakespeare, so I have already done much of the research needed for this piece. This has involved studying pictures and reading prompt copies of plays, actors’ memoirs, histories of the theatre and newspaper reports and other eyewitness accounts of performances. The result is that I have much more material than I can use in this short piece.

How then to select? Do I concentrate on the different kinds of performance in Shakespeare’s own time – besides the open air theatres his company gave command performances at Court, used the Blackfriars Theatre as their indoor house in winter from 1608 and when on tour will have played on make-shift stages in halls and Innyards? Do I take one particular play and chart changes in its text and performance? Do I discuss film, opera and ballet versions of Shakespeare where there is a change of medium?

Having raised these questions with myself, I then put the whole thing on one side until faced with the pressure of my deadline. Maybe, allowing a little time for the thoughts to simmer is a good idea. Returning to the project, I decide that the main point I want to get across is that each age has fitted Shakespeare to its own idea of theatre – that there has been a constant modernising of performance practice, often with adaptation of the text accordingly and that from the early C20th onwards things have become much more various. Although I am a purist who likes to see full-text productions, I have to acknowledge that it is precisely the constant adaptation through performance practice that kept Shakespeare so prominently in the theatrical repertoire.

The opening question about the cinema is designed to suggest how extraordinary it is that when revivals, including of the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, were hardly known, his flourished. It is necessary to know what the changes are from, so there had to be at least a sketching in of what we know of practice in Shakespeare’s own time. Thereafter, a brief glance at the changes after 1660, which incorporated Shakespeare into the repertoire but also adapted quite freely, was needed. A chronological account then seemed appropriate, but there was no space for all the shifts and changes so I took one area of changing technology – lighting – and followed that through. That left a little space to sketch in some information about Victorian spectacular staging, the revolt from it and to glance at some C20th developments. I had space for just a few specific examples but I hope these will enliven the more general statements and serve as tasters for the fascinating material that is there.