“Play On”

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While I was working in Boston last month I had an interesting chat with a group of actors about the importance of communicating an atmosphere to an audience at the start of any Shakespearian production.  How should spectators be made to feel as they leave their everyday realities and step into a world of fiction and infinite possibility? And how does a theatre company choose to move a spectator’s eyes from his or her programme / mobile phone/ icecream, and fix their attention upon the stage?

Of course, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about all of this, as his his actors would also have had to compete with rowdy crowds intent on purchasing an orange or some hazelnuts to sustain them through the ‘two hours traffic’ of the stage.  Big bangs seemed to be a quick way of getting attention – both Macbeth and The Tempest begin with loud claps of thunder, which on occasions probably resulted in a few spilt hazelnuts falling from the hands of spectators with a nervous disposition.  Prologues, like those in Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, would have given Shakespeare’s audiences a few moments to settle down and get themselves sorted before the play proper began.  Those with short attention spans could sit (or stand) happy with the foreknowledge that the English king would win the war, and that the star-crossed lovers would meet with a sticky end.

Some might say that Shakespeare’s words alone supply all that is required to create the appropriate atmosphere for any given play – but I’m sure many of us have memories of productions that looked to establish an ambience before a word of Shakespeare’s text was spoken.  I remember a production of Macbeth that started by throwing the audience into complete darkness. A shudder ran through the auditorium – had something gone wrong? – was this supposed to happen? The sound of movement came from up above, and then the eeire sound of bodies swaying, suspended above the stalls.  Nervous laughter crackled around the auditorium – no-one was quite sure about what would happen next.  Out of the darkness came the cry – “When shall we three meet again” – and the ensuing exchanges continued in pitch darkness, with the actors swinging above the spectators’ heads.  At the scene’s close the lights flashed back on – but when the audience looked up there was nothing to see.  The weird sisters had vanished into thin air, just as they would for Macbeth himself moments later.  Macbeth comes to feel paranoid and fearful – audiences watching this performance were made to feel that way from the moment they sat down. Electric!

Next week I’m going to be welcoming a group of American High School students to Stratford, and we are going to spend our days workshopping scenes from King Lear. We’ll be paying particular attention to the play’s opening, and we’ll try creating different atmospheres through our delivery of Shakespeare’s words.  How should we go about creating an unforgettable opening to this play? If all else fails I guess we can always just switch off the lights and make a big bang!

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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  • Nick Walton

    Thanks for that Ildi. I agree – there’s lots of dramatic potential in these opening exchanges. I like the idea of Gloucester laughing to relieve the tension a little. And what about Kent? How does he react to the introduction that Gloucester gives Edmund – embarassed, amused, surprised? It’s not the most comfortable of conversations to be having infront of Edmund afterall.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks for that Ildi. I agree – there’s lots of dramatic potential in these opening exchanges. I like the idea of Gloucester laughing to relieve the tension a little. And what about Kent? How does he react to the introduction that Gloucester gives Edmund – embarassed, amused, surprised? It’s not the most comfortable of conversations to be having infront of Edmund afterall.

  • Nick Walton

    That sounds amazing Jacquie – I wish I’d seen it too. Moments of stillness can be so powerful in the theatre. We expect action – action- action, so moments of silence can disorient and unsettle – that is the moment when our minds take over, and begin to fill in the gaps as it were. It is often the simplest of devices that can have the most impact in the theatre. But that’s not to say that creating an environment of statues is in any way easy or simple – the creation of an atmosphere takes lots of hard work and imagination.

  • Nick Walton

    That sounds amazing Jacquie – I wish I’d seen it too. Moments of stillness can be so powerful in the theatre. We expect action – action- action, so moments of silence can disorient and unsettle – that is the moment when our minds take over, and begin to fill in the gaps as it were. It is often the simplest of devices that can have the most impact in the theatre. But that’s not to say that creating an environment of statues is in any way easy or simple – the creation of an atmosphere takes lots of hard work and imagination.

  • Ildi Solti

    Hi Nick, well, it's one of tose tricky openings that sound like a conversation, without any big bangs. However, on the principle of Shakespeare having been an actor, and the necessity of having to attract attention, these actors can be used to make the audience eerie and apprehensive by letting on (in a polarised way) their expectation that something extraordinary and momentuous is about to happen. Which it will. John Russell Brown in 'King Lear, Edited with a Theatre Commentary' is great on opening up less than obvious acting choices. Does Gloucester laugh to overcome the tension?
    I'd be very interested in what you guys find.

  • Ildi Solti

    Hi Nick, well, it's one of those tricky openings that sound like a conversation, without any big bangs. However, on the principle of Shakespeare having been an actor, and the necessity of having to attract attention, these actors can be used to make the audience eerie and apprehensive by letting on (in a polarised way) their expectation that something extraordinary and momentuous is about to happen. Which it will. John Russell Brown in 'King Lear, Edited with a Theatre Commentary' is great on opening up less than obvious acting choices. Does Gloucester laugh to overcome the tension?
    I'd be very interested in what you guys find.

  • Ildi Solti

    Hi Nick, well, it's one of tose tricky openings that sound like a conversation, without any big bangs. However, on the principle of Shakespeare having been an actor, and the necessity of having to attract attention, these actors can be used to make the audience eerie and apprehensive by letting on (in a polarised way) their expectation that something extraordinary and momentuous is about to happen. Which it will. John Russell Brown in 'King Lear, Edited with a Theatre Commentary' is great on opening up less than obvious acting choices. Does Gloucester laugh to overcome the tension?
    I'd be very interested in what you guys find.

  • Ildi Solti

    Hi Nick, well, it's one of those tricky openings that sound like a conversation, without any big bangs. However, on the principle of Shakespeare having been an actor, and the necessity of having to attract attention, these actors can be used to make the audience eerie and apprehensive by letting on (in a polarised way) their expectation that something extraordinary and momentuous is about to happen. Which it will. John Russell Brown in 'King Lear, Edited with a Theatre Commentary' is great on opening up less than obvious acting choices. Does Gloucester laugh to overcome the tension?
    I'd be very interested in what you guys find.

  • jacquie walter

    Hi Nick. Thanks for your blog. I reviewed an excellent production of “Mabeth” last year by Bogwood Productions with a Japanese theme where the audience had to walk to their seats past the entire cast as 'statues' standing in the gloom against the walls of the space. It was fabulous! The director also used the actors' voices to create a soundscape. It was incredibly effective.

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