To thrust or not to thrust?

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Janet Suzman’s production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Liverpool Playhouse was a great success, acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. Paul Edmondson wrote perceptively about it in his blog last week. It was, necessarily at that address, unfashionable in being played on a proscenium arch stage. Reactions against such staging began as long ago as the late nineteenth century with the work in coterie conditions of William Poel. They spread to larger constituencies with the thrust stage of Stratford Ontario’s theatre in mid-century. After that a rash of thrust and open stage theatres followed suit, as for instance at Chichester and Sheffield. The movement acquired orthodoxy with the open stage of the Olivier Theatre at the National, the reconstruction of the Globe, and later the Courtyard and Swan auditoria in Stratford. And it will be replicated in the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It has had a beneficial effect in freeing actors from what has come to be known as the tyranny of the proscenium arch, creating a more direct and intimate relationship between actors and audience, enabling soliloquies to be delivered out front and so to seem to give audiences more immediate contact with what’s going on the minds of the plays’ characters.

But open and thrust stages have their disadvantages. Though Shakespeare wrote for the Globe, among other playhouses, he didn’t necessarily regard it as an ideal space; and anyhow his plays had to be made to work in improvised locations too, at court and on tour. All too often in the modern Globe, and on the somewhat different stages at Stratford in the Swan and the Courtyard, blocking has created difficulties, the positioning of actors at the corners of the stage obscuring important action from audience members sitting in their sight lines. Vocal levels have fluctuated as actors turned towards and away from sections of the house. The pillars at the Globe have been execrated by directors and spectators alike, and people sitting in the so-called lords’ room at the back of the stage have realized that it’s not only in playhouses of Victorian design that some seats offer better opportunities of being seen than of seeing.

Front-on staging also invites in-your-face acting. At its best, as in Suzman’s production, it can rivet the audience’s attention to hypnotic effect, achieving a point of focus more easily than the dispersed methods of the thrust stage. Jeffery Kissoon’s Antony worked directly on the audience, compelling attention from all parts of the house in a performance which gave full force to the play’s rhetoric as well as to its passion. Kim Cattrall as Cleopatra, a working queen as well as a sexy lover, was a fine match for him, and Ian Hogg’s seasoned Enobarbus was only one among a series of well-matched performances which suggested that an ad hoc company can play together with no less finesse than one that has had the luxury of working together for long periods of time.

Maybe it’s time to admit that Shakespeare can work as well as on the pros-arch as on the thrust stage.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Richardjohnson

    I agree. The old RST was like working in a very large cinema. It was a place built for spectaculat productions. Quite unnecessary for Shakespeare. I used to long to be in the Swan. Better still, The Pit at the Barbican.

  • Christian Smith

    I favour the thrust stage because there is less of a boundary between the audience and the actors with this formation than with the proscenium arch. I believe that the theatre is a useful space for an exploration of society and for consciousness raising. It is also a space for the construction of community. It seems to me that this was the situation in the early modern theatre with its vocal (and sometimes physical) interactions between the actors and the audience and with the political topicality of the words being spoken onstage. The more a stage thrusts (physically and figuratively) into the audience the more my three desires for theatre can occur.

    In September 2006, I sat in the Swan watching Philo and Demetrius complain about Anthony’s ‘overflowing’ ‘dotage’ on ‘the tawny front’ and the ‘gipsy’s lust’ when suddenly I felt a cool rush at my side. It was Patrick Stewart rushing (seemingly out of the audience) onto the stage, flipping a little SM whip about, wearing nothing more than some skimpy coverings and a big grin. Later in the play, he lay on the stage, inches from my knees, whining to his love, “Pritheeee’. I felt as if I was a part of his character, or at least a part of his world – choosing love over battle, choosing the insanity of desirous relations over the order of military ones. The thrust stage places theatre on my side, and me on the actor’s side.

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