Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

A Fool's Stage: Royal Shakespeare Company Productions from Stratford, England, 2007

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

A Fool's Stage: Royal Shakespeare Company Productions from Stratford, England, 2007

Article excerpt

The Royal Shakespeare Company has been in the midst of a radical self-fashioning, in which every element of its theatrical identity and mission must be revisited. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been gutted, while The Other Place has metamorphosed into the much larger Courtyard Theatre, silencing, at least for the moment, the rich and intimate eloquence of that earlier and simpler theatrical space, the venue of, among other works, Trevor Nunn's Macbeth and Othello as well as Tim Supple's The Comedy of Errors. Additionally, features of theatrical practice that have long defined the RSC, such as the commitment of actors to long theatrical runs often marked by improvisation and discovery, are now uncertain. One feature in jeopardy is cross-casting, the practice of casting the same actors in multiple roles in multiple plays, a tactic that can lead to surprising metatheatrical discoveries--recognition scenes, really--between one play, or one character, and another. In a risky series of experiments, the RSC seems to be divesting itself, layer by layer, of all its rich and familiar traditions until it finds "the thing itself."

Is it any wonder, then, that the 2007 Royal Shakespeare Company's summer season should be so self-consciously obsessed with the power, the volatility, even the vulnerability, of theater? Implicit in that self-consciousness were both experimentation and elegy, as we participated in a vital theatrical practice about to be extinguished. The RSC, for example, staged both Macbeth and Macbett in repertory, with David Troughton playing Duncan in the former play and Macbett in the latter and Patrick O'Kane playing Macbeth in Shakespeare's play and King Duncan in Ionesco's. (1) The double cross-casting closed some of the distance between Shakespeare's play and Ionesco's as the audience was invited to imagine these two antithetical characters as one. And why not? If bloody murder were merely "man's work," then Duncan's robes could indeed sit as easily as Macbett's--or Macbeth's. That Derbhle Crotty played both Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's play and Lady Duncan in Macbett further contributed to the dark metastasis that raced through both productions. The evil in these two plays was not limited to a particular root, or household, or man. Both of these productions presented a malice too cruel anywhere. That sense of moral interchangeability was made even more discomfiting, especially for the audience, in Macbeth's treatment of the weird sisters. They became choric figures helping to establish the audience's own point of view. They insinuated themselves among the nameless attendants in the Macbeth or Macduff household, even helping to prepare the table for Macbeth's inaugural banquet. They came to appear as ghostly spectators. Such theatrical practices made it increasingly difficult for the audience to distinguish itself from the rest of the Porter's hellish guests. We were all tainted.

Trevor Nunn set his production of King Lear in the Courtyard Theatre, where it was performed in repertory with Chekhov's The Sea Gull. (2) Nunn's setting created a radically ambivalent theatrical space that allowed us to look simultaneously into the past and the present. On the one hand, the central stage thrust out into the audience, allowing an engagement, even an interaction, between audience and actors that problematized the distinction between them, creating a highly charged energy that characterized a performance decorum that was both early modern and postmodern. At the same time, the stage and staging looked nostalgically toward the past. The back wall of the stage was marked by a series of classical columns with red curtains draped between them. The set reminded one critic of "an enormous grand theatre." (3) But as the columns on each side of the stage intruded on the space reserved for the audience, those classical columns metamorphosed into more functional, and more modern, vertical red supports, flanking the audience on both sides and creating an imperfect magic circle that contained both audience and actors. …

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