Blackfriars Diary: Day Three

The Panels

Today’s theme for me was hearing from some scholars who have really figured out how to usefully leverage contemporary performance in service of historical principles. So often, using a modern-day performance in an attempt to excavate historical ideas can feel like false objectivity: just because something seems obvious to us doesn’t mean it would have been obvious or logical then. Or it can just come off seeming a bit “so what?”– highlighting that an individual performer/production made a given choice can feel more like anecdote than analysis.

The staging session led by Farah Karim-Cooper and Beth Burns of the Hidden Room Theater Company transcended all of these issues with its emphasis on experimentation. Karim-Cooper recently published a book about early modern gesture onstage, and has done work with Burns’ company to illustrate some of her theories and findings in performance. No one claimed to offering truth, only possibilities– and the possibilities they presented were very interesting. Pairing Shakespeare’s heightened language with heightened gesture felt so fitting and natural, a forceful reminder that Shakespeare is not naturalism, and works best when it isn’t trying to be. I was startled when their very sincere rendition of Q1 Hamlet‘s dumb show had much of the room in gales of laughter, as the exaggerated, expressive movements really weren’t funny– they were just unfamiliar. But they were also very evocative and very beautiful, and Karim-Cooper’s connection between the gestures of rejection and capitulation of the Player Queen and her wooer in the Hamlet dumb show and the “perverse wooing scene” between Gloucester and Lady Anne in Richard III was very fascinating, and I think indicates a really important and useful avenue of exploration, one that reminded me of Janette Dillon’s work on scenic “units” in Shakespeare and the Staging of English History. What might be found by attending more closely to gestural echoes across the plays?

Katheryn McPherson’s paper operated similarly, experimenting with space in public vs court performances, letting the actors traverse different ranges of the playing space and to incorporate (or not) the presence of a theoretical monarch.

Richard Priess’s exploration of an apparently impossible stage direction in The Devil is An Ass– one that seems to require an actor to be in two places at once– was so firmly rooted in text and so masterfully argued that his use of actors actually felt more like illustration than exploration. But in that, it provided another useful example of how to take advantage of the performance options this conference offers.

James Keegan brought an actor’s take (though he’s also a professor) to the difficulties of hoisting the dying Antony’s body aloft in 4.15 of Antony and Cleopatra, but applied a sufficiently thoughtful and scholarly lens to take his conclusions beyond mere anecdote.

This is a question I continue to grapple with, especially being partly based at an institution that is rooted in experimenting with reproductions of early modern spaces. It was so useful to see some great examples of how performance as research can feel really effective.

The Play: Love’s Labour’s Lost 

I forget that lots of people aren’t fans of Love’s Labour’s Lost because to me it seems so self-evidently great. As I was saying to someone today, I think that if people could move past their panic about the density of the language, they’d realize that the extremely contemporary-feeling characters and situations would (I think, anyway) prove sufficiently accessible to audiences to make up for the linguistic soup.

This production was delightful, though the day’s panels inspired some interesting thoughts about the play’s much-discussed inconclusive ending. As Burns and Karim-Cooper’s panel in particular remind us, “original practices” is not just an aesthetic– not just a 17th century playhouse and costumes and fast entrances and live music. There is an acting and storytelling style that needs to be retrieved as well, and the ending of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a place where contemporary expectations crash particularly jarringly against what the text suggests.

It was in evidence in this production as well: the Princess of France performed the entire end of the play tearfully– which makes naturalistic sense. She’s just learned of her father’s death, after all. But her actual text bespeaks calm. The language is measured and complex, devoid of exclamations or lamentations. Like the end of so many comedies, the end of LLL lifts above any pretense at naturalism, into the heightened realm where improbable conclusions become possible. Hero is both revealed and reborn. Proteus is forgiven. The Princess is now a Queen (as has often been pointed out, her speech prefix changes instantly) and presents the King with a fairy-tale like quest to restore his wounded honor.

The incorporation of contemporary songs at certain moments in the play suggest they weren’t necessarily seeking to fully achieve an OP aesthetic, and the injection of extra emotion into the ending sequence certainly didn’t disrupt the splendid production– but I admit I was most moved when they finally did eschew naturalism to end the play with a dance.

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