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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Cutting

"Performance is an encounter between those who have prepared for the occasion and those who haven't. If you doubt - CUT."

Ben Jonson records actors who had worked with Shakespeare telling him one of the things they most admired about their house dramatist was that they always received their new scripts without a "blot" in the lines. This didn't mean he had neat handwriting and that there were no messy blobs of ink, but that the manuscripts were free from any crossings out, rewritings crammed between the lines or alterations in the margins. In other words the lines flowed from him without need of correction; that what they read was his first thought, not the second or third attempt. Jonson's slightly caustic comment on this was: "Would he had blotted many". He went on to make clear that, despite being a great admirer of the man he seems to have considered a close friend, in his opinion Shakespeare wrote too much. Jonson implied he could have said what he wanted in fewer words; that his imagination was astonishingly fecund but his discipline in controlling it was weak. Anyone who knows Ben Jonson's own work could be forgiven for thinking this was a major case of the pot calling the kettle black. 

In the opening speech of 'Romeo and Juliet' spoken by the Chorus, the mention of "the two hour traffic of our stage" implies that either the actors must have spoken incredibly fast, or that they regularly cut the texts for performance, retaining the full text only in the printed versions, the quartos. The editors of the First Folio published seven years after Shakespeare's death make the claim that only there can be read the complete and definitive record of the plays as their author intended them. It's also clear that the scripts evolved in performance. Shakespeare was an actor and it is vanishingly unlikely that he didn't let his fellow actors have their say. It's fascinating to compare in the rehearsal room the different versions of 'Hamlet' and 'King Lear' for instance; how adjustments both small and large indicate debate and experimentation during the rehearsal process. Are the mechanicals preparing their performance in 'A Midsummer Nights Dream' a gentle satire on the discussions that took place I wonder?

How in rehearsing these days do you identify what to cut and what to change in the text? 

It's no good denying that some of Shakespeare can be obscure, so the first thing to do is identify the nature of the obscurity. Can the meaning be made clear by its context within the whole sentence? Does the situation at that moment in the story provide clarity? Can physical action of any kind help the sense? Has every possible way of saying the line involving phrasing, inflection, and attitude been fully explored? All this assumes prior agreement about the actual meaning of the word, phrase or sentence under question - the debate concerns the communicating of that to an audience.

In both the director's preparation before rehearsal and in the rehearsal room itself the analysis of meaning must be word by word, phrase by phrase and sentence by sentence, constantly asking the question: "Are we certain the audience will understand?" But the answer to this question and the question about what it means in the first place is inevitably subjective; there is no absolute right or wrong anymore than there is about the right way to say it. Honesty is the most important element because it is so easy in the excited atmosphere of the rehearsal room to persuade yourself that you can make an audience understand something, something that will actually always remain incomprehensible whatever you do, however you say it. You have to remember that the audience haven't been in the room with you, they haven't heard your discussions or been part of your experiments. Actors and director might have spent hours talking about the meaning of a line but they are hearing it for the first time. Performance is an encounter between those who have prepared for the occasion and those who haven't. If you doubt - CUT.

That's fairly straightforward, but if, after removing obscurity the play, or scene or speech still feels too long, cutting becomes harder. You may have become attached to sections of the text that provide emotional and narrative continuity, form bridges between different moods, or that you love simply for what they are, their own beauty, their own drama. Sometimes you just have to accept that asking an audience to spend too long in your company, however brilliant and necessary you may feel every moment to be, may be counter productive. You may have to lose something you cherish but the audience won't feel that loss the way you do. For better or worse, they don't know what they're missing.

I once prepared a text for 'Hamlet' that left out every reference to the war between Denmark and Norway and consequently removed the character of Fortinbras as well.

That's a big chunk of 'Hamlet'.

The production was still three hours long.

Bill Alexander ©

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