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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Design

"Shakespeare paints landscapes with language; he builds sets for you." 

It's the first day of rehearsals and the red electrician's tape used by stage management to mark out the set has been stuck to the rehearsal room floor. The tape may simply outline the dimensions of an open space whether square, rectangle, circle or something else into which actors and objects will come and go. Or it may be a more complex pattern on the floor with angled and dotted lines marking where doors and windows will be. Possibly the red tape will be overlaid with other colours, blue, yellow, orange in different patterns, each one representing a different set for different parts of the play. The cast are gathered around a model of the set (or sets) while the director and designer talk about their thinking, the reasons for the choices they have made and how the scene changes (if there are to be any) will work.

The most obvious choice a director, with the collaboration of a designer, has to make when planning a production of Shakespeare is the visual world of the play - Roman, Elizabethan, Victorian, Modern, a purely invented world or whatever. When I say "world" I'm not talking about just the set and costumes but the entire world of class structure, religious belief, social etiquette, attitudes to political justice and the law, the total socio-historical context that informs the mindset of all the characters. Without question the world that is the best fit between these things and the text of the play is the Elizabethan/Jacobean world in which all the plays were written - roughly between 1590 and 1610. But Shakespeare's plays looked at in these terms are all hybrids. To a large extent the pasts in which he sets his stories are always overlaid with the shadow of his own time. And this liberates us to invent worlds of our own since his worlds are themselves inventions. All his plays are really about his own time although set in another time and usually another place. With the exception of the History plays none of them are set in London (Windsor was a long way from London then) the place in which he lived and worked. Perhaps this is what Ben Jonson meant when he made the famous observation that Shakespeare was "not of an age, but for all time".

The play may be set in Ancient Rome, Renaissance Italy or medieval England but the issues, ideas and emotions examined were those of the Elizabethans or, after 1603, the Jacobeans. We empathise because the way Shakespeare's world thought was the beginning of the way we think now, and his plays played a major part in cultivating it. That's why academics call the period "early modern" as so much of the thinking anticipates our own time. But so much is different too that the created stage world is bound to be hybrid. The choices made by director, designer and actor invariably co-exist with choices made by the writer simply adding another strata, another shadow. We are always in "all time" never "an age". But here is the dilemma, or maybe it's just a paradox: the play is 'Hamlet', the clothes the characters are wearing are completely modern, but the words they are speaking were written 400 years ago. Hamlet speaks of bodkins and believes in life after death but he's wearing T-shirt and jeans. If you the director are insisting every single word counts, as you should be, and the words the actors are  saying are contradicted by the world you are wearing, isn't the dissonance unbearable? Well,strangely, no. It's a paradox not a dilemma, unless you want to sound like you're in a modern soap opera. But that's another story.

Design can create a multitude of different worlds for Shakespeare, provided they are created with an integrity of purpose, a desire to express the plays meaning and essence and not to show off the director's brilliance. 

Deciding on the design world is harder for some of the plays than others, but whatever world you create in whatever period ( or combination of periods ) one very elementary decision is crucial. How much stuff do you put on stage? By "stuff" I mean walls, doors, windows, furniture, props. This effects the style of movement - the blocking, as I was saying in the last blog. The two subjects obviously overlap a great deal. The amount of stuff you put on stage effects everything, style of movement, way of speaking and, crucially the flow of the action. It's truly wonderful for the first line of a scene to follow the last line of the previous scene in a heartbeat, rather than having to wait for a load of stuff to be shifted. Scene changes can be spectacularly interesting and I bet some directors enjoy them more than working on the text, and it's true that a bare space, unless filled with human intensity, may feel visually dull and fail to feed the audience's imagination; too much to look at can detract significantly from the text. Depriving the audience of spectacle can be a good thing. Minds may be better focused on the pictorial quality in the language helping the audience to see with their ears. This is the injunction of the Chorus in the first speech of Henry the Fifth. Shakespeare paints landscapes with language; he builds sets for you. 

In striving to find the right balance it's helpful to consider whether the play's action is intensive or extensive: does it stay mainly in one place as in 'Hamlet', where we are seldom outside the walls of Elsinore, or does it move from heath to castle, from battlefield to the English court as in 'Macbeth?' From the point of view of design the most difficult for me are the ones that alternate between just two prime locations. For example, in the 'Merchant' we have the constant shifting between Venice and Belmont, and in 'Troilus and Cressida' we go back and forth between Troy and the Grecian camp outside its walls. Of the two basic types of design discussed so far - naturalistic sets with ingenious scene changes or an empty but protean space that can change many times - neither can quite solve the problem for me. With the naturalistic style a revolve might be the answer, but only on a large, well equipped proscenium stage which needs a big budget and strong nerves as machine driven revolves can break down halfway between Belmont and Venice. The open space is probably the better option and allows you never to visit the same part of Venice or Troy twice, and always be in a different part of Belmont or visiting another Greek tent. I suppose you could achieve that with a revolve too but you'd need a very quiet stage crew! 

As I said, the ways of designing Shakespeare are infinite. I've not done a scientific study of this but I would guess the majority of productions over the last 20 or 30 years have been in some sort of modern dress. For a long time at the RSC, Victorian was a very popular choice, but Regency less so. The 1920s always got a lot of outings, but I think my own 'Merry Wives of Windsor' might have been the only production set in the 1950s. Actual Elizabethan was reasonably common but not as popular as Edwardian. Mixed period or purely invented worlds, such as Peter Brooke's famous 'Dream', were always cropping up. In the last few years the post apocalyptic look is a favourite for 'Macbeth', but I think pure modern dress would come out on top. This category you can divide into two - with and without mobile phones. I've opted always for the later. Mobile phones make me nervous - on and off stage. On stage if I see one in Bassanio's hand I wonder why he doesn't ring Portia to let her know he's on his way rather than sending:

"A young Venetian, one that comes before
To signify the approaching of his lord,
From whom he bringeth sensible regreets."

So many problems wouldn't have happened but for the fact that the only way of communicating at distance in the 16th century was a man on a horse. However, full confession, in the upcoming production of 'Merchant' for Shakespeare in Italy, I will be using mobile phones in certain scenes! It'll be a first for me. For you see, there are no absolutes - that's the maddening thing about theatre.

Bill Alexander ©

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