Today was brimming with firsts. I took my first hostel shower and enjoyed my first groggy London morning at a cafe in Southbank. I bought my first English Starbucks coffee (it was the only place with wifi, unfortunately) and then, for the very first time, I was buzzed through the Globe Theatre’s backstage security gates. For six hours, I sifted through my first professional prompt book and watched my first Globe play (granted, seeing one via computer screen isn’t quite the same as cheering with the groundlings, but it’s as close as I’m getting this winter). I had my first mini panic attack while trying to navigate Picadilly Circus but topped off the evening with my very first viewing of an original practice Shakespeare production.
Including the archived video of the Globe’s 2001 King Lear, I’ve seen three Shakespeare plays in the past two days. One (Julius Caesar) took an abrasive modern interpretation. Tonight’s Richard III was strictly conservative (all male cast, minimalistic set, elaborate, period-appropriate costumes), and the Globe’s King Lear comprised, staging a relatively traditional version with some fun, daring twists.
But one thing all three of these productions had in common surprised me. I’m going into this trip with fairly limited exposure to original practice theater; I always assumed it was stuffy and boring, leaving very little to the audience’s or the production teams’ imaginations. But so far, my favorite play yet was tonight’s Richard III. And I didn’t love it because men were wearing corsets and the instrumentalists played beautiful Jacobean accompaniment (although this latter detail was pretty fantastic). I loved it because it was the best at achieving what’s so special about Shakespeare’s plays: the play-audience interaction.
At my Globe visit and tour yesterday, the tourguide emphasized time and again how intimate and unconventional the theater’s practices are; spectators are encouraged to laugh and cheer and boo; they can mingle and grab snacks whenever they like; a rainy day performance means the groundlings need to buy ponchos, but there’s never a cancellation. Every performance is different, its own one-of-a-kind interpretation.
Julius Caesar at Donmar Warehouse, by far the most unconventional of the three, was incredibly interactive. It was staged in an all female prison; security screens were scattered around the theater so the audience could watch its own reactions; prision guards monitered the scenes from the catwalks; we had to sit on hard plastic chairs instead of cushioned seats; Julius tossed one audience member out of her seat and took her place front and center so when Brutus and the gang stabbed her, the spectators were as much a part of the murder as the actors. Critics weren’t crazy about this one, and I can’t say I was raving about it either. A lot of the choices seemed to be made for shock value instead of real meaning (the inmates played rock instruments occasionally even though they never would have access to them in prison, and the soothseer was totally naked at one point for some metaphorical purpose I didn’t grasp). But I stop to glance at my program once; I was fixed. The actors forced the audience into the world of the play. We became members of the Roman Senate, assasinators, even fellow inmates. It was, if nothing else, cool.
Second best on the audience engagement spectrum is the 2001 King Lear. I wasn’t even in the audience and I felt as if the play were alive. Most of the reviews of the play at least mentioned, if not focused on, how the Globe’s casual, audience-centered atmosphere affected the production (this was one of the Globe’s first big hits, so critics and spectators were still getting used to these new audience practices). The actors frequently marched onstage after passing through the crowd of groundlings (I especially loved it when spectators had to make way for the king and his procession of knights). Edgar spoke his opening lines from the top of a pole in the middle of the audience, and when Lear and Kent are bullying Oswald, they pushed him out into the audience for a forced crowd surfing. One critic said Edgar grabbed a beer can from an audience member and finished it off for one performance, and a baby occasionally cried during the video I watched. I had no idea King Lear could be so funny until I saw this recording. The text wasn’t any different, and the Fool’s gags weren’t overly ridiculous. The audience was a part of the play; they moved the story along, and I think it was that intimacy that made them so comfortable to laugh and cheer. As any actor knows, the best performances are when an active, loud audience is out there responding to the play. It’s no wonder the Globe’s productions are so popular (aside from costing only 5 pounds for a groundling spot); they’re fun. Some critics attacked the production for insighting inappropriate laughter, but I think it’s a testament to the actors doing a truly wonderful job.
Then there’s Richard. These actors did have quite an advantage; some audience members were actually seated in boxes onstage, so they were about as involved with the performance as possible. But it was the actors’ active interaction with the spectators that truly made it special. Richard is one of Shakespeare’s most charistmatic characaters. He’s an incredibly talented actor himself, adept at breaking out of a role to whisper a scheming aside to himself. Many Richards use those asides to talk to the audience, bringing them in on the plan and making the character all that more manipulative. In the movie version starring Ian McKellen, he literally motions for the camera to follow him as he plots. Tonight’s Richard (Mark Rylance) followed suit with one of the most captivating, eery stage performances I’ve ever seen. He strode onstage in act one scene one (no easy task with the very prnounced limp he had to keep up all three hours) and immedietely turned to the spectator boxes beside him. He handed one woman a white rose as he spoke his famous opening monologue, and right away he had the audience wrapped around his finger. Even the tiniest eye roll or sneer during an otherwise somber scene sent everyone into a fit of laughter because they were a part of the joke. The entire company played with the audience, walking up and down the aisles, apologizing when they were pushed too close to the boxes, asking them to cheer for Richard with a rousing “Long live the king!”
Frankly, any of these productions could have been terrible, but if the actors were still this involved, I would have at least had fun. Shakespeare’s plays offer scads of opportunities to play with the text and staging. Hopefully, we’ll take advantage of all those chances in the spring. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get the audience laughing as much as a rowdy crowd of groundlings.