What paper were you reading?

Stuff people at a Shakespeare festival say, a video my professor showed our Shakespeare Now class as a reprieve from our 20 page final papers:

Funny thing about prompt books for old productions: They’re chock full of stuff people at a Shakespeare festival say. Scribbled in the margins of the stage managers’ scripts are coded notations and references to rapiers, fake blood and corsets. Aside from gaining some useful background information for my production history King Lear project, the Globe and RSC prompt books I looked through ended up providing some amusing behind-the-scene gems.

My reading card for the RSC archive and library.

My reading card for the RSC archive and library.

So, taking after the above youtube video, here is Stuff People Write in King Lear Prompt Books:

– Please could we have some loose tobacco and papers in rehearsals as Lear and the fool might share a joint.

– Luggage seems to be an important theme coming through and Mr Kyle would like a throne looking chair in rehearsals which has straps or can easily be lashed to a knight and carried around.

– Mr Kyle would like Edgar in 2 hats. The first would be a hat to go with his “hamlet costume” in scenes 2 and 6 and the second would be more like a beanie hat which he would wear in scene 7

– SM will do a blood list for wardrobe

– Mr Glover likes the whip that he is using in rehearsals. Roger Mckern is happy with his Old Gentleman’s walking stick

– Please can the animal football we have in rehearsals be much lighter

– Lear throws rabbit offstage

– Food for each performance: 1 cooked chicken leg; 1 HARD-boiled egg (at least 6 minutes)

– Unfortunately the latrine is shedding rather a lot of splinters into the two actors who wear it. Could it possibly be smoothed out a little?

Also, as a general observation, prop lists for King Lears tend to be pretty extensive (at least five different letters to be exchanged, maps, crowns, spectacles, goblets, coxcombs) and at least a solid quarter of these lists is usually taken up by weapons alone.  The famed 1962 Peter Brooks Lear starring Paul Scofield included the following (yes, that was my way of bragging about getting to look through the Peter Brook prompt book): 12 metal shields; 12 metal daggers (used on shields); 2 huge swords; 2 epees with scabbards and belts; 16 swords and scabbards; 1 dagger and scabbard; 7 “french” swords – large daggers; 4 spare “french swords” (these break easily).

Production materials often include a time sheet as well, a chart mapping which scenes involve which character. They’re so long they have to be folded about three times over to fit in their binders, what with the various soldiers, servants and captains.

In some cases, the prompt books were actually more entertaining than useful. I often got more material from the play reviews, despite having to sift through endless paragraphs of show-offy prose and obnoxiously big words. I disagreed with a lot of the critics’ opinions, but it was useful to see what moments and images resonated the most with them. They oftentimes got a better image of the set than I did from my computer screen or caught tiny details that were just blurs from my perspective. So in those reviewers’ honor, here’s a list of the most amusing/pretentious quotes from King Lear reviews:

– When he is ranting and roaring against the iniquities of nature and his fellow man, he never rises to the thunderous scorn of a Wolfit or a Valk.

– An apocalyptic opera set to the surging music of an h-bomb storm which swallows up alive Beckett and Brecht, Ibsen and Chekhov.

– Indeed, it is one of the most lucid, powerful and moving productions of this great tragedy I have ever seen, with McKellen’s magnificent Lear destined to be remembered for far more than the moment when the old wizard flashes his impressive wand during a brief – and entirely justified – scene of nudity during the storm.

– Watching David Farr’s irritating and stubbornly unmoving new production of King Lear is like watching a pigmy trying to construct Stonehenge.

– It must be at least two centuries since somebody first noticed that one of the many factors that make this titanic play unplayable is that the great speeches are delivered by a bearded geriatric in acute distress crawling about on his knees like a stricken bison. this rather affects the actor’s vocal projection. how must he wish, as he sobs his anguish onto the boards, that he were playing Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello or Antony and were free to stride about the stage flinging the poetry to the back wall with measured athleticism

– Blood is spattered all over perpetrators, and the popping of his eyeball is gruesomely audible.

– Redgrave’s King appears first like a slightly embarrassing, aged relation on their birthday, asking his three daughters to flatter him. Then for the rest of the play he does vein-popping rage until he’s finally struck mad. Only fleetingly is this Lear compelling in his descent although at one stage he reminded me of a Sgt Bilko struck down by Alzheimer’s.

Looking through these prompt books, photos, videos, reviews…It was an eery, surreal experience. I almost felt invasive, as if I were looking through someone’s diary from years ago. My research at both archives was a useful reminder about how much thought and painstaking work goes into a production. Even the overwhelmingly poor Lears were the product of months of blocking and reblocking, textual rearrangements, fight calls and difficult directorial choices.

It’s easy to brush off live theatre as something that will be quickly forgotten, an experience that can’t really matter because it can’t be relived. But time and again, critics compared the Lear they were writing about to what they considered their ideal Lear, sometimes reaching decades back into their memories. While talking to local theatre-goers about my project, nearly everyone had a distinct Lear experience, something that resonated with them years after the final production.

So we have lots to look forward to as we start filling in our own prompt book margins this spring, and if we’re lucky, we’ll give audiences something to remember for years to come.

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