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Vitamin Q: the book!

~ Thursday, August 19, 2004

Twelve hard things about staging Shakespeare (many thanks to my brother Eric - stage manager of many Shakespeare productions for the RSC and other companies - for compiling this list)

‘But there is two hard things’ says Peter Quince, before sharing with us the difficulty of representing The Moon and A Wall in his play in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. But Shakespeare left modern producers of his plays with quite a few problems to solve.

1 The Bear in ‘The Winter’s Tale’

The very famous stage direction ‘exit, pursued by a bear’ is a tall order to accommodate. One RSC version in 1986 had a bearskin rug which was decorating the floor of Leontes’ house rise up on wires to terrify Antigonus. Not awfully effective. Other versions have ignored the writer’s demands and provided sound effects only. The 1993 Stratford production was beautifully executed however, by a very tall actor on all-fours in a very good costume, with not much light, and lots of dry ice, naturally.

2 Entrance of Jupiter in ‘Cymbeline’

‘Jupiter descends, in thunder and lightning, sitting on an eagle’. Apparently this was done in 1611 at the Globe, where an overhead trapdoor was part of the normal set up. But in these days of risk assessment and tight budgets, Jupiter is more likely to walk on, possibly holding a small model of an eagle.

3 Macbeth’s head

‘Enter Macduff, with Macbeth’s head’. I’ve seen many Macbeths, but never this. If any director wanted to end the thriller with a big laugh, this would be his or her chance. Funnily enough, the head is always cut. If you know what I mean.

4 Violence in ‘Titus Andronicus’

You would think that two broken necks (onstage), one hand cut off (onstage), two more hands and a tongue lopped off (offstage), with lots more rape and murder, and climaxing in a pie baked with two children being fed to their mother would be a hard thing to pull off. Yet in Deborah Warner’s award-winning 1987 Stratford version, the audience watched without a snigger. She proved that horror can work onstage.

5 Gloucester loses his eyes in ‘King Lear’

More graphic horror, this time in the much more widely-seen ’King Lear’. An old man is blinded on the order of his bastard son. The eyes are usually small condoms full of water and the second soldier on the left has a small water pistol full of blood to surreptitiously drench the perpetrators as the gouging occurs.

6 Hermione’s Statue in ‘The Winters Tale’

An actress must stand stock still for ten minutes as people inspect the ‘statue’ of the dead Hermione. But she needn’t worry too much about the odd blink, because it turns out she really is alive; ‘She’s warm!’ and they all live happily ever after.

7 The Forest of Arden in ‘As You Like It’

‘So this is the Forest of Arden!’ says Rosalind in awe. Some productions have more trees than you can shake a stick at, while most, with less money, prefer the ‘two scaffolding poles’ approach.

8 Twins in ‘The Comedy of Errors’ and ‘Twelfth Night’

Shakespeare loved twins, and gave us two sets in ‘Comedy’. Finding suitable actors can be tricky, the RSC used two lookalike brothers in 1976. Otherwise it’s left to the wig department to convince us. Then in ‘Twelfth Night’ we have Viola and Sebastian (‘an apple cleft in two is not more twin’): tricky with a man and a woman. We got to see how it worked for the author in the excellent all-male 2000 production at the Globe, where at last the two men did look genuinely alike.

9 The two hours traffic of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ etc

Despite the opening speech, which tells us we are in for ‘two hours traffic of the stage’, ‘Romeo’ is seldom less than three and a half hours long. Shakespeare is, in the main, long. The shortest are Macbeth and Julius Caesar, which can be done straight through in well under two hours. King Lear and Hamlet are famously long, at around four hours, and most actors refuse to do matinees. But the uncut Kenneth Branagh Hamlet in 1992 did play twice a day, at 12.30 and 7.00.

10 The Apparations in Macbeth

The witches ‘show’ Macbeth a succession of images, culminating in a parade of eight children who will become kings. Nowadays, it’s simply over to the video department. How did they manage in the old days?

11 Corpse of Henry VI in ‘Richard III’

A dummy is expensive, and if you use an actor, you have to get four strong volunteers to carry him on. And then Shakespeare throws this at you: ‘the corpse begins to bleed’. In option two, the actor must try to stop his chest moving as he gently pumps the fairy liquid bottle hidden under his shroud.

12 Crab in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’

Yes, it’s Shakespeare’s only onstage real animal. This dog always steals the show, and usually gets paid more than the leading actors. In Stratford 1994, the dog was ill and an understudy dog had to go on. Unfortunately due to lack of training, it took a severe dislike to one of the characters and tried to attack him repeatedly before running into the audience.

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