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«Illuminating Shakespeare Through Performance 1997-2008 J. M. Boxall Royal Holloway College PhD 2 Declaration of Academic Integrity I, Jocelyn Mary ...»

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Illuminating Shakespeare Through Performance 1997-2008

J. M. Boxall

Royal Holloway College



Declaration of Academic Integrity

I, Jocelyn Mary Boxall, hereby declare that this thesis and the work presented in

it is entirely my own. Where I have consulted the work of others this is always

clearly stated.

Jocelyn Mary Boxall




The twenty-first century has seen a marked change in approaches to understanding

Shakespeare’s texts through literary and theatrical criticism and also performance.

This thesis argues that performances of Shakespeare in Britain between 1997 and 2008 staged by Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company enabled audiences to have increased physical and intellectual access to the plays and that as a result literary and theatrical critical readings of the texts became more productively complicated. It is argued that this increased access came as a response to political initiatives to democratise culture in Britain. It was also partly the result of transferring staging practices used in more intimate theatrical spaces to main house environments where they were developed further. By analysing particular scenes from Titus Andronicus, Love’s Labour’s Lost, King Henry V and King Lear in case studies of the plays observed in the theatrical spaces and conditions in which they were encountered in performance, it is possible to demonstrate that production practices during this time gave new dimensions to the plays and deepened our understanding of their processes and textual meanings. The identification of these processes and their uses extends our knowledge of Shakespeare’s work as a dramatist. Discussion of the plays is enriched through a combined consideration of (a) the methods used to analyse the difficulties emerging from their staged performance, and (b) the problems identified by literary and theatrical accounts of the texts. These difficulties and problems include apparent structural inconsistencies in the texts, the purposes of character interaction and the diverse nature of audience reception in the particular spatial and temporal conditions 4 in which the plays are encountered. It is argued that by conducting a multi- perspectival analytical approach and recognising the subsequent beneficial complications more detail about Shakespeare’s meaning-makingprocesses can be

–  –  –

I should like to acknowledge with gratitude the support and encouragement of Dr Christie Carson, Professor Kiernan Ryan and Professor Ewan Fernie during the research and preparation of this thesis. I am grateful to the archivists at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Archive at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive in Stratfordupon-Avon for their help. I should like to thank the practitioners who made the plays and playing spaces discussed here. I am indebted to my family.

7 Chapter One.


The potential for interdisciplinary analysis to illuminate the dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s plays was already being debated in the final decade of the twentieth

century. As Robert Weimann observes:

The recent interest in a new model of Shakespeare criticism raises a host of practical and theoretical questions, among which the relationship between the representation of textual ‘meaning’ and the circumstances of performing practice appears to be quite central.1 These questions coincided with particular political conditions in Britain at that time.

The decline of Conservative power, which began in 19902 and continued until New Labour’s landslide victory in May 1997, had far-reaching consequences for political, cultural, social and economic life in Britain. When Tony Blair became Prime Minister he developed a premier-style leadership for the new millennium. Blairite approaches to government included the advancement of egalitarian policies of inclusion. These policies affected not only the ideologies and practices of the main theatrical institutions3 where Shakespeare performance was encountered by its audience, but also the ways in which the meanings of plays were communicated, considered and evaluated inside and outside the playhouse.

1 Robert Weimann, ‘Performing at the Frontiers of Representation: Epilogue and Post-Scriptural Future in Shakespeare’s Plays’, in The Arts of Performance in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Drama, Essays for George Hunter, ed. by Murray Biggs, Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank and Eugene M. Waith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), pp. 96-129 (p. 96).

2 Margaret Thatcher served as Conservative Prime Minister from 4 May 1979 until 28 November

1990. She was succeeded by John Major, whose leadership was contested in 1995. He remained in office until 19 June 1997.

3 The political, cultural and economic timeframe under discussion marked the transition from a thirteen year period of Conservative government, which had observed a rise in high quality, smallscale production for a limited and relatively wealthy audience, to just over a decade of New Labour in power which transformed larger theatrical institutions using a mixed economic policy to stimulate fiscal growth through tourist revenue and devolved subsidy away from London to reinvigorate regional theatres. A more detailed discussion of these policies is provided later in Chapter One on p. 15.

8 The focus of this study is an analysis of what happened to Shakespearean production in New Labour Britain between 1997 and 2008. It investigates whether the dramaturgic processes presented in a range of Shakespeare’s plays performed during this period can be illuminated in further detail as a result of ideological and institutional change that affected theatre practice. In order to explore this question, selected scenes from performances of two different productions of four plays, Titus Andronicus, Love’s Labour’s Lost, King Henry V and King Lear, staged by the main institutional providers of Shakespeare’s work in Britain are compared in separate case studies. The original contribution of the research lies is the development and application of a methodology to investigate the plays which draws on different aspects of literary and theatrical critical accounts of the texts, pre-production work, performance and spectatorship and reflects on the political and institutional climate in which the plays were staged in order to identify the productive problems that emerge. The aim of the case studies is to demonstrate the benefits of an investigative method which integrates each of these analytical approaches more closely for the purpose of exploring the links between the audience and the processes by which it makes meaning out of its encounter with the plays in the contexts and conditions of performance. The plays considered here span Shakespeare’s work as a playwright during the 1590s and early 1600s. Each text offers identifiable approaches to the uses of the playhouse space and audience interaction which provide a useful basis for comparison. Shared thematic links between texts include broken relationships and the imbalance of power in patriarchal hierarchies. They offer commentaries on the effects of political power on the individual which was a key focus of Blair’s

–  –  –

Andronicus and Love’s Labour’s Lost have been produced less often, partly because they offer particular challenges to modern directors and audiences in terms of staging and reception, but both plays were performed relatively frequently during this period.

The discussion of the texts is therefore shaped by these factors to demonstrate how elements of the plays’ dramaturgic features were developed over time. The research presented here is aimed at all readers of Shakespeare’s texts, whether they are considering the plays from literary or theatrical critical perspectives in order to learn more about Shakespeare’s dramaturgy, whether they are reading the text for meaning in performance or, preferably, exercising a combination of these analytical methods.

Theatrical performance combines spontaneity with meticulous preparation.

Its strength lies in its transience. Practitioners and audiences make a mutual commitment to sharing responsibility for creating the performance in the playhouse;

a power which is constantly re-negotiated and remains unstable. Much of the impact of theatrical practice is linked with specific moments in performance which are custom-built for very particular temporal and spatial conditions and destined to vanish as the production concludes. Ironically, the impact of performance is the very aspect which extends the life of the text through the demand for repeated production.

Analysis of the construction of dramatic episodes within scenes in performance is of interest to the overall discussions of the plays because they are often the moments which create literary or theatrical debate over time. Sourcing information about them remains difficult, especially if they are being considered from multiple perspectives.

The continuing existence of comprehensive production meeting and rehearsal notes, detailed prompt books and show reports after performance in theatre archives or

–  –  –

the information they offer alongside theatrical or literary accounts of the text. A working knowledge of the theatrical institutions and practices during a particular historical period is useful. As the bibliography for this thesis indicates4, the researcher contemplating the combined effects of performance practice seeks evidence from a wide variety of sources, including the experience of multiple performances attended over time. Accounts by directors and actors of their work on specific productions have been included as and when appropriate; they yield valuable information about some of the processes involved in creating meaning in performance.5 These sources of evidence inevitably refer the researcher back to the original Shakespeare text, enabling the platforms between the text and performance to be established for discussion.

The written texts of Shakespeare’s plays offer blueprints for the experiences of performance; their dramatic structures and characterisations are the processes which provide the routes for making meaning as the play unfolds moment by moment. The literary critical approaches of New Historicism, Cultural Materialism and, more recently, Presentism have increasingly invited investigation of the relationship between the play texts and the temporal and spatial conditions in which they are encountered. The work of Terence Hawkes and Ewan Fernie, which has been informed to some extent by left-wing literary critics such as Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield whose materialist approaches to Shakespeare reflect the desire for 4 The bibliography includes performance and archive materials as primary sources in addition to citations for political, institutional and practitioner comment from a range of sources. The aim is to highlight the significance of intrinsic and extrinsic contexts and the experience of performance in the evaluation process.

5 It should be noted that in the early stages of the research interviews with audience members offered fewer relevant comments for analysis and are therefore referred to only if they add information about the topics under discussion. Audience surveys completed by theatres are of interest but tend to offer less than comprehensive indications of reality in terms of providing information about demographic and response. Other types of study may find audience surveys of greater value.

11 political change, has shaped the development of the methodology. The critical approaches of theatre history and performance studies have clarified the impact of intrinsic and extrinsic conditions on the plays in performance, including the spaces in which they are staged, the nature of the audience and the spectators’ role in playmaking. The value of the research documented here lies in discussing the spatial relationships between the audience and the events on the stage, demonstrating how the practices employed to achieve them were developed in the working environment.

The problems that emerge can be related to evidence from the text in order to consider them in a multi-perspectival approach.

It is not possible to gain an entirely holistic view of the production methods used in the time scale considered in this study. Neither is it feasible to conduct an investigation of every theatrical space in Britain between 1997 and 2008 staging productions of the plays. Thus I have elected to narrow the focus in order to facilitate a detailed examination of performance in spaces that responded to each other in terms of artistic, ideological and institutional development. The size and playing conditions of the auditoria are of particular interest; the bigger the auditorium the greater the difficulty in attracting and involving an audience. The selection of productions and performances here is limited but also enhanced by factors such as a) their presentation as part of a season or cycle of plays, b) their location in institutions which have the facilities and funding to produce them for a larger audience, c) the relative proximity of the performance dates which have enabled comparison of them

–  –  –

for multiple viewings by the researcher.6 The study further considers the ideologies and practices of three key providers of Shakespeare performance in Britain: the Royal National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe in London and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. These partially publicly subsidised and commercial institutions, particularly Shakespeare’s Globe, have shown demonstrable interest in academic scholarship; not only in what can be learned about Shakespeare’s plays from staged productions but also in what can be applied, tested and investigated in the conditions of performance. They are therefore closely linked with intrinsic and extrinsic contextual factors which affected how productions were staged between 1997 and 2008, such as changes in public funding or developments in Shakespeare research, and provide rich material for comparison.

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