Prepping a Shakespeare text for performance requires careful negotiation from the outset. As a director and voice and text consultant on productions, I work wearing a couple of dramaturgical hats. I’m mindful, firstly, of the practical aspects surrounding the task: proposed running time, budgetary constraints, cast size and casting choices – as well as performance space and audience composition. Is it a production pitched primarily at a schools’ audience, for example.
As far as running times are concerned, the Artistic Director of a big North American Shakespeare festival told me once, ‘Bring it in under 2 hours 45 minutes – with interval – any longer and audiences won’t stand for it.’ Well, I wouldn’t stand for it either, but with a good seat and a compelling production with meal breaks and rest stops, I’m happy to go way beyond this arbitrary time limit. Of course, as a rule of thumb it is a fair enough piece of advice but, like all rules, ripe for breaking. The 2010 STC (Sydney Theatre Company) production of The Wars of the Roses (the pretty much always-cut compilation of the eight history Henry and Richard plays) was a case in point. Split into two parts and four ‘Acts‘ it clocked in at just under 8 hours over two performances. The season sold out.
There are other matter-of-factual things which are useful to keep in mind as you work on text for performance. I’m not sure if it’s a uniquely Australian Shakespeare performance trend right now but, increasingly, productions are presented by smaller casts with actors playing multiple characters being commonplace. A couple of recent Hamlets here have gone this way. Whether a sign of the economic times or a new emphasis on performance rather than text, a director/dramaturg is going to be faced with cutting decisions – whole characters or text dialogue – either during the pre-production, text-prepping phase, or around the table at initial readings. I’ve yet to be involved in a production when cuts weren’t made during rehearsals on the floor. Sometimes you just need to play a part of the text for a while to know whether or not it will ‘work’ in performance. I’ve also been involved in productions where actors have begged to have a passage amended or deleted. The director makes the call, but I have to say not giving in too soon usually pays dividends. It’s often not until later in the rehearsal process when the ‘arcs’ of the play or character become clearer and connected and language more familiar that a passage or a line suddenly makes sense. Then the words play as though no others will do.
Once the practical considerations are noted, I turn to the Folio and Quarto editions and go to work. Whilst I don’t believe in the sacredness of Shakespeare’s text, I do wield the blue pencil sparingly. With the director’s interpretive idea for the play in mind, I work for playability and clarity and to keep the narrative flowing. When I’m considering the chop for a sequence of lines or an entire scene – radical surgery as opposed to keyhole – I’m also mindful of the great enjoyment that audiences and actors get from working and hearing the great passages and soliloquies spoken; cut these at your peril. They are ‘known’ and looked and listened for because they are wonderful.
If something has to go, I turn to minor characters who can either be cut or absorbed into one another. Next up are the clown scenes or the jokey punning on Elizabethan themes which, in so many of the plays, are just plain awful and dense and do nothing, in my opinion, to enhance playability or assist comprehensibility for 21st century audiences. By the way, with even the best acting, I don’t believe most audiences understand every word of the text on the fly, especially when taken at the fast clip we’re used to in the contemporary theatre. However, the voice coach in me is repelled by the counter approach, the sort of considered, over-emphatic and slow delivery of lines – rife with pauses – which is offered up in the mistaken belief that slow = more comprehensible. I prefer a light and quick delivery of the heightened text with full attention to meaning and all the other ‘clues’ for delivery: metre and its breaks, the switch from prose to verse and back again, antithesis, enjambment and the many poetic devices in the text. These were illustrated most famously perhaps by John Barton in the 1980’s Playing Shakespeare series and the book of the same name. Was it Cicely Berry who said, ‘There’s no full-stop in Shakespeare until the end?’ It sounds like her.
It’s clear at this point that I’ve now slipped on my voice coach’s hat. I guess for me, it’s almost inevitable that I would cut a text with playability pretty much at the top of the list. I know I think of the text – any text – as a blueprint for spoken action, and I speak it out loud and test it as I work on cuts to a rehearsal script.
Conclusion – know why you’re cutting, and weigh up the consequences before you do.