Weeks of video recordings, group readings, and critical essays urging the importance of thinking about Shakespeare in performance just hadn’t cut it for our English gang at Jesus College. So it was London, baby. Headed for the South Bank, there were standing spots with our name on them at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre for a Bard marathon. 5 hours, 4 halves, 2 feet, and no chairs.
Excited to watch some Shakespeare (and who doesn’t love a day trip), I was expecting an impressive, but fairly standard, theatre experience. The Globe, I’d heard, was a blast, but I couldn’t imagine anything all that different from your typical playhouse, and I was thinking more about the hour-long stints standing open to the elements.
And for Part I, as it turned out, there was quite a lot of drizzle, and achy soles couldn’t be avoided. But an energetic Hal and Poins, the young prince and his scoundrel peer, led the entire performance in dissolving discomfort. The tavern scenes of both parts, with the famously funny, famously fat Falstaff, are lively and laugh-out-loud, but the Globe’s particular brand of audience interaction, constant movement, and vitality brought the scenes an especially absorbing animation and credibility. Perhaps the audience was well-primed (presumably most people who commit to nearly 3 hours standing know the play already), perhaps the text’s canonicity made its laughs more immediately lucid, but this production did an excellent job of getting across the Shakespearean humour which can often feel buried beyond the reach of non-academics: the audience was in on the joke, and the response was as animated as the performance.
What’s more, a lot of the lit theory which we’d been hearing and reading about during the term had centred around the actor’s body on stage and its impact on performance moments. Take, for example, the scene in The Winter’s Tale when the statue of Hermione (actually Hermione all along) comes ‘back’ to life, and the audience is aware not just of a character pretending to be dead and then playing her living ‘reality’, but of an actor pretending to have been pretending to be dead, and now pretending to be alive. This had all seemed pretty abstract and theoretical to me; despite having really enjoyed thinking about it, and being convinced that it is something Shakespeare was inviting us to think about, I wasn’t entirely sure that such metatheatrical reflections ever really hit home in the theatre, especially from my experience of modern distant and lighting-controlled stages. But leaning on this stage, close enough to touch King Henry IV’s feet or feel Lady Mortimer’s tears, able, almost, to read the contents of the letters being passed around, seeing Falstaff take a proffered can of Boddington’s from the audience or rest his hand on my friend’s head, I was, like Shakespeare’s first audience, unable to escape the reality of the actor’s body and its complex and energising impact on the performance.
What, precisely, is that impact? From Falstaff’s looking into the audience as he addressed his mustered troops in Part I, to his riding in the centre of the crowd to the newly-crowned Hal at the close of II, Falstaff’s closeness – that feeling that he might reach out or talk to one of us at any time – was integral to our admiring rather than pitying him, to our walking out of the theatre with the feeling so familiar from centuries of literary criticism that he was at the centre of a play whose titular character was on the fringes. A Bakhtinian voice from and of the crowd, Falstaff is, despite being the jocular and rotund embodiment of temptation for the young Hal, ‘one of us’, and the sense of him as somewhere between real actor and fictional character, between performer on stage and plausible friend in real life, goes a long way to getting us on side.
Another rippling effect of that proximity of the real person behind the character was potently at play in the performance’s gender dynamics. The boy actor in female roles is familiar C16th practice, and studying Shakespeare and other plays of his Renaissance period, I’ve been really interested in how this staging dynamic – which we’re ‘supposed to’, often assumed to, ignore – works in reality to undermine or reinforce the power dynamics and sexual politics at play on stage. What happens to audience reaction when one of Shakespeare’s ‘strong’ women is so obviously a lanky pubescent behind the rouged cheeks and forced soprano pitch? The Globe’s ‘gender blind’ casting brought these and similar considerations onto the modern stage with force. But whilst I was thoroughly convinced by a female Falstaff, Hal, and Hotspur, and even by a Widow-Twanky-esque male Hostess Quickly, a male Lady Mortimer, speechlessly pleading her husband not to join the war, didn’t quite compel. It may be as simple as costume design (a man in a dress instinctively feels, in spite of how we might like to embrace it, more farcical than a man playing a woman in androgynous clothing), but I suspect the jarring sense which I couldn’t look past has more to do with the still radical nature of such performance choices; it may take a while before reverse gender casting can feel dramatically credible, dramatically ‘right’, in both directions. Unfortunately, this knife-edge invocation of farce worked with a disappointing Lady Percy, injured and weepy rather than canny and strong as in Jennifer Kirkby’s fantastic RSC performance, to undermine what had the potential to be at least a glimpse of female fire in a markedly male play.
Part II seemed consciously to ramp up the theatricality, to put more pressure on these meta considerations, with more role doubling and unconcealed costume changes. Poins visibly changed character three times in consecutive scenes (why not get someone else to do the second, inbetween one?), and, most powerfully, Doll Tearsheet wiped off her lipstick to become King Henry IV, starting his soliloquy on sleep denied to the great. Recycling actors for minor characters such as the sickly Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, and co. reminded me that Shakespeare could almost certainly have counted on these characters being doubled with others in any acting company with a finite cast, such that swapping into different roles need not be a modern imposition, but is fundamental to the original viewing experience. Such a practical theatrical concern can be used to shine a light on things already in the back of our mind from the text: Poins is, perhaps, in other ways a bit of a chameleon, a bit interchangeable and insignificant; Doll’s sickness is the lower class version of the king’s, and the manifestation of a state diseased at every level; peasants Mouldy and co. might have a lot more in common than we initially thought with the higher-class counterparts they thus become associated with.
I loved that this performance got lively in thinking about all those things which I’d been analysing on paper throughout Shakespeare term, as well as – weirdly, at the same time – feeling like it was giving a time-out on thinking about Shakespeare; Shakespeare with an essay title, that is. The throwback worked, and for a few hours we really might have been an original Globe audience out for some afternoon entertainment, unaware of the cultural impact for posterity of the play before us.