How did they (behave in the audience) in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

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Actor's eye view at the RST

This is the actor’s eye view of the auditorium at the RST – imagine it full of people, the audience. There is a performance on the stage perhaps you are playing Valentine in The Two Gentleman of Verona, it is beginning of act five, scene four, you have just entered alone to do your soliloquy “How use doth breed a habit in a man!…” . You are looking out at the audience, its all going well. They are seated quietly, keeping still, clearly engaged with your performance, no coughs sneezes or fanning of programmes. So far no one’s mobile has gone off, tonight is a good night!

But consider for a moment how different it would have been for Shakespeare’s actors. The first Valentine would have entered to a very different scene. He would have been in daylight of course and as his eyes roved over the audience he might have noticed several people amongst the standing crowd in the Pit (this was the cheap standing area, roughly where the expensive seats are today) talking to each other, some would have been buying nuts from the sellers who were pushing themselves through the crowd. Halfway through the speech a disagreement might have broken out as someone noticed their purse had been slit. In the upper galleries ladies with big hats and fans craned over the rail to get a better view. The actor had better be good because if people don’t like him  they will at best ignore him at worst jeer at him. If there are questions in the actor’s speech he will have to assume that the audience (if they are listening) might well respond. The actor would be able to see people coming and going – too or from what passed for a toilet (there were no intervals in the original performances) or just trying to get a better or a different view.  It would have seemed very distracting I would think.

It must have been hard to be an actor in those conditions, or at least so it seems today when our theatre etiquette is one of respect and passivity. Perhaps though if Shakespeare’s actors could take to the stage now they would find themselves feeling very exposed facing the theatre lights and a sea of silent expectant people…





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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Alan Butland

    I was delighted to read Jonathan Cullen’s post, his was a voice we needed to hear.  I found the first post strange since the actors’ experience on the Globe stage is so well recorded.  Also, Two Gentlemen featured in the Globe’s Prologue season. Initially, some actors were not comfortable on the Globe stage where there is no  hiding place. But most have learned, adjusted, enjoyed the experience, gained n confoidence and gone from strength to strength..     

  • jonathan cullen

    I have been on both the RSC & the London (re-created) Globe stages in my working life,  and I must say I’d take the busy and visible audience over the deferentially hushed one every time. The open air stage for which Shakespeare wrote the early plays like Two Gents is a truly democratic space: sharing the same air and light brings a sense of community, an understanding that we are all the same, all equally valuable, rather than the more recent relationship of actor to audience where the performer is given priority, and the listeners understand that like Victorian children they should be seen and not heard – or in fact not even seen since they are (literally) kept in the dark.
    What that means in practice is that on the open Globe stage Valentine’s musing on the formative power of experience becomes a shared reflective process: it is clear that the audience are being asked to stop and take thought too. Valentine is not alone: he has enlisted a couple of thousand co-musers to support him in his efforts to find the right course of action. It’s like being listened to by hundreds of best friends – when it works – and you can easily forgive a few of them an occasional lapse in concentration, so long as enough of them are with you. It means that the players never talk to themselves; although they may be alone on stage, they have hundreds of allies. (Or opponents.) The play is jointly created, therefore, between actors and auditors, whereas modern theatre is strictly a spectator sport.

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