“See better, Lear”

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I’ve been up in Newcastle working with the RSC this week. We’ve been running our annual Sixth Form Conference at the Theatre Royal. This year’s conference was based around David Farr’s production of ‘King Lear’. I was talking about the play’s performance history – Kelly Hunter, who is playing Goneril led workshops based on her role – and Alison Bomber put the students through their paces working with text and vocal delivery. The students moved in small groups from session to session until eventually they’d had a taste of them all. In the final plenary session I chatted with the production’s assistant director, Vik Sivalingam, and we explored some of the interpretive choices that have been made for the current production. Seeing that we were sat on the stage it seemed appropriate to talk a lot about the design of the set. What were we looking at, and why was it there? How had the director and designer put their stamp on Shakespeare’s play through determining what appeared on stage? It was interesting to hear about the many ‘drafts’ that were discussed in the run-up to rehearsal – great ideas that never made it onto stage!

One of the things which I found particularly interesting was seeing the production in a different performance space. I saw the show a lot in the Courtyard at Stratford, so I was curious to see how the production would ‘fit’ the beautiful proscenium arch stage of the Theatre Royal. The proscenium had its advantages and its disadvantages. As you would expect the change of space refashioned the production somewhat, and new blocking changed the feel of certain moments. In Stratford, Lear’s first entrance had a cheeky air of mischief surrounding it as Greg Hicks entered unexpectedly with a laugh from one of the voms – surprising the assembled court, facing upstage. This clever piece of staging received comment in a number of reviews when the show first opened. In Newcastle, due to the change in space, Lear’s entrance had to be altered. Instead of taking the court by surprise, Lear appeared upstage in full view of the assembly, and then slowly made his way downstage. Though this was still an impressive first entrance, it didn’t wrong-foot audiences in the same way that it had in Stratford, and I missed that opening note of naughtiness in Lear’s character. While this moment, which I’d enjoyed so much in Stratford seemed (to me at least) to have been hampered by the change of space, other moments achieved a pictorial clarity which hadn’t been so clear for me when played on a thrust stage. There was a super moment on Cordelia’s return from France when for a heartbeat we were presented with a picture of the three sisters frozen in time dealing with their own personal crises – all isolated and determined – forging very different paths by this point in the play.

So, when it comes to moving a production from a thrust to a proscenium stage I guess you win some, and you lose some –and I guess I’m a bit spoiled getting to see the show in all its various incarnations, which inevitably prompts comparison. One major benefit of the proscenium stage of course is that you see the performances head-on, so all of the subtleties and shades which actors brings to their performances can be viewed and enjoyed to the full – and nothing gets blocked from view by actors taking up positions on the thrust directly in one’s line of vision. I find it faintly amusing that my thoughts have turned to sightlines when discussing a play in which the words “see better” have such prominence. I’d be interested to hear whether our readers prefer to watch Shakespeare’s plays on a proscenium arch stage or on a thrust. A lot has been said in recent years in favour of thrust stages – and the arguments are persuasive – but does this mean that there is no longer an audience for proscenium arch productions? Is proscenium Shakespeare dead, dying, or decidedly the best way to see the plays (and the actors’ performances) in their full glory?

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • http://shakespeare.org.uk Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    Thanks for your comments Julie – very interesting. I enjoyed reading your blog about R&J in Newcastle – sadly I didn’t get to see the show while I was up there, but you give a great sense of its movement from one stage to another. I will follow your blog with interest. ^nick

  • http://twitter.com/Btacts Julie Raby

    It is very interesting to see the changes between the RSC productions as they move from Stratford to Newcastle. I heard that Greg Hicks changed the entrance because moving up the little steps at the side of the stage would not be very regal. However, in entering upstage and moving downstage, Lear’s long pause in front of the audience in Newcastle tried to recreate some of the humour and also signs of the madness that Hicks portrays in the character in the early scenes. I have written about the transfer of RSC Romeo and Juliet from thrust stage to proscenium arch stage in my blog Between the Acts http://wp.me/pG6in-vv

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