Shakespeare in Bohemia

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Last week I went to Prague for the International Shakespeare Association’s Ninth World Shakespeare Congress. These events take place every five years, and I’ve attended a number of them, starting with that at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1981, which was memorable not least because at the final dinner everyone was presented with a chocolate effigy of Shakespeare. As chairman of the Association at the time of the conferences held in Tokyo (1991), Los Angeles (1996), and Valencia (2001) I was deeply involved in the administration of the events, but for Prague my principal duty was to give the opening plenary speech. The overall theme of the conference was ‘Renaissance Shakespeare: Shakespeare Renaissances’, so I chose as my theme ‘Shakespeare: Man of the European Renaissance.’ (It can be seen and heard here I found it especially touching to speak to my audience of some 600 or 700 delegates from the stage of the beautiful Estates Theatre, which is where Mozart had conducted the first performance of his opera Don Giovanni.

This was only the first of several stages which helped to make the conference memorable. The opening speeches, given in the grand spaces of the National Theatre, had been followed by a Shakespearian entertainment enjoyable especially for the performances of clowns and acrobats in scenes based on The Winter’s Tale and Hamlet. Far less grand was the stage of the tiny puppet theatre where I saw a shortened version of Don Giovanni itself, performed to recorded accompaniment by marionettes before an audience which included a number of enthralled children as well as adults. And for me a great highlight of the trip was a guided tour of the baroque theatre in the castle of Ceský Krumlov, a World Heritage Site which we visited as part of the post-conference excursion.

Built from 1680 to 1682 and restored with new stage equipment from 1765-6, this exquisite jewel of a playhouse provides unique illumination into the practices of the post-Shakespearian theatre. The horse-shoe shaped, two-storied auditorium, with its splendid royal box, holds some 400 or so spectators, those on the ground floor austerely accommodated on wooden benches. The orchestra pit is big enough for around twenty musicians, two of them playing harpsichords, for performances of operas and ballets.

As we entered the theatre from the back of the ground floor, the first sight of the stage, with the curtain up, took my breath away. Flats and wings on each side narrowed on to an archway through which a vista receded apparently into infinity, though the stage area is tiny. The wings and flats can be changed within a matter of seconds so that the action can seem to be taking place in a hall, a wood, a ballroom, a prison, or a dungeon. Representations of clouds suspended from above conceal platforms on which angels and cherubs could make their descent.

As we clambered beneath the stage we were able to see the original stage machinery by which such effects can be achieved. We saw the simple but effective devices that can simulate the sounds of wind, thunder, and gunfire, the trap through which apparitions could make their sudden appearance on to the stage, the prompter’s box, and the elaborate system of wooden drums, ropes, and pulleys by means of which a team of stalwarts can operate the scenery. And we watched a video showing the theatre in action on one of the rare occasions on which it is used nowadays, the actors and singers performing straight out to the audience, dwarfing the scenery behind them, rather like the cardboard figures of the toy theatres of my youth.

The whole experience was an enchanting journey into the past which vividly illuminated the theatrical practices of the Restoration and early eighteenth-century theatre and the plays and operas written for it by dramatists such as Dryden, Tate, Congreve and Wycherley, and by composers such as Handel, Haydn, and Mozart.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Alan Butland

    Thank you Stanley.  I have found panoramic videosequences of both the stage and the auditorium.

  • Stanley Wells

    Sorry, we only had an hour’s tour and I can’t answer your question! You may find something on line.

  • Alan Butland

    What an excitng journey and description.  I love to learn more about the development of stage machinery.  I have many questions but will limit myself to one. You said:  ‘The wings and flats can be changed within a matter of seconds so that the action can seem to be taking place in a hall, a wood, a ballroom, a prison, or a dungeon.’  I assume they use sliding flats – do they move in grooves on the stage or through slots in the stage? 

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