And there’s one for everyone in the audience(s): Macbeth and the ordinary spectator

Programme cover for Macbeth, Swan Theatre, 1999.

It’s the end of May and I’m almost a month into researching my masters dissertation. I’m writing on Greg Doran’s 1999 production of Macbeth at the Swan Theatre, and looking at it through two very distinct prisms: one is concerned with how the participants (actors, directors, etc) write, think, and remember it, and the other deals with different groups of audiences — critics, academics who either review it for publication or try to position it into the performance history canon, and lay audience members. This project germinated out of the fact that so many from the first set have written and/or talked about it so much — Harriet Walter wrote a short book about it in the Actors on Shakespeare series; Antony Sher has written extensively about it in Players of Shakespeare and in his very good autobiography, Beside Myself; and Greg Doran has given several interviews in print and elsewhere. To that end, I’ve become interested in how an actor or director’s memory works differently from someone who may not be intimately involved with the production at all — Peter Brook writes in The Empty Space about how, for the general spectator, memories of performance almost become images, like ‘silhouettes’, which for me describes my own way of remembering shows that I’ve seen in the past. They become narrowed down to one solitary image that stands out from the rest. I’ve mentioned to people that the one image that remains from seeing Propeller’s Richard III is the sight of Richard Clothier’s Gloucester standing alone onstage after becoming king, a crown on the stool near him. He begins to laugh — it’s a horrible, high, cold laugh — and the lights cut to blackout. It’s now the interval. Other shows have worked the same: it’s Cillian Murphy sporting a pair of homemade wings and hanging over scaffolding with a microphone in his hand, disco lights reflecting off his body, at the end of Misterman; Pippa Nixon serenading the audience (and Alex Waldmann) with a Wye Oak song while balloons flood the stage in King John; and more recently, the party that forms the end of As You Like It, as the revellers bounce around the stage singing and dancing. They’re completely wet but they’re deliriously happy, and every single time I watch it, their euphoria rubs off on me too (I will review it soon, promise).

This leads me onto the type of literature that I’ve been looking at lately. A fantastic introduction to audience studies is probably Helen Freshwater’s Theatre & Audience, which argues for the normal audience member’s inclusion in performance research. Freshwater makes a very valid point that relying on critics in order to ascertain the reaction to a particular show has its limitations. This is particularly glaring where Shakespearean performance is concerned, as critics come to a show with certain preconceptions and previous productions in mind (as much as I really don’t like Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet, one gets tired of critics referencing the ‘advice to the Players’ when talking about his performance: see here and here). This is something that I will need to be conscious of when talking about those who were paid to come and watch Macbeth, whether to sell it to the public, discourage people from seeing it, or (if they were reviewing it for an academic publication) to generally discuss its successes and failures in an attempt to place it in dialogue with previous or concurrent productions of the same play. Or even similar or wildly different ones at that.

So what I want to figure out is what do ordinary audience members remember from this production (urgh, I hate using the word ‘ordinary’). What are the lasting images? If not, what are the sounds, the moments, the words that stick out in the memory? Do they, too, place this Macbeth in dialogue with the likes of Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production or other productions that they have seen? Do they compare Sher and Walter to other Macbeths and Lady Macbeths that they have seen, or measure them up by some general cultural consensus that determines what they ‘should’ be? (Obviously owing to her firsthand experience, Walter is especially good on Lady Macbeth’s cultural legacy: see Actors on Shakespeare.) Whether these memories are big or small, verbose or concise, they are welcome, and fascinating in any way. So, naturally, please get in touch. And generally, suggestions/ideas/comments are always welcome.

[P.S. I’m giving a paper on ‘Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth at the RSC and the actor’s account’ at this year’s BritGrad conference. Do come along if you’re interested in hearing yours truly yammer on about Sher and Walter for twenty minutes flat. I promise it will be interesting. Somewhat.]

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5 thoughts on “And there’s one for everyone in the audience(s): Macbeth and the ordinary spectator

  1. Hi! I’m an English Lit Undergrad at Warwick Uni and just discovered that I am basically researching exactly this for my Shakespeare module – fortunately not for a dissertation – but for a creative project. I’m redesigning a marketing campaign for this production thinking about audience etc. Has your dissertation been published? I would absolutely love to read it!

    1. Hello there! My dissertation was marked, but it isn’t published: a) I can email the final draft to you if you like, b) it’s available for consultation at the Shakespeare Institute library in Stratford [they’re very receptive to visitors!]. Is that helpful? Do let me know!

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