I’m an enthusiast for play-readings, and enthusiasts are dangerous people. They get carried away and start to apply their enthusiasms where they are not relevant.
I was waxing lyrical in my post on how wonderful play-readings can be as an introduction to Shakespeare, particularly for children. I was brought short by a memory from school-days of horrific play-readings of Shakespeare plays. The class read round-robin, not speech by speech, but line by line. I break out in a cold sweat now just thinking about it. Let’s face it – Shakespeare’s language is difficult, and any chance of meaning emerging from it in such a format is just about nil. I was so upset by this memory that I put my post away and started working on something else.
Luckily, that very evening, I saw a BBC documentary called ‘Muse of Fire: A Shakespearean Road Movie’ which dealt with this very issue. Two actors, Giles Terera and Dan Poole, who find Shakespearean scripts difficult if not terrifying, travel the world to find out everything they can about tackling the greatest writer of them all by asking the Shakespearean great and the good (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Nick Hytner, Peter Hall, Baz Luhmann, Harold Bloom, etc., etc., etc) how to tackle Shakespeare.
[This is available on BBC iPlayer until 10:00pm on Thursday 31st October for those of you in the UK, or able to look as if you’re in the UK. It will also be shown at Raindance 2013, and I cannot believe it will not get distribution on PBS in the USA, but probably not until 2014. Keep a look out for it.]
One key idea from the film was that Shakespeare’s language is really rather difficult and the best way to be introduced to Shakespeare is through live performance where the actor deals with the language and presents the underlying emotions to the audience.
We go to the theatre to be moved. Shakespeare’s plays have the capacity to move us greatly. But the difference in language and culture between his time and ours means actors are needed, beyond the ‘telling of the tale’, to interpret Shakespeare’s script for us, and so to move us. For children, experiencing and being moved by the story seems to me to be the key to getting them interested in Shakespeare.
Sitting in rows of desks, trying to understand the text, reading line-by-line or even part-by-part seems almost guaranteed to fail.
My own experience of working with children on Shakespeare, is limited to the use of 30 or so children in each promenade performance of Shakespeare we put on in the grounds of a Scottish Hunting Lodge. They take some of the minor roles of the play, help move the audience from scene to scene, and frequently there’s a specially-written scene which relates to the play but is mainly played by the children. As the play gets close to performance, we rehearse the play in sequence (either the first half or the second half, or the whole play). What always surprises me is how engaged the children are with the play. By the time of first night, some of the children will know the complete text of some scenes, and whisper the lines along with the actors (not during performances thank heaven). Or every time we rehearsed Act 4 Scene 6 of King Lear, where the blind Gloucester tries to commit suicide and then meets the mad Lear, a group of the youngest children, aged maybe 8 to 10, would be there watching the two old men with great interest. Of course this is one of the more moving scenes in the play – I frequently started blubbing myself – but I am surprised that such young children came again and again to see this scene.
This supports the advice in ‘Muse of Fire’ that people should be introduced to Shakespeare by going to see productions, ideally live. Of course it’s important that they are good performances, and perhaps the growing tendency to broadcast plays by major theatre companies such as the RSC, NT-Live, and The Globe, provides a way for children to be moved by high-quality productions.
But what then, is the role of the play-reading group? I love them myself, and can get a group of 8 or 10 people to gather together to read a play on a regular basis, and they must enjoy it, or they wouldn’t come.
The key difference seems to be that all the attendees are pretty familiar with Shakespeare. They’ve acted in quite a few shows; they’ve seen a lot; and perhaps they have the confidence to know that if they work at it a bit, they can read the play together, and feel what’s going on. Perhaps they can also dig deeper than they could if they go to a performance of the play. A performance unrolls in real-time and one always loses a lot, but if you read a play carefully, you can reach a deeper understanding of the writing. Our own group is now exploring the idea of running a play-reading before going to see the RSC / NT-Live / Globe production to see what effect that has.
So for experienced ‘Shakespeare-lovers’, the thought is that play-readings can enrich a performance. For newbies, perhaps it is more important to see the production and be moved by it. But then the thought arises, would it be helpful for those newbies to read the play after having seen it. I guess it rather depends on the confidence and maturity of the newbies.
It all seems a lot more complicated than I first thought, and I wonder what your experience has been. Many of you have taught Shakespeare at school or at university. What is the role of play-reading and seeing productions in that process? Do you have the same reservations about play-reading as an introduction to Shakespeare? Do let me know by leaving a comment after this post if you have something you want to say.
And once you’ve done that, I’ll have enough information to continue my post on “Play-readings – the Why and the How”.
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