To see or not to see

The Changeling is one of a handful of plays – along with The Duchess of Malfi and A Woman Killed with Kindness – that convinced me I wanted to spend so much of my time reading, watching and writing about Renaissance theatre. It’s also the first play I ever performed in (I was Alonzo, since you ask) and, as such, it has a special place in my affections. Having never actually seen it staged (and having missed Joe Hill-Gibbens’ 2012 Young Vic production) I was looking forward to seeing it on the Sam Wanamaker stage. I’ll be seeing it again in February and will be writing a full review elsewhere, but for now I wanted to make a few brief comments, first about comedy, and then about sightlines.

Last month, I wrote about the Globe’s production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which I thought generated unpleasant and uncritical laughter. It’s not that there isn’t humour in the play, but the production harnessed humour in such a way as to obscure the terrible fate of Annabella. The Changeling, like ‘Tis Pity, is also comic (indeed, even more obviously so) and the Globe actors made sure to capitalize on the potential for laughter. I didn’t find this troubling, as I did with ‘Tis Pity but I wasn’t always sure it was successful, or rather, I felt that it was a shame that the attention to comic opportunities was not matched by attention to other tonal possibilities. For example,  Trystan Gravelle’s De Flores was near-unflappable and charismatic; displaying a fine sense comic timing, he frequently got the audience on side with a well-judged aside. For the most part, this was interesting and effective, but I didn’t really get the sense of the other side of the character. He didn’t seem ugly enough, angry enough, or in much physical or psychic pain. The play seems to demand that its actors embody these contraries, but I felt as if Gravelle addressed only part of the role. De Flores’ disposal of Alonzo, in which he moved from a brutal frenzy into a detached calmness, achieved the kind of effect I was hoping for, but this kind of complexity was not sustained.

My other gripe with the production is also a gripe with how the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is being used. Last year, I complained about sightlines at The Knight of the Burning Pestle and I found myself again frustrated by what I couldn’t see. My view of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores, revealed in the closet, was pretty much entirely blocked by the actors on-stage. I’m assuming the view is not blocked for people in more central seats; if this is right, it seems a shame that only some people can see. It’s been argued that Renaissance theatre practice privileged listening over watching, but I don’t really understand what is gained by not being able to see.  I suppose it could be said that the blocked sightlines convey something of the confusion of the moment, but I’d rather have the drama of the revelation. Given that it’s easier to see facial expressions at a place like the Sam Wanamaker, where everyone is in close proximity to the stage, it seems a shame not to see the expressions of the actors at this critical moment. Maybe I came with a skewed expectation, but I left frustrated.



7 thoughts on “To see or not to see

  1. Sightlines have consistently been a problem in the SWP for me, too! My major criticism of last year’s Malfi was that everyone important died downstage centre, facing front. Philip Bird played productively with what it means to conceal or reveal particular moments to particular parts of the audience in a workshop this past autumn, but it seems that those findings have not translated into actual productions yet.

    1. I’d be interested to hear about those solutions. There’s also an issue at the moment with pricing and what constitutes a restricted view. Some of the £45 seats have a disappointing view, which is a shame. Fair enough, some views are better than others, but still…

  2. I think there’s also a kind of historical gap whereby we aren’t used to not being able to see everything happening in a theatre space (whereas the early moderns might have been less bothered by that). It takes very detailed direction to organise 15 bodies on the SWP stage such that every seat in the house gets a view of the big deaths at the end, no matter where you place them–but I think it can be done.
    I agree that the pricing is an issue, especially when productions are directed as if the stage was end-on (*cough*Malfi*cough*). If I’d paid £60 to have an actor’s bum blocking my view of the action, I’d be pretty annoyed!

    1. I think that’s right. Even if the problem (if it is a problem) is exacerbated at the SWP it’s worth remembering that these things happen at other theatres too, of course. I suppose I’d also add that it’d be nice to see what other things the space can do. I’m finding it fairly predictable at the moment, e,g. Nice bit with candles, everything goes dark, someone falls into the audience etc. a Sounds like I should be trying to get to the workshops to see that kind of experimentation.

      1. The Research in Action workshops were well worth attending, and they’re possibly the most experimental (and therefore the most exciting and interesting) things I’ve seen there. I agree that there’s a lot more that could be done with the candles, and the upper galleries as well–if we’re going to have the anachronism of actors entering through the audience, then we may as well go the whole hog and use the entire space, eh?

  3. It’s a little boring to repeatedly reference the Blackfriars in Staunton, but since they do have 20+ years of experience on the SWP, it’s worth mentioning that these things can be fixed with time. (By ‘fixed’ I mean ‘altered to suit the tastes of modern audiences’. The same audiences who have paid to enjoy a performance as much as to enjoy a performance in an historical building and/or style.) Longtime company members at the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) have developed a sixth sense for sightlines that allows them to make possible difficulties into opportunities for interesting angles. I think – though I haven’t consciously looked for this – that they move often on stage, perhaps more often than they would on other stages, in order to shift the focus and open sightlines to new areas of the house. And there’s no shame in taking important moments right down to the lip, leaving the rest of the cast to arrange themselves upstage of the action.

    The Folger theatre, which is a hugely anachronistic playing space resembling an amateur’s mash-up of indoor and outdoor Renaissance stages (false roof overhanging stage with onstage pillars, deep prosc arch stage shape facing a thrust house, etc.) has consistent problems with sightlines. Some of these are mitigated by vigilance during final rehearsals, some are insurmountable features of the room. Having now worked at both the ASC and the Folger, I find myself newly interested in the choreography of crowd scenes and can’t wait to get myself to the SWP for another perspective. Literally. And figuratively.

    Oh, and I don’t know about evidence of this, but I do wonder if the idea of staying in the seat one’s paid for no matter what the view isn’t a modern idea. We’re allowed to roam and crane and scooch as groundlings at the Globe – why not shift and slide and stand at the SWP? Is that happening?

    1. Thanks for that, it’s really interesting, especially since I’ve not been to either theatre. I don’t think there’s any possibility of scooching at the SWP but that’s partly to do with modern attitudes, I guess. It’s not a very comfortable theatre to sit in (though I don’t complain about that) and I think the trick people are pulling is to try and take up as much space as possible so that you have legroom for the performance (a bit like on plane or a crowded train).

      I don’t think there’s a huge amount of space to move around in and the actors are using the central entrance in the pit pretty frequently so there’s no possibility of moving round in the way you can at the Globe. That said, I’ve not really spent much time in the pit at the Globe either and when I am there I tend to just find my spot and defend it aggressively!

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