¶ Plays about the life and times of Henry V, affectionately referred to as Hal (Nikolas Hoback), were big business in 1580s and ’90s England. There were multiple versions, some treating him as a hero and others as a villain who comes to be reformed, before William Shakespeare came on the scene. The History play genre was a new thing, brought to great success by an earlier company called the Queen’s Men. (Check out their plays, here.) I am convinced by Jim Marino’s argument that “The First Part of Henry IV with the life and death of Henry sir-named Hotspurre” was a revision, rethought by Shakespeare as part of a tetralogy, what some call the “Henriad” after Homer’s Iliad, rather than a stand-alone piece.
¶ Similar to thinking about Shakespeare as an expert reviser, watching an “original practice” or First Folio performance take on any of the plays challenges your assumptions about what is and isn’t there. I discussed in a previous post the useful and necessary fiction that are critical editions of plays: they pull together all the extant versions of a play with a name like “King Lear” into one place. This isn’t really a different act than Shakespeare’s revising an old play new again, except that critical editing isn’t interested in (and typically doesn’t retain) performative coherence. And it’s not objective either: critical editing creates its own myths about what we want a play to mean at a particular point in time. Watching an O.P. production, a performance that picks one version of Shakespeare’s text and sticks with it, illuminates just what those myths are.
¶ So what happened in this performance, where the actors trust their text?
¶ Twelfth night refers to the last day of the Christmas holiday season, a time for playing practical jokes, such as hiding birds in pies, and going to plays. Like most of the plays being done as part of the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival’s WIL Fest this month, twelfth night only comes once a year. It is special, occasional. I was reminded of this context when listening to Beth Yocam’s pre-show pitch: “this is the first time this group of actors has done this play together.” While Performance Studies teaches us that, because of its liveness, no two performances are alike, for OPS Fest this is doubly so: there is no chance to rehearse before the show or get another crack at it with this group of actors. What is more, this is true of every OPS Fest show. This is the only chance they get to play in this part with this group of people. If they do it again, the ensemble will be different in some—usually many—ways. For an OPS Fest actor, the stakes are high at every performance, so there is no room to phone it in or get bored.
¶ This occasional context also had me thinking about the other acts of courage that playing with OPS Fest requires…and not all kinds of actors are necessarily up for. If you’ve been to a show in the parks this year, you’ll notice that the actors play not only all the way up to the edge of the audience, but in the audience. When the London Globe theatre opened, backers were nervous and assumed no one would pay for the standing “groundling” tickets. These are now the first things that sell-out, and recordings demonstrate people love to lean in on the lip of the stage. Audiences want nearness. In the WIL Fest “Twelfe Night,” it felt like a third of the play was performed in and amongst the lawn chairs and blankets. Intimacy like this takes courage, a willingness to be close to an audience member you don’t know and not drop a line—let alone step on someone. This isn’t instinctual. The other kind of courage is that of trusting the other actors, often some of which you haven’t worked with before or in a long time. Will they say their lines correctly? This matters, as a well-timed entrance depends on a correctly delivered cue-line. With the three months of rehearsal that contemporary theatre companies use, it’d be silly if you hadn’t developed a rapport with your fellow players. There is also the added variable of apprentices being worked in to every show to consider. There is little way around giving yourself over to the process if you want to be protected by it.
¶ A play about disguised twins and forged letters, in what ways was this “Twelfe Night” affected by the dynamics of performer courage?