WIL Festival 4.1: “Macbeth”

 When I talk to friends and colleagues about original practice (O.P.) performances, their first response is usually a skeptical one. Part of that resistance stems from an assumption that anything trying to return to an early moment or wellspring is a museum artifact: stagnant, static, lacking flexibility and topicality. If you’ve been to an OPS Fest performance, however, you will note that there are no hose, doublets, of ruffs, nor is original pronunciation or any kind of accent used. (I should say accents are used, but typically to draw attention to comic or class distinctions.) So what is “original” about these performances? It’s in the practice.

As any musician will tell you, one practices alone and one rehearses with a group. As is mentioned in the pre-show talk every night, the many-month-ed rehearsal of contemporary theatre was not a feature of the Renaissance. One memorized in private, and then came to do the show. To use another musical simile, OPS Fest capitalizes on the performance technique of a prima vista or “sight-reading”: to perform a piece of art upon first sight. Part of being in a professional orchestra or jazz combo relies on the fact that you have played so much music that your brain can more quickly pick up the patterns and anticipate the shape of a melodic line accurately at relatively first sight. It is a matter of a great deal of practice and exposure to a lot of material quickly. In an O.P. performance, you are seeing actors capitalize on having seen chiasmus, litotes, and other rhetorical figures so many times before that they understand how to deliver them, despite not having seen this particular case in front of them before.

In both advertising and performance strategies, OPS Fest replicates period practices.

In other words, O.P. is about experimenting with how sixteenth and seventeenth century players made theatre, not what. It is about the conservation and rehabilitation of a set of tactics and strategies, rather than the preservation (and possible mummification) of the content of a specific play. Take, for example, the A-frame sidewalk signs you’ll see guiding you to the performance space (pictured above). They use the same graphic art taped to the sign that you will see on posters throughout the neighborhood in the weeks before the show, as well as on the cover of your program. While there were no sidewalks or such signs in the period, there was this exact kind of printing redundancy for advertising. When printers were requested to make a run of copies of a play to sell, they printed a number of extras of the title-pages. These “playbills” were posted around London advertising the playbooks, who lately performed the play, and where you could buy copies. So while the specific design, paper stock, and ink aren’t the same today, the practice of it most certainly is. So how did the WIL Fest staging of its second tragedy, “Macbeth,” fair under these conditions?
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WIL Festival 3.2: “The Tempest”

 “The Tempest” is a play concerned with books and authority. Caliban has a great deal of anxiety about books especially, arguing that they are the root of Prospero’s power:

Why, as I told thee, ’tis a custom with him,
I’ th’ afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books, or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.

And where exactly did Prospero get his books? You might say that the conflict of the play is the elderly Gonzalo’s fault, who, when helping Prospero and Miranda escape the coup,

Out of his charity, being then appointed
Master of this design, did give us, with
Rich garments, linens, stuffs and necessaries,
Which since have steaded much; so, of his gentleness,
Knowing I loved my books, he furnish’d me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

By the end of the play, Prospero connects the dismissal of his books and end of his powers—saying,

I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

—with his own death. Having discarded these, married his daughter well, he plans his return to Milan, “where every third thought shall be [his] grave.” Like the play, the ways in which we talk about the relationship between William Shakespeare’s plays and their printing has much to do with managing narratives about death and books.

Brian Allard (Prospero).

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