The Washington Post ran an article yesterday that I found fascinating: Editing Shakespeare? You need guts to make the kindest cuts of all. The subtitle is: Subtle art of reshaping makes Bard’s plays more audience-friendly.
In a Bard-happy town like Washington, the subtle art of cutting Shakespeare is on near-constant display. The craft requires nerve, stage savvy and scholarship. And time.
“Dozens and dozens of hours,” says Muse, a former STC associate artistic director who now runs the Studio Theatre. The job can involve rearranging scenes, prioritizing story lines, combining multiple minor figures into a single character, changing line assignments and wrangling with the magnificent but sometimes elusive language.
I love seeing the plays, but as my blog project here of “reading Shakespeare” implies, I like reading them and mulling them over even more. Still, it’s fascinating for me to think about the intricacies of staging these plays for modern audiences.
I really enjoyed seeing the British TV series Playing Shakespeare and watching the Royal Shakespeare Company director John Barton and the wonderful actors discussing and playing with the texts as they made them come alive. The complexities and nuances of performance amaze me.
So, it is fascinating for me to consider how much must be cut. I had not really thought about it before, but here it is, bluntly (from the Post article):
For Cam Magee, a dramaturge who has cut 24 of the 37 plays, a running time of 2 1 / 2 hours has been a typical goal at the Washington Shakespeare Company.
“You’re losing an hour to an hour and a half of material,” says Magee, whose cuts also have been seen at the Folger Theatre.
Wow. That’s a huge chunk that they have to cut. I just had never considered that reality. I guess I realized they did it, but hadn’t thought about how much they really have to cut to keep the performances a reasonable length.
And not just the length, but the impenetrability of a lot of the wordplay/puns/references. I know this from reading the plays. Some of it, you just must yada, yada through, as I was tempted back when I discussed Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. From the Post article, again:
Then there are punch lines that slayed ’em 400 years ago but can be impenetrable now. “It can take half an hour to figure out one joke,” Muse says. Kahn mentions a long comic exchange in “All’s Well That Ends Well” between the Countess of Rousillon and the clown Lavatch that frequently sounds alien to modern ears. The gags are bogged down by topical references and ancient words. “If you can’t follow at all why something’s funny, then I’m going to cut it,” Posner says, “because I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.”
Right? This makes total sense from a practical standpoint and I love how bluntly it’s stated. “I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.”
The article goes on about cutting for storytelling clarity and adaptations that make them work and fresh for audiences. I realize these are all issues for modern productions.
I keep thinking, though, about, “I’m not interested in the theory of why it’s funny.” Because I really do get that. And yet, I find myself thinking about wanting to yada, yada through Mercutio and being ready to give up on Love’s Labour’s Lost as soon as I began. Yikes, it was difficult.
Yet I found that sticking with it, and giving it more time was worthwhile for me in both cases. I really enjoyed the puns, and found the seeming impenetrability dissipate with some work.
Work. I guess that’s why I’m reading them and not just seeing them in performance. It is not reasonable (maybe not really possible) to ask an audience to work at understanding what’s happening or being said. I get that, too. The play in performance is a fleeting thing. It brings clarity to the words, in some cases (the facial expressions, staging choices that can clarify meaning), but in other cases, the words can simply get in the way of the flow on the stage. From the Post:
And all, in their various ways, pledge ultimate fidelity to the Bard. They refer to folios and quartos, and sometimes have half a dozen published editions open during rehearsals to consult.
Yet they have to cut. They have to cut a lot. I get that. So, I will keep reading the plays (and going to see them and watching the videos). But I find reading them brings a different depth of enjoyment.
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