This Wooden “O”
Director’s notes by Tim Carroll
Soon after I arrived here to start rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, Antoni Cimolino showed the company The Stratford Adventure, the National Film Board documentary about the first season of the Festival. It was an inspiring reminder of the passion and talent that went into the making of this incredible place. Above all, as a director about to embark on a Shakespeare play, I was struck by the intense love of everyone involved for the plays of the man from the other Stratford. It filled me with a determination to do something on the Festival stage that would reflect its founders’ passion.
Tyrone Guthrie and Tanya Moiseiwitsch were, of course, pioneers. But they did not come from nowhere. Guthrie was following in the footsteps of William Poel, who had, earlier in the century, suggested an experiment: why not perform Shakespeare in the conditions for which the plays were written? The heart of the idea was a call for a theatre where the words were primary and where the first task of the space was to create a powerful relationship between the actors and the audience. At the same time that Guthrie was talking to Tom Patterson and others about such a theatre, Sam Wanamaker was talking to people in Southwark about his version of William Poel’s ideas. Of course, being Britain, the idea was rejected, and the dreamer laughed at, until 1997, when the Globe finally opened. Having been lucky enough to work there since its third season, I have spent a lot of my working life experimenting with Shakespeare on a bare stage. When I started there, I had never directed an Elizabethan-dress Shakespeare; one of the great revelations of my life has been the discovery of Original Practices.
We can never, of course, recreate a performance of 1595 in every aspect; that is why I never use the word authentic. But I love the idea of an imaginative leap in time and thinking. To try to understand how such clothes were worn, and why, to research and learn when hats would have been taken off or swords drawn – to get inside all the references in the text – is to feel that one is getting closer to the mind of Shakespeare and the world he wrote for and about. It is a world which is at the same time very like ours and utterly different. So too the conditions in which his plays were performed: on the one hand, Romeo and Juliet would have been played without electric light, or sound, or scenery; on the other, it would then have been played by human actors to a human audience, as it will be today.
Guthrie dreamed of an Elizabethan stage where the actors could really talk to the audience, as they would have done at the Globe. Taking my cue from that first impulse that brought Guthrie here, I have staged Romeo and Juliet as though it were indeed an afternoon performance in an Elizabethan playhouse. The light will not change to suit the scenes, any more than the scenery will move to reflect new settings. We will know where we are, what time of day it is, and everything else from the starting point of Shakespeare’s theatre: the actors and the words they speak.
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