Thursday, July 29, 2010

Syncing up Verse and Audience

Tonight I've made a discovery about how Shakespeare's verse works.

We talk about it not having "subtext," by which I think we mean it doesn't say anything between the lines.  Important thoughts never go unspoken.  My discovery is this:  the audience is never asked to try and figure out what just happened.  Shakespeare spells things out clearly enough that the audience is always thinking about what might happen next. He always gives his audience enough time to hear what's being said:  arguments have beginnings, middles, and ends; images are completed; conceits drawn out.  The verse can go fast because meaning is never off text.  If it were, the audience and verse would get out of sync, the audience puzzling out what the last moment wrought, the actor charging ahead to the next surprise, which now the audience will miss, because it's pre-occupied in the wrong way.

Bad Shakespearean acting happens when actors start acting off-line; you've seen it a hundred times, actors hamming it up, doing all that 'feeling' before or after they speak.  Even when it's good that kind of acting of Shakespeare is deflating because audience and actor are out of sync.

Two things contributed to this discovery tonight:  1) reading Woza Shakespeare by Antony Sher and Gregory Doran, their memoir of mounting Titus Andronicus in South Africa, in which Doran writes about how acting off-line in Shakespeare bogs it down and mishaps a play; and 2) going over proposed cuts in Titus, especially one cut that makes me fear the audience will remain a beat behind me in a crucial moment.  I see now that in cutting Shakespeare one must be careful not to make the text denser than it already is.  Shakespeare packs in so much more than other writers do because he almost always prepares the way so clearly and explicitly as he goes.  One is at peril of unraveling him into nonsense through injudicious cuts.  Cutting Shakespeare per se is just fine.  However, one must cut for the ear rather than for the eye.  If you have to act Shakespeare for the eye you're f**ked.

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