Thursday, August 4, 2011

The RSC's new mainstage in Stratford-on-Avon.

My visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company festival down in New York last weekend inevitably reminded me that we don't really have a great stage for Shakespeare in Boston. Nor does New York, actually; the RSC brought their own stage with them - modeled on the thrust of their smaller Swan Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon - and built it beneath the humongous vaults of the Park Avenue Armory.  The RSC has gone for the thrust in a big way, by the way - the recent renovation of their Stratford digs transformed their main stage into a Jeff Stryker-sized thrust, too (at top).

Of course just about everyone who has seen Shakespeare on a thrust stage agrees that it's the best way to do the Bard.  The connection between actor and audience is for some reason more immediate, and the relatively bare playing space is mysteriously sympathetic to Shakespeare's poetic scene-painting.  Of course not just any old thrust will do - the Loeb Theatre can be converted to a kind of thrust, for instance, but it's a dreadful one; it feels more like an absence than a presence. The black-box Central Square Theatre is usually configured as a thrust, and it would be much better for Shakespeare than the Loeb - only for some reason it seems the Bard is never done there.

The ideal Shakespearean thrust, however, should really be elevated from the floor of the theatre (so that the closest audience members are gazing up at the actors, as in the new Globe in London, at left).  On a purely technical level, this allows for the trap doors and escape hatches that the Bard sometimes demands, but there are atmospheric advantages to an elevated (and best of all, slightly raked) stage that are hard to describe.  I'm not sure why, but having a production "float" in the playing space seems appropriate to plays which are not really like "pictures" or "dreams" but rather metaphoric constructions that thoughtfully debate themselves as they proceed.  An elevated thrust makes a Shakespeare play feel a bit like a Rubik's cube - it's easier for us to rotate its content in our heads as we watch.  Plus an elevated stage subtly separates the players from the audience physically, while simultaneously drawing them closer together emotionally - a neat trick.

The RSC's stage in New York pulled off most of these effects beautifully - it was, I think, one of the best playing spaces in which I've ever encountered the Bard.  The thrust was quite long - imagine La Scala with the stage pushing better than halfway into the audience, and you've got the design of the Swan.  (Or imagine our own new Modern Theatre with a much longer thrust, and you've basically got the idea.)  That opera-house-like arrangement also helps the actors with their vocal projection, btw (plus the outer vaults of the Park Avenue Armory gave the RSC's voices a thrilling reverb, basically for free).  Meanwhile live music - a full score was played during both Julius Caesar and Winter's Tale - wafted down from a "pit" that was actually at the top of the theatre, in what would have been called the "Heavens" of the old Globe.  In many ways, this temporary theatre was a Shakespearean miracle.

There were disadvantages to the design, however.  The galleries surrounding the (quite small) audience on the first floor were inevitably lined with support columns (just like in Elizabethan days!).  These never occluded much of the action on the stage, but still - you found yourself looking around one of them to see who exactly was speaking more often than you might expect from a $100 seat.  A bigger problem lay in the rake of the galleries, which simply wasn't steep enough, given the relative narrowness of the space (this was a particular problem when the front row leaned forward to see actors who were almost directly beneath them).

So in the past few days I've tweaked my mental "ideal Shakespearean playing space" a bit.  Long thrusts are definitely a good thing (what can I say, the longer the better!). But support columns - well, as few as possible.  As for the rake of the seats - again, size counts.  The RSC's new stages probably still aren't ideal, but they're defniitely a step in the right direction.

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