Having studied Measure for Measure this term and having watched it in performance at the Young Vic last month, I was fairly confident that I knew this play reasonably well when I arrived at this week’s reading. However, during the reading, it quickly became apparent that I had almost completely forgotten about certain minor characters. During the reading experience, it also occurred to me that it is the minor characters – the characters who represent the sexual underworld of the play that Angelo is trying so hard to rid the city of – that gain the most laughs from audiences of Measure for Measure (1.2, to name just one example). I would argue, though, that the very fact that these characters are comic and represent the common people is rather disturbing and problematic; after all, it is characters such as Mistress Overdone and Pompey that will be most affected when ‘all houses in the suburbs of Vienna [are] plucked down’ (1.2.80). I would invite readers, listeners and spectators of Measure for Measure, then, to consider the implication of finding comedy in scenes that include lines such as Mistress Overdone’s ‘What shall become of me?’ (1.2.88). By laughing, are we not agreeing with Angelo’s attempt at oppressing the common people in the play? Isn’t what we are finding funny the fact that these characters’ livelihoods are going to be destroyed?
Reading and watching Shakespeare, I’d always managed to skirt around Titus one way or the other, probably due to the infamous death counts and the even more infamous ways in which they come about. Wikipedia knows all about it. All this dread amassed over years accounted for my sudden prick of squeamishness as I waited for Spring Term 2015’s first Paper Stage meeting to commence – we’ve certainly had bloodbaths before (The Massacre at Paris; Arden of Faversham; Sejanus His Fall – all had their fair share, yum), but none so legendary that I cringed a little at the thought of even touching the page. The slaughter was doomed to come, however, and we sat around in a circle in the Peter Brown Room, just as always, and began.
A few pages into the reading and wading steadily into more bloody waters, we already had an interesting variety of reactions: sucked-in breaths, raised eyebrows, indignant mutters, teeth-gnashing, and the occasional stifled giggle, slightly uneasy, which was to grow into full-scale laughter as we ploughed our way through the play. One of the first things that struck me was brought out soon after the grisly demise of Alarbus:
Lucius. See, lord and father, how we have performed
Our Roman rites! Alarbus’ limbs are lopped,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky. (Act I, Scene I)
The stage directions (‘Enter the sons of Andronicus again, with their swords bloody’), read out so casually, grated on my ear, yet at the same moment, I realized how differently that line would have been had I been reading the play ‘alone in my room’, as Harry had said. By myself, I would probably have skimmed over it, gotten an idea of how the character died, and moved on (a bit quickly, I admit). Now, in a room and surrounded by readers all too eager to act out their parts with gusto, every line and every word was enunciated, and the sheer time it took me to sit through every bloody detail gave me a strange sense of relish which would by no means have become apparent had I been on my own. Resentment, venom, craftiness; anguish, bewilderment, and, in the final scene where us readers watch Titus execute his revenge (in the most literal way imaginable), a lethal, numb calm. All these emotions and more besides were brought out in the full, as was black comedy abundant. Wonderfully agile in their pauses, links, and reactions, many of my fellow ‘readactors’ were most adept at eliminating awkward pauses or halting waits; they did not leave their lines loosely dangling in the air, but rather wielded them as one would rapiers, matching one another stride for stride and strike for strike. Between all of us, I am proud to say, we made the written word stand up on the page. Paper stage, indeed.
Our full-scale laughter was as much caused by each other’s sidesplitting reactions (coming just about every other line) as by Shakespeare’s innate talent to stuff the iambic pentameter chock-full of double entendres and innuendo. Even in the most horror-inducing sequences, puns typical of the man wormed their way in, replacing pent-up heaviness and discomfort with much-needed relief, yet a relief that was uneasy, too. Consider, for instance, this infamous exchange between Aaron and Tamora the Goth Queen’s sons:
Demetrius. Villain, what hast thou done?
Aaron. That which thou canst not undo.
Chiron. Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron. Villain, I have done thy mother. (Act IV, Scene II)
You need to read a play that can pull a joke like that, seriously.
(Audio version available at: http://prosperoart.com/shakespeare_2/index.html, and no, this is not an ad.)
Besides verbal acting, the Paper Stage is equally a not-to-be-missed chance for any avid reader as a play-reading series: even as we are testing the words against our tongue and flavouring them with what action we can provide from our seated positions, essentially it is also a group reading session. For me at least, who checks her phone for messages far more often than is healthy, the Paper Stage offers me a chance to settle down, read an entire piece through (except when we halt halfway through and run joyously outside the table ‘for top-ups’, i.e. chat about the play and grab new handfuls of chips and popcorn courtesy of Harry – verbal murder can be awfully spending), and feel my attention span stretch like taffy. Surprising, really, to think that you can read a play out loud in roughly two hours, but what with the possibility of straying off when you’re alone, silent reading may actually take longer, thereby making the task seem more daunting. With the Paper Stage, reading is more like an activity you go through together with friends, a play you stage, and by the time we get to the end, you’d be puzzled at where the time went – who’d even think of dropping off mid-reading? Simultaneously employing the eye and ear, too, means that a demand is being made on your reading speed, and if you don’t want to miss any of the action, you simply have to trot along, though it would be a good idea, especially for students, to jot down the lines that prove more of a mouthful, to go over them again afterwards.
The ‘reading’ aspect brings itself out as well, in how rather than predominantly poring over your own lines and cues, as might be the case in the beginning stages of rehearsing a staged version, you get to see the entire play in perspective as you read it line by line. The reading itself is casual, cosy and fun, but you have to stay alert and not miss your line – harder if you’re assigned multiple roles and even end up ‘talking to yourself’. What all this ultimately means is that if you want to get the most out of it, stay tuned the whole way through. What you’d want is to get into the atmosphere of the play, to figure out the relationship between the characters or untangle the plot-line, if you are unfamiliar with the work, or to taste the language in more detail if you are, and to marvel anew at the sheer wit of puns and at unexpected punchlines, made all the more effective because they are being read with all due bravura at the same moment the printed word is being taken in by the eye. That, in a (lengthy) sentence, is what the Paper Stage has given me, and I’m sure you’ll find it true of you too.
And finally, if you were wondering about the final death counts in Titus, and aren’t afraid of spoilers, here’s the summary of what we’re left with in the end (or better yet, just read the play (out loud)). Apart from how (just about) everybody dies, on one particularly gripping page, we had three lines bracketed by two deaths, and one inserted in between. Now there’s a bit of juiciness you wouldn’t want to miss, oh-so-tender-and-delicious. Happy Bloodbath!
(P.S. Of course what one can see once one sees past the bloodshed is worth considering too. But that’ll have to be another story.)
Reading the part of Faustus was more of a revelation than I had imagined. I was amused at just how much Faustus says ‘Mephistopheles, come!’ (and indeed by how much a Marlovian protagonist talks). But the real fascination was that it takes the idea of complicity to an entirely new level. Invoking devils using incantations, and reading out a solemn deed giving ‘both body and soul to Lucifer’ were incredibly powerful speech acts to perform. It’s almost disturbing how much it feels like one is actually summoning devils and giving away one’s soul. Reading it also made me notice the contrast between the intensity of the first scenes and the middle section more clearly, and brought home the pettiness of Faustus’ actions in his four-and-twenty years of being served by the devil. Then there’s the last scene, which exceeds the force of the beginning, and the power of the poetry is that it forces one to voice Faustus’ dread of the inexorable flow of time. The remarkable thing is the way that Marlowe paces his writing so that the long speeches are punctuated with exclamations and questions that carry the flow, and, when read, nearly puts one into the very state that Faustus is in. I was struck by how Marlowe’s poetry comes alive when spoken out loud.
There’s a lot more comedy, particularly slapstick, in this play than I remembered! On reflection it seems to me that the lower characters such as Wagner, Robin etc. are aping Faustus at the beginning in their pursuit of magic (the comic scenes seem to juxtapose his, in my memory) but, despite his seemingly noble intentions to use his association with Mephistopheles to further his knowledge of the cosmos, ultimately his own use of magic also becomes merely comic. He becomes an entertainer and has given up knowledge for fame and fortune. Is this part of his tragedy – not just the loss of his soul but the way in which a potentially great man has become diminished?
There was a fairly intimate group for the reading of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus by Canterbury Branch of the Paper Stage. It is always a pleasure to have the local lad’s words creeping the paper boards at the Public Reading in the Gulbenkian Cafe. One surprise of the night was how well the doubling up of parts managed to work. One needn’t have more than a company of 10 to stage the play well.
Rosemary Walters gave a tour de force as Faustus – it was clear she enjoyed having a part she could sink her teeth into. There are also quite a few small parts that people could inject character into, including such luminaries as the Pope, and the seven deadly sins. Representing Sloth, or Avarice using only the timbre of one’s voice is the sort of creative opportunity that is, for me, the highlight of the paper stage. There is also the opportunities for mischief; the part of the horse-courser was read as a hoarse horse-coarser. I should warn you however, to check how many lines a part has before committing to such a comic turn.
On the 6th of October the Canterbury Branch of the Paper Stage read Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. It is a fun Elizabethan Comedy, with classic early modern tropes including disguise, elopement, and mistaken identity. Also, amusing Dutch accents. As with many playwrights of the time, Dekker seems to have asked himself ‘why have one entendre when you can have two?’. And when Dekker sets about writing a play laced with double entendre, he doesn’t stint. One of the characters most responsible for comic relief is Firk, a journeyman shoemaker. In case you were worried it was mere coincidence that even his name sounds rude, let me set your heart at rest: it is not.
We discovered, in the course of our reading, that one of the copies of the text upon which we were relying had taken a more proactive approach to edition than the others. A copy of the text had decided to remove the rudest bits from the play (known to the cognoscenti as Bowdlerizing it). This included excising mention of a non-speaking character by name: Cicely Bumtrinket became merely ‘the maid’.
Putting to one side the merits and deficits of editing a play to expurgate the lewder language, the experience of reading a play and finding that one script doesn’t contain the same text as the others is always disconcerting. When we did find that we were missing such euphonic gems as ‘Cicely Bumtrinket’ from being read aloud, one must confess, we felt a little cheated. Proceedings were interrupted momentarily while Cicely was reinserted into the oration. The Bowdlerization of the play also produced other reactions. When Firk was discussing a couple performing the traditional dance ‘The Shaking of the Sheets’, there was a certain amount of surprise that this was not considered ripe enough to be plucked from the text.
Tomorrow in Mantua will see the first of a three-part reading of Il Dottor Faust, an Italian translation of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus by Nemi D’Agostino. Readers will be getting together for a lively and interactive reading of the translation, which is based on the B-text of 1616, on the 15th, 22nd and 29th of September. The Italian readings are organised by Clara Prezzavento, founder of Il Palcoscenico di Carta (‘The Stage of Paper’), which is one of three societies of The Paper Stage, a public Renaissance play-reading network. The other Paper Stage societies in Surrey and Kent are also organising readings of Doctor Faustus for some time in the next 6 weeks, so watch out for news on this blog.
It was a little more than a year ago that, while browsing the web for Shakespeariana, I chanced across a weblog post by Eoin Price at Aside Notes, telling about The Paper Stage, Canterbury’s public play reading group. I read the post, followed the link, read some more – and by then I was in love with the beauty and simplicity of the idea. People gathering to read aloud seldom performed plays? Wonderful! So I wrote a glowing post of my own on my English blog, and ended it by wishing very much I could do something like it…
And then Harry Newman, from The Paper Stage, wrote to me, saying basically: Why Not? And indeed, why not do it? Why not copy The Paper Stage in Mantua? So I got in touch with friends at the Accademia Teatrale Campogalliani, Mantua’s theatre school and semi-professional company. They fell in love with the idea as promptly as I had: in fact, we had been lamenting together the near-impossibility of staging anything that veers from the most widely known repertoire – and The Paper Stage offered a welcome chance to explore a little.
And so Il Palcoscenico di Carta (literally “the stage of paper”) was born. We put together a little website [translated here], presented the project at Campogalliani’s annual press conference, and set to work on it.
We felt that we had to make a few adjustments to adapt the project to our needs. Instead of integral readings in one sitting, we chose to split the plays into one-hour chunks, and to have weekly meetings late in the afternoon, rather than after dinner. After some searching, we found a home for the project at the lovely Libreria Einaudi, a bookshop cum art gallery, whose owners welcomed us with genuine enthusiasm. Finally, following the footsteps of The Paper Stage, we chose to begin with Romeo and Juliet – Romeo e Giulietta, in a beautiful translation by hermetic poet Salvatore Quasimodo.
With everything ready, we began recruiting – and on May 7 we gathered at the Libreria. There were about twenty of us, between readers and listeners. Readers ranged from semi-professionals to amateurs and theatre-lovers who had never played in their lives… What misgivings I might have had about rhythm, disappeared the moment we started. Led by the Campogalliani players, and swept up by Shakespeare and Quasimodo, we all fell in step with surprising ease, and had a lively and very enjoyable first reading. The experience was just as pleasant on the following two weeks, as we rotated parts and gathered more members of the audience…
In the end, when our imaginary curtain descended, the feedback was extremely positive. The actors enjoyed the chance to experiment with characters they’d never play otherwise, the neophytes had a taste of the thrill of theatre, the listeners discovered the difference between reading a play and listening to it… Everyone pronounced Il Palcoscenico di Carta a very rewarding experience, and expressed every intention to be there again when we meet next – very likely in September.
We have not yet decided on our next play, but requests are arriving from our readers and listeners. Marlowe, Jonson, Webster and some less known Shakespeare are on the wish list – and in time we mean to stray from the Elizabethan period. We will see, and we will read. Meanwhile, one thing is sure: The Paper Stage/Il Palcoscenico di Carta has landed in Mantua – and it is here to stay.
This month The Paper Stage’s sister society in Mantua, Italy is having its first play-reading, split into three evenings on the 7th, 14th and 21st of May. Inspired by our blog, Clara Prezzavento has set up Il Palcoscenico di Carta (‘The Stage of Paper’), and is collaborating with the Theatre Academy Campogalliani on an exciting new series of readings of early modern plays in Italian translations. Their first play? Romeo e Giulietta! It’s at Libreria Galleria Einaudi, a bookshop-cum-art gallery in the centre of Mantua, and I for one can’t wait to hear how it goes!
Clara will be writing a post for our blog in the near future, so watch this space: https://ilpalcoscenicodicarta.wordpress.com
I attended the reading of Lucy Munro’s Arden edition of The Witch of Edmonton by Rowley, Dekker and Ford as a fun diversion from my studies of Shakespeare both on the page and stage. I had never read nor heard of this play before that week and thought it was a tragedy, my first error. I also assumed I would be a lone American voice striking discordantly in a sea of proper English accents, my second error. What I discovered instead was how unexpectedly hilarious The Witch of Edmonton actually was and how that was amplified by the diversity of voices reading it. The tone, pitch and accent of each voice revealed something I wasn’t expecting to hear. I have grown so accustomed to the highly trained resonant voices you find on stages across the world that I have developed a craving for variety, which was satisfied by The Paper Stage.
The stereotype of the posh English “Shakespearean” actor has become a parody of itself, yet accents that deviate from the “norm” still seem to be reserved as character devices or a tool of class/country differentiation in Early Modern theatre (with a few exceptions e.g. David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing). How refreshing and illuminating it is, in a world of homogenised sound on stage, to hear an Early Modern play read in natural human voices. What happens when we abandon “convention” and embrace the breadth of the human voice? Modern accents are a far cry from the pirate-esque style of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, so why not embrace the complexity of the natural voice to see where that leads us?
During the reading certain aspects of the text took on a different meaning. The Dog character, the Witch’s familiar and devil in disguise, has not an insignificant amount of “bow wows” in the script. Instead of attempting a realistic dog noise, our reader said the lines saucily and suggestively, bringing a sinister yet humorous tilt to the character. The Morris dancers also ran the spectrum of accents. Through the diversity of voices each character took on an individuality and personality, even without any overt attempts at “acting”. And yet the voices filled up the space while avoiding the forceful affectation that befalls too many stage actors when speaking outside their natural range. Even the age range of the actors contributed to this: pairing an older sounding gentleman as the child (Frank Thorney) of a younger voice (Old Thorney) imbued the relationship with unexpected humour. It was also interesting to hear the inevitable cross-gendered casting of women’s voices in “men’s” roles, the opposite to the all male casts of the original Early Modern production.
When you take the plays out of a conventionally dramatic setting, the text and voice become the two most important parts of the “performance”, each one informing the other. The natural voice becomes a tool of illumination: how does the speech flow, where are the lines that might sound odd in a stereotypical Received Pronunciation accent but natural in an American one? It is a rare gift to hear a play read by such an international spectrum in one room. I loved hearing the variety of inflections and pronunciations that would have never come out of my mouth, and I believe that this varied aural experience is extremely valuable. From amateur actors to Early Modern enthusiasts, The Paper Stage has shown me the text will inform the voice and the voice will carry the text. I found the diversity of the vocal instrument particularly essential to the transcendent musicality of the text. In a “risk-free” enjoyable environment like The Paper Stage (amplified by the generous provision of snacks and drinks) we are truly able to explore these dynamics in a way that is overlooked in a theatrical production. I would love for the use of natural voices to become a popular trend on the professional stage, but until then I will just have to relish the unique opportunity The Paper Stage has given me.