Romeo and Juliet and “Doubling” (Jordan Cook and Hannah McIntosh)

In our introductory blog post, Hannah and I wanted, first of all, to talk about the general ‘Paper Stage’ experience, and afterwards go on to discuss the early modern theatrical practice of “doubling”, which we as readers experienced first hand during the event.

On the 19th May, we attended the first public Paper Stage play reading of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There’s something about the “read-aloud” experience of the Paper Stage  that is both insightful and refreshing, no doubt due to the attention that is brought to the words on the page, whilst still being able to incorporate the inherent performative aspects of the play. This reading and listening experience arguably gives one taking part more time to process the play in detail, rather than glossing over moments that could potentially be missed whilst watching a fast-paced performance. The process of reading out loud for each other’s benefit rather for that of an audience arguably allows one to sit on the fence between being a “player” and an “observer”.

Both Hannah and I only read a few minor roles, which we believe gave us the opportunity to listen more intently to the other speaking roles in the play rather than immersing ourselves in action; the experience therefore provided us with the opportunity to fully realise the value of these minor characters that may be otherwise overlooked. For instance, Hannah read for Friar John, whom, she notes, whilst only appearing in one short scene, nevertheless delivers news which impacts the entirety of the play: that Romeo has not been informed of Juliet’s “demise”. Equally, the Apothecary is present for one brief fraction of a scene, and quickly disappears, but yet he provides Romeo with the very prop that aids the play’s tragic ending. As such, minor characters (often overlooked in character studies and literary criticism) may be viewed as fully integral and necessary cogs in the play’s machinery.

For our reading of Romeo and Juliet some of the minor (and major) roles were doubled, including our own; this form of multi-roling is not only accurate to Shakespeare’s time period, but also allows us to understand the way in which performers would have been utilised on-stage. Doubling was a practice exhibited by Shakespeare’s company of players and their contemporaries, as plays would need to utilise a limited number of actors, for instance 10-15 individuals, to portray up to 40 roles. An interesting example of doubling in our rendition of the play had the same individual reading for the two major roles of Capulet and Benvolio, as well as the minor part of Gregory. Whilst doubling major roles was not as common, this did illustrate to us the difficulties of one actor playing two characters. For instance the possible overlap between roles, where at the start of the play we encountered a speaker conversing with himself. Or, how an actor can potentially be more suited for a certain role than another (Shakespeare would have had specific actors in mind when writing certain roles after all, e.g. Richard Burbage). I personally found that the speaker, whilst having read equally well for Benvolio, suited the role of Capulet more so, and due to this, as a listener I felt much more attentive listening to Capulet’s lines, and the part certainly earnt a few laughs.

It was a refreshing reading of a play that we, and no doubt a lot of others, assumed to already know quite well, thus showing that every reading and performance is unique, and  the Paper Stage reading of Romeo and Juliet brought to light aspects of the play we had never really considered before, and certainly made us contemplate early modern theatre practices from a different perspective.