The Paper Stage First Impressions: Reconfiguring the Gulbenkian Café (Hannah Lilley)

The Gulbenkian as a thriving hub of the university equipped with an incessant coffee machine and buzzing with people seemed, at first, a risky place to hold an intimate play reading. All came and huddled in groups of those they knew. The first act began tentatively, with heads buried in books. It seemed unfamiliarity with fellow paper stagers, combined with the embarrassment of reading aloud in such an ostentatiously public place had overcome everyone’s ability to relax.

But perhaps the severe focus of our eyes on the text for the first few lines, and the desire to block out the world around us meant that Romeo and Juliet gradually generated its own space, which captured the attention of curious passers-by. By act two the group were engulfed into a remote zone, punctuated with the nurse’s ‘Ay’s and the audience’s laughter. Reader was also listener, the speech came from all sides; we were all there. Encouraged by a team of experienced paper stagers, whose rapport and confidence seemed a model of future events, the group warmed to the environment. Were we really in the Gulbenkian, or Verona?

Heads began to leave texts and look around, moments of comedy were exploited. Little in-jokes over differences in editions spread across the tables – particularly, in our case, over the stage directions in the RSC text: ‘Juliet lies down prostrate crying’ seemed funnier when no one was moving, and our Juliet was acting from her chair.

Time passed quickly, and as the Gulbenkian became quieter, and the evening darker, there was a growing sense of contentment, of everyone coming together, of revelling in the comfort and enjoyment of being read to or reading to others. The space felt more intimate when night fell, and blocked the view from the windows. A friend who passed by as we came near the end of act 3 scene 5 later remarked that it seemed very intense. I guess we were preoccupied with Juliet’s woe over her parents’ preferred suitor…

Over the course of the evening, I was reminded of Walter Benjamin’s lament of the isolation of the reader and storyteller brought about by the novel form in ‘The Storyteller.’

Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed.[1]

Sadly this isolation often permeates other forms including drama, which, when read alone is removed from its purpose as a performance text. The paper stage subverted this: all came wishing to hear a story expressed aloud, and the readers animated the lines, discovering details missed when the play is read in solitude.

We ended as the Gulbenkian was being closed around us. All were sleepy, content, relaxed. It goes to show the transformative power of a shared story, and bodes so well for future events.

Thank you to Dr Harry Newman and Dr Clare Wright for organising such a wonderful event. It was lovely to share a love of early modern drama with everyone!

[1] ‘The Storyteller’ by Walter Benjamin from Dorothy J. Hale (Ed.) The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000 (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p.362