The Play’s the Thing

The other week, I had the rare joy of seeing a Shakespeare play without having so much as browsed its pages beforehand. Rare because, while I am still depressingly far from achieving my eventual aim of reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare, I referred to a fair few of the Bard’s plays during the past three years of my English degree, even if I fell a little short of reading them all cover to cover.

I went to this open air performance of As You Like It, however, with nothing more than a vague, fuzzy notion of it being set in a forest and featuring Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated heroines. Chilly legs excepted (tip: do not wear shorts to an open air evening performance), I had a great night, laughing with pure, unrestrained delight at Shakespeare’s gags and wordplay; a refreshing change from the usual knowing chuckles of recognition. I also experienced that magical feeling of being enveloped in the world of the play, swept along with every twist and turn. All of which, once I had regained feeling in my legs, got the mental cogs whirring.

Is it better to read a play or to see it on a stage with all the trimmings? The answer to this would appear to be a no-brainer – plays are, after all, written for performance. Yet there is a pleasure to reading a script entirely separate from its onstage incarnation. Nell Frizzell’s recent column on IdeasTap examined this unique indulgence, perceptively pointing out that ‘when reading a play you can get all pervy about the language in a way that just isn’t possible when watching theatre’. While in live performance the dialogue rattles past, dazzling the audience for a potent but brief moment, when curled up on the sofa with it all laid out on the page you can savour every lip-smacking adjective.

Shakespeare once again provides a handy example. Despite relishing an unrehearsed giggle at As You Like It, almost the minute I got through the door afterwards I was hauling my treasured RSC Complete Works of Shakespeare (and occasional doorstop) down from the shelf to read back through my favourite speeches. No matter how perfect the actors’ enunciation, there are always elements of the written script that get swallowed up in the performance, with the beauty of the words forgotten in retrospect.

In a piece of theatre the parts are generally subordinate to the whole and thus it is not each individual word that matters but the complete picture that they paint. Sometimes, though, particularly for a word geek like me, it can be rewarding to dissect all those little parts. At the risk of over-analogising, a theatrical performance is a bit like a cake (stick with me on this one); delicious in its entirety, but made up of lots of ingredients that are subsumed into the finished product and become indistinguishable. Or perhaps this metaphor just says more about my love of cake than anything else.

With or without cake analogy, there is certainly something to be said for experiencing a play on the page. This is an experience I am all too familiar with after recently completing a dissertation on the plays of Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, pulling apart their scripts to put every line under the microscope. While this yields some rewarding results, I would not recommend such a thorough approach to the average reader unless they would like to slacken their grip on sanity; there was one point where I thought I might scream if I read the instruction ‘pause’ one more time.

Yet while I was close to throwing my battered copy of The Caretaker at the wall, one of the beauties of theatrical performance is that it can breathe new life into the most familiar of scripts. For vindication of such a claim, just take a look at the number of productions of Hamlet put on in the last couple of years alone, or the current battle of the Much Ados in London at the Globe and Wyndham’s. Were productions not able to put a new twist on old classics to attract audiences, Shakespeare for one would not have anywhere near the same cultural currency.

As an example, despite my recent, frustrating over-familiarity with Pinter, I was salivating at the prospect of Brighton’s site-specific collection of his political plays and sketches, The New World Order, on at the Town Hall as part of this year’s fringe festival. The sold out event brings together a collection of scenes that take audience members into the bowels of the building, with the use of old prison cells for the interrogations bringing, one guesses, a sense of gritty immediacy to the drama. While I have sadly missed out on this particular theatrical treat, I am excited by the prospect of Out of Joint’s revival of Churchill’s Top Girls in Chichester this summer, a production that I have no doubt will return any love of the play that was lost during the lengthy process of dissecting it.

I have now come round full circle, back to the heady joys of live performance that I opened with. My point, reached in a somewhat meandering way, is that plays provide a dual pleasure and are best enjoyed when experienced both as words in a playscript and as actors on a stage. So next time you come home from a dazzling piece of theatre, try opening the script to see what hidden gems are gleaming in there.

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