I started my PhD at the University of Bristol at the end of January 2020, just eight weeks or so before the lockdown measures were introduced. The position is funded by the Brecknock Society, in memory of Sister Bonaventure of the Ursuline Convent in Brecon. Sister Bonaventure was a prolific local theatre historian whose extensive body of research of theatre in Brecon from 1699-1870 remains largely unpublished within theatre academia.
Fortunately, before the lockdown measures came into force, I managed to travel to Bristol from my village just outside of Brecon to register and meet my supervisors and to attend my first research meeting at the Theatre Collection with fellow theatre historians from the universities of Bristol and Exeter. I was also able to gather and sort the large amounts of material from Sister Bonaventure’s archive that was contained in outbuildings of houses in the surrounding villages of Brecon. This involved some very cold mornings in sheds and welcome cups of tea in homes meeting key members of the Brecknock Society.
Laura Engel (2019) has coined the term “archival tourist” to describe the process of a researcher immersing oneself in a foreign environment through archival research. However, I have developed an awareness of my somewhat unique position of being an ‘archival resident’, a researcher living amongst the subject of their investigation. This has been emphasised by the lack of regular tourists to my village. The village car park close to my house, normally full of Taff Trail cyclists, and the road to the bridge over the Usk usually filled with people unloading their kayaks and canoes into the water are now empty and quiet.
But I remain surrounded by materials. Whether that be in our hastily adapted office come spare bedroom filled with Sister Bonaventure’s archive placed on a full to the brim Ikea shelf or in the surrounding countryside dotted by grand houses which are the former homes of the gentry who patronised the play performances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A recent walk from my home revealed I can see a view of Buckland Hall in all its grandeur from the top of the hill. I have the memory of the nearby house at Penpont where we selected and chopped down our Christmas tree on a rainy day and stopped for a hot chocolate. When I drive into Brecon for grocery shopping, I can see the old building which used to house the town’s Theatre Royal which closed its doors in 1870.
Every day I take my sons for a walk along the Brecon and Monmouthshire canal – a toddler sized fishing net in hand – and can imagine barges full of coal and the Brecon Boat Company whose directors were so key to the financial development of the area. Occasionally I’ll see a neighbour on a walk, and we’ll have a socially distanced chat about Sister Bonaventure who taught her in the convent school, or I’ll chat to my neighbour over the fence about the opera singer Adelina Patti at Craig y Nos.
While I cannot gain access to some of the things I need, to collect the last four boxes of Sister Bonaventure’s material from Y Gaer (the local museum) which I am desperate to see, or to check sources with the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, the British Library or indeed the University of Bristol’s own Theatre Collection, being fully immersed in the location of my research helps to focus my thinking, and now increasingly my writing, as I continue my research journey.
Being a first-year Theatre Student during lockdown brings with it very particular limitations. The experience of live theatre either as a member of the audience or as part of the production is not possible. Maybe this is what a chef feels like without a kitchen; a footballer without a team, and a student of literature without books. Four of our fabulous first years here in the Department of Theatre, have put pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, to try and figure out what it is we’re missing when watching theatre on screen in lockdown.
Georgia Casimir: Frankenstein, National Theatre
I watched the recording of the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature, and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein. I loved the performance – the huge theatre space (and presumably equally huge budget) allowed for some really amazing effects: thousands of light bulbs were suspended above the stage and audience and created moments of gentle, romantic starlight and equally harsh, exposing and clinical light; there were moments of mechanical music accompanied by chanting, and a 10-minute opening sequence where Cumberbatch broke out of his embryonic cell and essentially spent the next few minutes learning how to walk.
The thing is, as amazing as it was to watch, it mostly felt amazing because I was imagining how it would feel to be an audience member. Watching the performance on a screen, in my own bedroom, it was hard to experience that sense of immediacy that the audience was definitely experiencing. I imagine it would have been a genuinely frightening performance – it is hard to watch a fully grown man struggle so much with basic speech and coordination, accompanied by his grotesque appearance and erratic behaviours, I would have been scared he was going to crawl up into the audience.
Therefore, as much as I was genuinely enthralled by the production, I certainly still felt somewhat left out, experiencing only about 70% of the sensations that I would have had I been there in the flesh. That being said, there are definitely some benefits to watching a recording of a performance.
For starters, you can see everything. The stage was vast, and I doubt whether even the front-row audience member would have been able to see Cumberbatch’s incredible stage makeup in the same detail as I did. Additionally, some of the slower, more dialogue-heavy scenes were somewhat filmic and definitely lent themselves well to a performance.
I can absolutely see the benefits of watching recorded performances. It is generally cheaper, more accessible and allows for the close-up viewing that is hard to achieve from an auditorium; however, on the whole I would still much prefer to see a performance in the flesh – the uncertainty of theatre, the knowledge that there is only one shot at a performance on any one night, and the overall more immediate experience certainly warrants travelling out of my way to watch it myself.
Jasper Price: Hamlet (2016), Royal Shakespeare Company
I watched the latest Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet from the comfort of my living room. I didn’t have to traipse the two-hour journey to London’s Hackney Empire to watch this play. No traffic, no horrible train journey, no sweltering tube ride. I walked from my bedroom to the living room; about 10 feet and didn’t encounter a single person. I didn’t have to wait in a massive queue to use the lavatory as you do at the theatre.
When I sat down, my legs were not wedged in a vice-grip hold, devoid of circulation. Instead, I sat on my sofa and put my legs up on the coffee table. I was able to eat what I liked without the fear of being shushed by another theatregoer. So far this virtual theatre trip is proving easier than the real thing.
However, as the play began, I suddenly felt distanced, unattached from the performance. The lights had gone down in the theatre but sunlight was still streaming from my window. I did not feel totally engaged with the production, as being there would have assured; and my cat miaowing during “to be or not to be” killed any theatrical atmosphere that I was feeling.
Atmosphere. That is the key word to any live event; you and the rest of the audience united for a brief few hours, engaged together in the majesty of live performance. That feeling you get when the lights go down, and everyone falls silent together, is lost at home. Another huge negative with watching a theatre production is that we see what the director wants us to see. As a theatre student, I look away from the main action to see what else is happening onstage; the other actors, the lighting, the set etc. However, I am forced to look watch only the lead actors through a series of closeups.
However, the greatest reason for watching the play virtually was that I didn’t have to watch the whole thing. I spread the play out over multiple days because I was not prepared to sit for three and a half hours watching Hamlet. I would have in the theatre but at home? No. There are pros and cons to watching performance at home, but to me, an 11-inch laptop screen will never beat an 11-metre stage.
Isobel Edmondson: Twelfth Night, National Theatre
Despite not knowing the story of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at all, I found it enjoyable and laughed out loud at some parts, because the themes and characters were so clearly conveyed in the physicality, gestures and voice of the actors. The character Malvolio was changed to a female Malvolia, which I did not really see the point of. While I try to keep an open mind and tell myself that gender does not matter, it clearly does, and it potentially changes the way the audience see the events in the play. Maybe if I knew the play better, I would see why this decision was made, or perhaps I’d be even more confused.
Nevertheless, Tamsin Greig was amusing as Malvolia and I enjoyed her use of gesture, for example: she repeated a hand movement every time she repeated a certain phrase. The phrase itself was not even particularly funny as far as I can remember, but she made it comical with that simple action. A revolving stage was used to transition between scenes which I thought was much more aesthetically pleasing than a blackout or a curtain might have been. It was slick and even added comedy in some parts. I always appreciate the National Theatre’s creative use of space and set design.
In general, watching stage on screen is something I did before quarantine in the cinema so it has not been such an adjustment for me. Of course, there are some differences though, especially when watching it at home, for example: you are not sitting in the audience. This made me feel somewhat detached from the play, as the audience’s reaction can affect the way you experience a performance. There is a sense of community and camaraderie when watching something with a lot of other people, in the same way that a large part of the atmosphere at a concert is dependent on the audience’s presence. There is also the fact that the action is not live, which means that camera angles could have been edited and manipulated in a certain way.
This forces the audience’s attention on one particular area, which means that everyone watching has a pretty similar or near identical experience compared to the audience members who were actually there; could have looked anywhere and had different perspectives based on where they were sitting. This could be seen as a positive thing, however, as the close-up view of the action allows you to notice smaller and more subtle facial expressions and interactions of the characters, almost like a film. In that regard, the best seats in the house are at home. Either way, I think if I were a fan of a particular actor or if they were just well-known, it’d be much more exciting seeing them in the flesh than on my screen. It would just feel more special and rare. I could tell my grandchildren that I saw them and maybe they’d be impressed and envious that we were actually in the same room.
By Georgia Casimir, Isabel Edmondson, Jasper Price, and Dr Katja Krebs.
This weekâ€™s post is written by second year students on the unit Performing the Archive and give an account of the projects they were working on in their groups shortly before the lockdown. They were developing guided tours, audio installations and performance re-enactments in response to stories discovered in the Bristol Old Vic archive, which is held in the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.
These would have been shown to the public at the Bristol Old Vic on March 23, but this was not possible due to the COVID-19 crisis. Here two of the groups have written about the stories from the theatreâ€™s history that they found interesting, their research and creative processes, and what you would have experienced if their showings had been able to go ahead.
Love and Romance at Bristol Old Vic: from love letters to weddings, both on and offstage, exploring the romances of the Old Vic through an interactive audio tour
We are a group of six students from University of Bristolâ€™s Department of Theatre who are currently working on our final project for Performing The Archive. Throughout this unit we have been collaborating closely with the engagement team at Bristol Old Vic to help share the theatreâ€™s history with the city of Bristol. Our group are focusing on a collection of love stories and romances related to the Old Vic.
To us, this theatre represents community and the spirit of Bristol itself. We want to celebrate the love for Bristol Old Vic and the romances that have happened there by creating an audio tour of the building. Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, we werenâ€™t able to show our project to the public, but we hope to be able to as soon as it is safe.
We have spent the past few months trawling through the archival boxes in the Theatre Collection, uncovering forgotten romances from the past and transcribing 19th century love letters. From audience members, staff, actors and everyone in between, we have worked with a wide range of historical evidence, including these letters, interviews and photographs.
Having learned about the importance of archival practices in the retelling of theatrical history, we have found it truly heart-warming to discover just how many people have romantic stories connected with Bristol Old Vic. We have turned some of these stories from the past into scripts, and then into audio recordings, to create interviews with historical figures such as James Chute and Charlotte Cushman.
For the more recent and first-hand stories, we have been using Bristol Old Vicâ€™s Memory of Theatre recordings. These interviews are part of a heritage project that aims to preserve the publicâ€™s memories and experiences of the theatre for future audiences. During this unit we conducted our own Memory of Theatre interviews with regular theatregoers and staff at Bristol Old Vic. We found this medium a lot more personal to work with than some of the information from hundreds of years ago. It was exciting to hear real voices share their stories and we felt it added a lot of charm to our project. Itâ€™s even more exciting to think that these people will hear their stories represented in our audio tour when we are able to present it to the public.
Weâ€™ll leave you with one of our stories to whet your appetite. In Bristol Old Vic there is a window in Coopersâ€™ Hall lovingly named â€˜the proposal windowâ€™ and it has a history of romance surrounding it. Duty Manager Andrew Stocker shared with us the story of a proposal that took place there in 1992; it was Valentineâ€™s Day and Bristol Old Vicâ€™s production of Romeo and Juliet was preparing for their evening performance. â€œSuddenly, as it was coming up to about quarter past sevenâ€, Stocker recalls, â€œa young man stood up andâ€¦ went down on one knee to his girlfriendâ€“and out of his pocket pulled a ring and proposed to her!â€ Stocker continues, â€œshe screamed initially, and then smiled and said yes and everybody clapped. It was very magical and especially on Valentineâ€™s Day!â€ It later turned out that the young man chose to propose next to this â€˜proposal windowâ€™ because it was the very spot where his father proposed to his mother in the 1970s.
This is just one of the tales we have discovered, and we canâ€™t wait to share the rest with the public. We hope that these love stories will bring as much joy to you as they have brought to us.
By Stella Parker, on behalf of her Performing the Archive group, Riddhi Bhatt, Kate Bolton, Ed Lyness, Katie Smith, Ruidong Yang.
Dragonâ€™s Den: Theatre Royal edition
Good morning/afternoon/evening, depending on when youâ€™ve decided to read this blog post and learn more about Bristol Old Vicâ€™s history, which we love and hope you will too. We are Theatre students at the University of Bristol and have been exploring the theatreâ€™s archives in the Theatre Collection to learn more about the Old Vicâ€™s past, which we would like to share with you.
During our research we were particularly gripped by the information regarding the selling of Bristol Old Vic in 1942, and the threat of closure prior to this. We were impacted profoundly by the thought that this theatre, such a part of the heart of Bristol now, was nearly lost for good (and very nearly became a fruit and vegetable warehouse). This information was striking, but in the form of papers and letters it was not particularly accessible or entertaining.
We contemplated how we could make this story relevant to an audience today and decided to re-stage the auction as a pitch on the popular TV show Dragonsâ€™ Den. Using the format of this programme allowed us to depict the auction in an inventive way, using the evidence in a manner that a contemporary audience could enjoy and learn from. The challenge of this was staying true to the historical facts while bringing it into our era. We decided to use quotes from the archives so that the language is from the period when the auction occurred, while having modern-day costumes typical of Dragonsâ€™ Den suits.
Happy with our idea, we began our research. We needed names. The format required five Dragons and one or two entrepreneurs to pitch. Using Kathleen Barkerâ€™s archive material, we were able to find names of the main players involved in the bidding and discovered interesting characters like Milton Bode. Born in Birmingham, he ran away to the circus at 17 and managed touring theatre companies in later life. He was one of the Theatre Royalâ€™s managers just before it was put up for auction and so we decided to have him as our pitcher.
One of the most interesting figures we chose to be a Dragon was Anne Rendall. We found her through the rather aggressive letters between her and Herbert Farjeon (another figure we chose to be a Dragon). Her fierce character and strong language – such as calling someone a â€œfoul sharkâ€ – fitted with our re-imagining and was used to create dramatic effect in the den.
The final three dragons became: Clarence Davey, Wilfred Leighton, and John Hare. In the real auction Hare placed the first bid of Â£10,000 and so, translating this into a Dragonsâ€™ Den scenario, we had Hare give the first offer of Â£10,000. There was an anonymous bidder who placed the winning bid of Â£10,500 and who later turned out to be Davey. He bid on behalf of the Council of the Preservation of Ancient Bristol, so that they could use the theatre for its intended purposes and pay him back when they had the money.
We felt it important that the council be represented in the den, as the theatre building being bought and used for other purposes was a real threat to the cityâ€™s history and culture. This is where Leighton came in. Leighton was the president of the council at the time and so we chose him to represent the organisation. Herbert Farjeon was connected to the theatre due to his fiercely held belief (expressed in many letters) that the theatre should be used as a theatre and only a theatre, and that it should be protected at all costs. We decided to include his character as one of the dragons to create some conflict between the Dragons – some whom believe the theatre should be protected, and others want to make use of the building for more profitable business purposes.
We wanted to create the kind of tension found in Dragonsâ€™ Den on television. We loved the intimidating aspect of the show, which we channelled in our portrayal of the historical Bristol business figures. Admittedly, some artistic license was taken when developing these characters in the context of the den, but we did stay true to the impressions gained from the documents.
With our chosen historical figures, we planned how we could connect the events of the auction with the structure of Dragonsâ€™ Den. Often in the real Dragonsâ€™ Den, two or more of the Dragons may decide to split a deal between them. We decide this was a fitting ending (spoiler) for our piece, as Davey and the Council did decide to help one another in order to save the theatre.
The overarching aim throughout the process was to make the piece educational, entertaining and accessible to anyone who comes to the Old Vic. This is why we chose â€œthe Snugâ€ in the corner of the foyer next to the original Theatre Royal wall as our performance space. This is an intimate space where the actors and audience can feel close and passers-by might happen upon our performance. Being in front of the original wall also allowed us to refer to the auditorium itself during the piece, the very theatre that was auctioned and where the auction took place; to stage a historical event right where it happened.
We hope you have enjoyed reading about our process and that you have learnt more about how Bristol Old Vic has stood the test of time – and won, against all the odds.
By Eleanor Motyer Lowndes, Natalya Nielsen, Rhiannon Pearce, Tara Pinto, and Ben Wolverson
To be together is an act of faith. Imagine reading a book in a steamed-up coffee shop, gazing at the flow of faces outside the window. Think about the press of a crowd in a football stadium, the pleasure of joining in with a wave and getting it exactly in sync with everyone else. About dancing in a cramped hot room or a giant festival field, everyone covered in glitter and someone else’s sweat on your skin. About the comfortable hubbub of a restaurant or the silence of a library; those who stream around us at the train-station, or who sit next to us in hushed pleasure at the theatre, or who manoeuvre their shopping cart around ours – oh, a wonky wheel! No, please, after you.
Imagine being together, out there in the world. It’s a quietly radical thought.
I say radical because, in order to be out in the world with other people, we need to have faith in other people: faith that other people will abide by the same rules as ourselves. Rules of manners, civility, propriety, respect; of morals, ethics, and law. These are just some of the big words we’ve come up with, over the centuries, to describe the necessary boundaries for our successful coexistence.
To be together is, like Blanche in Streetcar, todepend on the kindness of strangers; or if not their kindness, then at least their general lack of antagonism. This begins at the very basic level – the hope that other people, by and large, will not set out to harm us. That our bus to work will be free from explosives. That our classrooms and religious congregations won’t be disrupted by someone wielding an automatic weapon. That no-one will cough on us and spread a deadly virus.
Less spectacular than these Hollywoodesque acts of cruelty, though, are the small acts of disturbance to which we submit others – or are ourselves submitted – every single day. Here I’m talking firstly about the minor irritations that come from being together in public: about the open-mouthed chomper, the man-spreader, the perfume-overuser, the loud and constant sniff sniffsniff.
But I’m also talking about the accumulating violence of microaggressions that being-together-in-public can bring. About the dangerous surveillance of bodies whom society has systematically marginalised.The disproportionate policing of those identities and behaviours.The judgments about who does and who does not belong. Our experience of being together in the world differs vastly depending on who we are – or who we are seen to be.
As a specialist in theatre audiences,I’ve spent my career asking what it means to ‘be together’ in public space. Who decides the rules? Who benefits from those rules, and who loses out? Who gets to define what counts as reasonable, and how do those with alternative definitions (of what’s acceptable vs. unacceptable, appropriate vs. inappropriate) get marked out as unreasonable?
A couple of years ago I started answering these questions through a study of online guides to ‘theatre etiquette’, the recent deluge of blog posts and articles arguing that theatre audiences are getting increasingly badly behaved – the result of which was my book, The Reasonable Audience. I found that while every etiquette advocate firmly believed that audiences are getting more and more selfish and bad-mannered, in need of ‘retraining’ in better spectatorship, the precise location of that line between good and bad behaviourdiffered wildly from person to person.
When it came to mobile phones, for instance, some people said that obviously putting them on silent was okay; others said absolutely not, obviously they had to be turned off entirely. Some people said don’t eat or drink anything in the auditorium; others said that quiet snacks are fine – otherwise you “may as well tape everyone’s mouths shut”. Some people welcomed the demise of the dress code, telling their readers to wear whatever they feel comfortable in – even “rock up in flip flops, if you like”. Meanwhile, others said specifically that “there is no place for flip flops in the theatre”, and that you should buy an outfit that cost “at least as much as the price of your ticket”.
If we pay attention, we can see these same discourses of reasonableness playing out in every aspect of public life – from debates about whether or not it’s acceptable to eat on buses, to irritation at children being noisy on aeroplanes, to disabled people getting shamed for sitting down on park benches while taking their one governmentally-mandated walk a day.
You can also see reasonableness fermenting online: in every Twitter storm, every Facebook spat, every online article’s comments section, in every Reddit Real Relationships or AITA (Am I The Asshole?) post. Whether the subject is as big as socialism or as banal as sourdough bread – any native of the internet should be familiar with the furious disagreement even the most throwaway online thought can provoke.
And what I’ve learned from all this is that everybody– yes, even you – believes that their own opinions are obviously reasonable. Our ideas about right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, acceptable or unacceptable, are obviously common sense. After all, it’s surely just a case of manners and respect – about learning not to be selfish, about being considerate of others… Right?
The thing is, though, that manners and respect are not neutral. There’s no such thing as a single, reasonable viewpoint. Common sense is actually not that common at all. These things vary from person to person, they land differently on different bodies and different subjectivities, and are absolutelybound up inrelations of power. Because as critical raceand disability studies scholars have pointed outfor decades, it tends to be working-class people, young people, and people of colour(especially where those identities overlap) who get disproportionately policed and subjected to surveillance – even if their behaviour is exactly the same as the older rich white person next to them.
Understanding this is to pay attention to the inequities of being together, out there in the world. Who can walk down the street holding hands and pass unnoticed, and who cannot? Who wheels the shopping trolley aside reflexively, and who stands still? Who disproportionately gets served in that coffee-shop, and who do we expect will be the one to serve?
We’re trying to co-exist in a fundamentally racist, sexist, ableist, classist society – one that’s deliberately working to elevate some existences over others. Our shared social spaces have been built to be shared only by some of us. We are trying to be together in a world designed to pull us apart.
Right now, of course, we can’t be together – or not most of us, anyway, or not in the ways we’re used to. Right now, here in the UK, our government is trying to move us back to business as usual. But that’s not what we need. Instead of going back to ‘normal’, now’s our chance to ask what a newnormal might look like.The first step toward that new normal is to learn to interrogate the voice of reasonableness inside ourselves –the voice that tells us our own ideasabout how the world should be are common sense, objectively correct, while others’ lived experiences are obviously wrong. It starts by asking why wesometimes feel we have the right to pass judgment on others as selfish, disrespectful, rude –and whose disadvantage that might entrench. It begins by understanding that returning to the status quo means some of us get further ahead,whileothersare left behind.
Now is our chance to be together better. Let’s not bottle it, okay?
When the coronavirus outbreak hit I was halfway through reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. As I continued to read this book about the loss of William Shakespeare’s son to plague, the pandemic developed throughout March, and a transformation occurred to the material. The book changed from being a historical, if heart-breaking, account of the death of a child, to a strangely prescient and very present tale about the sudden loss of anyone to an invisible illness. Ideas that had felt distant became suddenly close; fears that were one imagined were now being plucked from my own brain.
For the last year or so, I have been working on a research project which explores the staging and the meaning of walking in early modern drama. As a rule my research concerns bodies in performance, and I draw on a wide range of printed texts in circulation at the same time as drama to analyse how early modern bodies were understood and represented onstage. Like my experience of reading Hamnet, my response to my research has been transformed by the crisis we are living through.
Whereas, prior to March, I was writing blithely in my notes about “bad plague years” and the effect that these were having on movement and mobility in early modern literature, the material suddenly became more vital and, once again, prescient. The frequent closures of the playhouses during the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries because of plague outbreaks, suddenly spoke to the theatres going dark in our present moment.
During 1603, the year that James VI of Scotland took to the throne as James I of England, a particularly bad outbreak of plague occurred, one that caused the death of 1 in 5 Londoners and continued on and off for the next 10 years. It was in this context that Ben Jonson created The Alchemist in 1610, a play which presents the machinations of servants in the absence of their master who has fled London due to an outbreak of the illness.
Outside of the theatres James VI and I issued a set of Orders in 1603 for the prevention of the plague – including a 6-week quarantine of the sick, and an injunction that if they leave their home then they should mark their clothes for identification. However, a large number of other medical treatises were written around this time. Prior to coronavirus, I had found one of these – James Manning’s A new booke, intitled, I am for you all, complexions castle as well in the time of the pestilence (1604) – particularly interesting, because of Manning’s advice that you should ‘command’ those that you suspect as sick to perform certain physical tasks for you:
“If you suspect any, as you may justly, where some have died out of a house, or where the next house have had the infection, then do as followeth; Command them to stand upright, and to reach themselves upright: if they faile to do it, then suspect a sore in the backe, bellie, brest, or flanks […] presently after this, command them to walke up and downe as fast as they can; if they halt, or steppe not largely, suspect a sore in the thighs, flanks, knees, backe, or hippes: presently after this, command them to bow down foreward to the ground, and reach up something, not removing any foote, if they cannot, then suspect the flanks, or backe: if they do performe all this, and be very short winded, having no other disease knowne; then suspect a soare to ensue, or the bodie very shortly to be in great danger by the pestilence.” (1604, E2r-v)
As I read the same text now, it seems to imply a similar distrust of others that has led some people to spy on their neighbours during lockdown. Pandemics may bring out some of the best in us – Clap for Carers, Colonel Tom Moore – but they also appear to bring out some of our worst.
While Manning is from Wellingborough, the place bearing the brunt of the plague – as with coronavirus – is London. In 1603, the playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker published The Wonderfull Yeare, a text which considers all of the strange (or ‘full of wonder’) events, from Elizabeth’s death, to James’ inauguration, to the plague itself. In it, he makes the point that once the ‘pestilence’ takes hold of the body, it has the potential to punish even the strongest and fittest of us, resonating with our disbelief when we hear of somebody who has died of COVID-19 ‘with no underlying health conditions’:
“How nimble is Sickness, and what skill hath he in all the weapons he playes withall? The greatest cutter that takes up the Mediterranean Ile in P[au]les for his Gallery to walke in, cannot ward off his blowes. Hes the best Fencer in the world […] he’ll make you give him ground […] and beat you out of breath, though Aeolus himselfe plaid upon your wind-pipe.” (1603, D4r)
For all of our understanding that certain structural, economic and physiological factors make some people more susceptible to COVID-19, Dekker’s comment upon the indiscriminate nature of illness brings his text right into our present moment, even while the references to the St. Paul’s and fencing locate it firmly in the past. By invoking St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dekker provides the reader with a glimpse of a London locale which was far more than simply a place of worship in the seventeenth-century, but rather one which bustled with cultural and commercial activity.
The ‘Mediterranean Aisle’ was the name given to the central walkway of the Cathedral and Dekker draws our attention not only to the parading around which took place in the church but also, implicitly, the connection between social proximity and disease. A later pamphlet written by Dekker provides us with a vivid sense of what it meant to walk in St. Paul’s at that time, and of how easy it must have been for disease to spread in such a crowded setting at the very heart of the city:
“What layinge of heads is there together […] What shuffling, what shouldering, what Justling, what Jeering, what biting of Thumbs to beget quarrels, what holding up of fingers to remember drunken meetings, what braving with Feathers, what bearding with Mustachoes, what casting open of cloakes to publish new clothes […] I heare such trampling up and downe, such spitting, such [ha]lking, and such humming, (euery mans lippes making a noise, yet not a word to be understoode) […]
For at one time, in one and the same ranke, yea, foote by foote, and elbow by elbow, shall you see walking, the Knight, the Gull, the Gallant, the upstart, the Gentleman, the Clowne, the Captaine, the Appel-squire, the Lawyer, the Usurer, the Cittizen, the Banker, the Scholler, the Begger, the Doctor, the Ideot, the Ruffian, the Cheater, the Puritan, the Cut-throat, the Hye-men, the Low men, the True-man, and the Thiefe: of all trades & professions some, of all Countryes some; And thus dooth my middle Isle shew like the Mediterranean Sea […] Thus am I like a common Mart where all Commodities (both the good and the bad) are to be bought and solde.” (1608, D4v-Er)
Sadly one of the commodities being brought to this roiling sea of London society is the plague itself. There is still widespread disagreement among historians and epidemiologists about whether the plague was spread by animals and insects or through human-human contact, but there was clearly a sense among early moderns themselves that proximity was a factor in catching the disease. In Dekker’s depiction of bodies spitting, touching, and rubbing against each other, the potential for transmission is clear: there is saliva on people’s fingers, there is face-touching, and there is the flourishing of potentially infected clothes.
With such an emphasis on faces and mouths and fabrics, you can almost see infectious droplets pass through the air. With such a social mix and volume of people, you can almost sense the viral load. While these terms may not have been available to early modern people – or to me, a couple of months ago – they inhere in texts from the 1600s that are themselves contaminated by an ever-present plague. They underscore these texts’ responses to the body and reveal our inability as social creatures, really, to remain socially distanced for long.
A: So … What is the likelihood that we will get to see Endgame? 😢
B: Yeah […] [Edited to omit various conversations about tension headaches, cancelled plans and working from home]
C: Yes, sadly I think Endgame’s gonna be a no go …😔 I actually think the Old Vic will be closed from next week as it seats over 500.
This conversation is from mid-March and already it feels quaint and impossibly distant.
Having made a return to the U.K. to take up my Marie Curie Research Fellowship at Bristol after ten years abroad, I was looking forward to returning to friends and to the theatre – ideally in combination. I’d made plans to see Endgame (dir. Richard Jones) at the Old Vic, quickly reviving a tried, if not quite trusted, practice for theatrical selection: one of us would pick a show and the others had to see it.
Though it does sound simple enough, the fact that the five of us have wildly different theatrical tastes has made for a kind of dramatic Russian Roulette over the years. We all saw things we wouldn’t otherwise – good and bad – and we had dinner and drinks to talk about it. You know, everything we all did before lockdown. This time it was Endgame, chosen likely as much for Alan Cumming as for Samuel Beckett. I have vague memories of seeing him on a different outing, that time upside down in a skirt at the Lyric, Hammersmith.
In any case, I don’t need to tell you that Endgame was of course cancelled, the Old Vic was closed, everything was closed.
Some time later I received an e-mail from the Old Vic announcing that for those still with tickets for dates unplayable, they would be screening the archive recording. For me, the fact that the Beckett Estate – an estate with such an ‘iron grip’ on Beckett’s work that they had, in 1994, prevented a production of Footfalls from touring to Paris because Fiona Shaw had roamed further than the stage directions allowed or who, in 2006, issued an injunction against an Italian theatre to stop the ‘use of female actors in the two main roles’ of Waiting for Godot (‘Beckett Estate Fails to Stop Women Waiting for Godot’) – had granted permission for the theatre to screen the show, underlined the extraordinary nature of these times. These were the (dramatic) End(game) times indeed.
And so, despite some concerns that watching Endgame right now might be a little too ‘on the nose,’ we agreed to watch it online together and all settled down to do just that.
Watching Endgame in lockdown was a revelation; and not simply because I was watching a play in a post-apocalyptic landscape peopled by characters who seemingly cannot leave each other and rarely leave the room, or, in the case of Nell and Nagg, their bins. ‘New Tory policy?…’ asked friend ‘B’ over text.
It was more that what had previously felt like a strange, though affecting, exercise in postmodern nihilism, suddenly felt … immediate. The striking darkness of Hamm’s demand, ‘Put me in my coffin,’ for instance, answered simply, ‘There are no more coffins,’ seemed suddenly to foreshadow a desperate COBRA meeting of 2021. What is more, Beckett’s careful attention to the minute and even mundane elements of life were no longer remote or abstract but tangible and proximate. It was as though someone had accidentally pulled the world’s focus and Beckett’s mirror (up to nature) no longer reflected obliquely but directly. Take this:
HAMM (irritably): What’s wrong with your feet?
CLOV: My feet?
HAMM: Tramp! Tramp!
CLOV: I must have put on my boots.
HAMM: Your slippers were hurting you? (Pause.)
This line has always seemed witty and wry but also strange and obscure. In lockdown 2020 it simply rang true. In a world where you can’t leave your home, you might just as well change into your boots (and forget having done so) because ‘your slippers were hurting you.’ Similarly, this:
HAMM: You haven’t put on his ribbon.
CLOV (angrily): But he isn’t finished, I tell you! First you finish your dog and then you put on his ribbon!
Hamm and Clov’s commitment to catastrophic-era crafting would make Kirstie Allsop proud. Moreover, Clov’s angry insistence that Hamm doesn’t understand the order of things – in big or small ways – reflects the frustrations of so many locked-down and locked-in relationships.
Similarly, watching Clov’s ritualistic navigation of his delimited space – up and down and up and down the ladder to the exceedingly high windows – made a new kind of sense. Clov’s methodical commitment to his repetitive tasks chimed with a newfound awareness of our own cyclical routines.
As our recurring activities – opening *our* windows, making dinner, taking daily exercise – have gained an oversized importance, Clov’s weary but unvarying commitment to his own became relatable in a way I never expected. I feel echoes of Clov’s careful self-choreography every time I open the door. Indeed, taking my government-sanctioned daily exercise, feels increasingly like a high-stakes rehearsal for Beckett’s 1980s television play, Quad: a choreographed ‘dance’ in which actors cross the stage at regular intervals, walking carefully-defined paths and never touching.
Though my original plans to see Endgame at the Old Vic were frustrated – a part of that outside world we none of us can reach – the archival recording, played at home in these strange times, enabled me, to paraphrase Kent’s famous exhortation, to ‘see [it] better.’ For me, to view Endgame in these end times helped to make new sense of the Endgame and the (End) times.
It’s both an unusually stressful and unusually exciting time to be a scholar of early modern drama in performance: every day, it seems, a new production is made available online, free to stream to one’s own home. Noticing an abundance of productions of Shakespeare’s late play A Winter’s Tale becoming available, Peter Kirwan and I decided to set up a series of casual Twitter watch-alongs, timed to culminate with the premiere of the 2018 Shakespeare’s Globe production. Our first event was last week, on 21 April, with the Cheek by Jowl production.
The event’s setup is simple: Pete and I announce a production and a coordinated watch time via social media, and encourage people to watch along with us and tweet their thoughts in real-time using #WTWatchParty. On the day, we send out a five-minute warning and press play on the stream at the same, along with whoever is joining in. We take a ten-minute interval, at which point we pause the stream together, and then we resume at an agreed time. This way, although we’re each watching from our own homes and devices, we have a sense of experiencing the show together.
Of course, the live theatre event is unique, and I’m eager to get back to the theatre once it’s safe to do so. But for all my appreciation and fierce defence of live theatre as something culturally valuable and important, the #WTWatchParty and similar initiatives allow for a kind of interaction and a form of ‘togetherness’ that isn’t typically possible in the live theatre. While I frequently see shows with one or two others—and while it’s common for me to debrief a show with others who have seen it at different times—it’s not often that I get to discuss a production, in real time, alongside a large and varied group of friends, colleagues, scholars, and theatre practitioners.
Recent research by scholars such as Rachael Nicholas explores how streaming theatre ‘harnesse[s] the possibilities of personal digital technologies to engage their remote audiences’ (2018: 77). In that vein, several of us in last week’s #WTWatchParty commented on the joys of being able to share thoughts on the production in real time through Twitter. Rather than waiting until the interval to download and process our thoughts with each other, we were trading tweets throughout the performance, creating a kind of running commentary.
These comments ranged from evaluative to analytical, from joking comments on Polixenes and Camillo’s poor disguises to emotional expressions of outrage at Leontes’ behaviour. More than once, I sent off a tweet only to see another member of the watch party saying something very similar, at virtually the same time. We expressed our rage together as Leontes rejected the Oracle in Act 3; we revelled in the appearance of Time wearing a romper at the top of Act 4; we gasped in (virtual) unison as Hermione’s statue was revealed in Act 5. Despite being geographically separated, we experienced the emotional journey of the show together.
At other times, we engaged in productive discussions about our readings of particular moments: one especially fruitful thread emerged on the production’s treatment of the tail end of Act 4, Scene 4. In the Cheek by Jowl production, this exchange between Autolycus, the Clown and the Old Shepherd was staged in an airport departures lounge, with Autolycus as a power-drunk security agent who insisted on searching their bags, viewing their extensive immigration papers and, finally, physically beating the Clown. Viewing this scene in the context of a pandemic that prevents us from travelling across international borders, as well as from post-Brexit Britain in a group that included a number of immigrants, raised several questions and observations around class, race, and civil rights among the #WTwatchparty members.
It’s highlighting for me the ease with which the high-born characters travel compared to the Old Shepherd and the Clown — no one asks Florizel or Polixenes or even Antigonus (as far as we see) for their papers, for oath-swearing, for the contents of their luggage #WTwatchpartyhttps://t.co/OqvPK0i6zG
My co-host, Peter Kirwan, is also the author of an excellent book on Cheek by Jowl, and his insider knowledge of the company and their practices yielded some exciting details about the rehearsal process. Having his tweets running alongside the production created something like a DVD commentary feature, where we were given access to titbits of process that aren’t usually visible in the final ‘product’ of the performance.
For example, Pete was able to give us a great deal of detail about the choices made for the Act 4 sheep-shearing festival, which is typically staged as an almost psychedelic explosion of flowers and colours.Cheek by Jowl’s more sombre affair, Pete told us, hinged upon the team’s unique interpretation of a single line, which suggested that the Old Shepherd’s wife was only recently deceased and that this was their first year hosting the festival without her.
They did an etude where they imagined last year's festival, with Joy Richardson playing the Shepherd's wife, and doing all the sheep-shearing preparation like a well-oiled machine with the mother at the heart of it. Then they removed her. #WTwatchparty
If you’d like to take part in future events, we’re planning on at least three more #WTWatchParty events between now and June. Join us on Tuesday 5 May at 19:00 BST to share the Royal Opera’s stream of Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet version.Later in the month, we’ll be watching the Globe’s 2018 production and the 2012 Globe to Globe production by Nigerian company The Renegade Theatre.
Kirwan, Peter (2019) Shakespeare in the Theatre: Cheek by Jowl. London: Bloomsbury Arden.
Nicholas, Rachael (2018) ‘Understanding “New” Encounters with Shakespeare: Hybrid Media and Emerging Audience Behaviours’ in Shakespeare and the ‘Live’ Theatre Broadcast Experience, eds. Pascale Aebischer, Susanne Greenhalgh, and Laurie Osborne. London: Bloomsbury Arden.