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Visual Argument

Designing Shakespeare

For a number of years I have been working to support an approach to performance history that is based on the comparison of visual materials. It is my conviction that digital technology allows for the creation of new kinds of discussion and debate due to the availability of a range of new kinds of research material. As the Director of the Centre of Multimedia Performance History (COMPH) at Royal Holloway University of London I have developed research materials that are designed to support this kind of visual argument. The two large projects I have been involved in, The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM: Text and Performance Archive and Designing Shakespeare: an audio visual archive 1960-2000 , have confirmed my belief that our view of Shakespeare has changed significantly in the last forty years, largely due to the development of a new kind of visual language on stage. These pages are designed to look specifically at the way in which visual metaphor and spatial relations have been used in Britain in recent decades as a means of drawing the audience into, not only the world of the play, but also debates about the play's interpretation and staging. By drawing attention to a number of recent productions I would like illustrate the shifts that have taken place in terms of the relationship between the text, the audience and the performance.


Three Trends which Merit Visual Argument

In the last four decades there have been a number of interesting trends in the theatrical production of Shakespeare's plays. Actors, directors and designers working together have tackled, in a number of interesting ways, the task of bridging the gap between the text of these complex plays and audiences that see them as increasingly culturally distant. I would argue that examples of three predominant trends might be identified.


Politics and Performance of Place

Toby Stephens as CoriolanusThe first trend has seen directors and designers looking at the ways in which the events of the play can be brought closer to the audience through visual metaphor and historical analogy. This movement began in the early 1970s and many cite the 1970 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Peter Brook and designed by Sally Jacobs as its starting point. However, the tendency to link the history plays, in particular, with increased realism on stage, in a politically motivate way, typifies the work of director Michael Bogdonov and designer Chris Dyer, first with the Royal Shakespeare Company and later with the English Shakespeare Company. Their aim was to illuminate both the play and the current events these productions invoked, drawing the audience into a polemical dialogue. This tradition of conceptual direction and design is now well established on the British stage.


Character and Representation

Mark Rylance as CleopatraThe second trend, which again has earlier precedents but has become increasingly popular, is the use of cross gendered casting as a means of exploring the original conditions of performance and of opening up traditionally male lead roles to accomplished actresses. This practice forces audiences to consider the plays in new ways and makes the gap between the original and the present performance conditions more overt.


Audience, Actor and Space

As You like it - Globe Theatre 1998The final, and likely the most influential, of these trends has been the development of new locations for performance that change the actor-audience relationship to resemble that of Shakespeare's own theatre. The reconstruction of the Globe at Bankside is the most obvious and most recent example of this, but it is a trend that began with the Festival Stage designed by Tyrone Guthrie and Tanya Moiseiwitsch in Stratford Ontario in 1953. The work at the Globe Theatre has brought this experimental approach to a wide and varied international audience, provoking questions about the presentation of history generally as well as questions about the appropriate staging of Shakespeare's plays.


In each of these cases visual metaphor and physical reorganisation are key to the approach of these productions. As a result it is essential, in my opinion, to discuss such performances by referring to visual and spatial representations of them. Until recently this has been a lengthy and often obstructed process, however, the advent of digital technology and the increasing availability of performance resources online remove any excuses in the development of new forms of scholarly argument that incorporate the visual. In the following three examples I will give an outline of the kinds of comparative argument that could be constructed using these new sorts of resources.


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Introduction Current page page 3 - Politics and Performance of place page 4 - Character and Representation  page 5 - Audience, Actor and Space page 6 - Conclusion page 7- Step by Step guide

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