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Designing Shakespeare - Politics and Performance of Place

The first approach to altering the actor-audience relationship I would like to examine is the use of visual metaphor to engage the audience intellectually and emotionally. This can be seen in the choice of time period and location for productions that help to link the plays to particular events. In particular I would like to draw attention to two productions that present historical parallels to real events.


Royal Shakespeare Company 1994 Production of Coriolanus

Coriolanus 1995 - click to view larger imageThe first is the 1994 production of Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by David Thacker and designed by Fran Thompson. This production was set at the time of the French revolution. While the set and costumes depicted a very clear and real period in history the visual metaphor was not entirely realistic. The women and children, who at the beginning of the play wore pristine white costumes, gradually appeared to have blood seeping up their clothing as the violence in the play increased. So while the actors moved on a realistic set, the visual imagery presented on stage helped to show how the women and children were drawn into the conflict and implicated in the bloodshed even though they did not participate in it.


National Theatre 1990 Production of Richard III

A similar sort of visual metaphor was achieved in the 1990 National Theatre production of Richard III starring Ian McKellan. A parallel was made with the rise of the Nazis regime but it was a parallel that was implicit in the costumes and the set. The design was suggestive rather than fully articulated and realisticRichard III 1990 - Click so see a larger image . This very particular strength of the theatre, its ability to suggest in a non-realistic and ambiguous way, was superseded by relentless realism in the film adaptation of this production. While I would suggest that an increasing familiarity with period through film has pushed many theatre companies towards the use of realism it remains on stage a metaphoric realism that can evoke a more complex response from its audience than the absolute realism of period drama on film. The visual can suggest without decreeing absolutely a thematic or emotional connection between characters or time periods. The medium of film is much more literal in its visual interpretation. Visual imagery can illustrate the difference in approach taken by these two media to the same production of Richard III .


In both of these productions a known period of history was evoked to engage the audience intellectually but also emotionally. In each case the period selected has great emotional resonance for a British audience. The approach taken to these productions established a dialogue with the audience that was visual and visceral, a dialogue that forced a linking of the events of the play with other more familiar and problematic events and issues. Use of visual imagery to depict aspects of these productions aids the scholar in showing how this engagement was achieved, the impact of the symbols used on stage can be made apparent to the reader.

Production Summaries


Page 3 of 7
Introduction page 2 - Visual argument Current page page 4 - Character and Representation  page 5 - Audience, Actor and Space page 6 - Conclusion page 7- Step by Step guide

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