Authenticity in Shakespeare

Rob Conkie


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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast, I'd be your host Matt Smith. And today we'll be looking at authenticity. And I'm using the finger quotations when I say 'authenticity' in Shakespeare performances. Dr Rob Conkie from the theatre program at La Trobe University has been studying Shakespeare and the performance of the great bard's plays for years. So what is it that makes a Shakespeare play authentic and real?

Rob Conkie:

Authentic is a loaded question for academics. They always want to put quotation marks around it, and you can talk about authentic in a lot of different ways, but I guess in a sense of an accurate recreation of how it was in Shakespeare's own time we know a bit and there are various places around the world that attempt to recreate that type of theatre. That movement is sort of broadly called original practices now.

There's all sorts of different expressions of original practice to Shakespeare but basically, it's about attempting to recreate them in the way that they were done, we think as best we can find out in Shakespeare's own time. And in terms of documents, one particular document which has relevance in Australia is the Fortune Theatre contract which, from memory, was dated 8th of February 1600 and that contract stipulates the dimensions of this theatre to be built.

So the Fortune was built just after The Globe Theatre so The Globe Theatre was built in 1599. It was a reconstructed theatre. The first purpose built theatre in London was built in 1576 and that was called The Theatre and the people had the lease to that land, the Burbages, that lease ran out and it wasn't to be renewed and so they took that theatre apart, took the timbers across the Thames and rebuilt The Globe in 1599 and that's where most of Shakespeare's great plays were performed and written for.

But the very next year, a competitor asked for this new theatre to be built called the Fortune and its dimensions -- the stage is 43-foot wide, et cetera, et cetera. And the reason that that's sort of significant is that the only recreation of a Shakespearean theatre in the southern hemisphere exists in Australia; in Western Australia, and it's called the New Fortune and I'm actually taking a show across to that theatre later this year. There are sort of recreations of The Globe dotted around the world now. So in terms of what the theatre space looks like, we have a fair idea. In terms of what actually happened with the actors, some of that is less secure although we've got certain bits of pieces of knowledge about how the plays were done.

Matt Smith:

So we're limited in what we know about Shakespeare himself and most of what we do know about his plays only come from the play themselves. The Globe Theatre in the U.K., the current one, it prides itself on being authentic with its recreations for its Shakespeare performances. What is the criteria for performance to be authentic then?

Rob Conkie:

The Globe isn't doing those sorts of performances at the moment because it has a new artistic director who really wanted to move away from that, which a lot of Shakespeare academics feel disappointed about. Because if you're going to build the thing, you might as well have a go at doing it the way we think it was done.

But the first phase of The Globe officially opened in 1997 and the first artistic director was Mark Rylance and he was there for about 10 years and then Dominic Dromgoole has taken over. So in Mark Rylance's tenure -- the first 10 years, there were a number of productions where they attempted to make them authentic, and I'm putting in commas around that word -- to go to your question, the criteria for that, well, one of the things was recreate the costume.

So they made costumes for those productions. It was intensive research work into how they were made. All hand-stitched using the materials and the methods from the late 1500s and the early 1600s. So those costumes were meticulous to the degree that often The Globe would advertise the fact that the actors were even wearing early modern underwear. So not even boxer shorts underneath doublet and hose. So that was one feature.

Another interesting feature was of all male performances. So Shakespeare performances were done without actresses and obviously the female characters were portrayed by boys and adolescents who were apprentices in the company. So there were a number of productions that were all male and I think maybe the most successful one was of Henry V in 1997 in the opening year where the guy who played Princess Catherine, A guy called Toby Cockerell, who was 19 at that time, just looks like a young woman and didn't play it... just played it straight.

Those are two sort of defining characteristics of those productions. And I guess the most defining characteristic of the production is about the relationship between the actors and the audience. The majority of Shakespeare production is done in a darkened auditorium where you see it almost like in a cinema and you have lights down on the actors and you don't really interact with the people next to you at The Globe and at the Blackfriars in America.

The Globe is an outdoor space so it's just even lighting. The actors are in the same light as the audience. Everyone can see each other and there's direct address. So the actors will speak especially in soliloquy directly to someone in the audience and make the play about that sort of social engagement, a social contract between the people that are on the stage to the people who are watching and the people watching with each other. So that sort of social democratic mode of performance it would be another key defining characteristic of it.

Matt Smith:

How much of other aspects is known about the performances in this time? I mean, what sort of audience were you getting going to a Shakespeare play back in the 1600s?

Rob Conkie:

Well, it's debated. To some degree it was definitely a socially demarcated audience in that the prices went up for certain places. So at The Globe, it was a penny to stand in the yard and the people in the yard, the groundlings were referred to as 'penny stinkards' which I guess also refers to this sort of low social status and perhaps personal hygiene.

But the mythology of the whole thing is that this is a place where apprentices on the day off might be, prostitutes looking for work, masterless men, people at the lower end. And then it was an extra penny to go further out each gallery. To that degree, people in the second gallery at the top would be the highest paying. But then the most socially prestigious place to watch theatre in The Globe was actually behind the stage to the sides of the balcony and these places were called the Lord's Rooms.

And the notion of the Lord's Rooms is that people watching from there were placed there as much to look at the action as to be looked at by the rest of the audience. So that was an aristocratic top of space.

There's no reference at all that royalty attended the public theatres such as in Shakespeare in Love, the film, which sort of popularizes that idea. The players went to court, they played for royalty and aristocracy in special performances at court rather than in the public theatre. So there's a degree of sort of social stratification but not to the very top.

Matt Smith:

One thing that I did read at one point was that things like the props were generally real. So you'd have real sword fights on stage. Is that sort of thing accurate for the time?

Rob Conkie:

Yes, I think so. The production that we've just done, we've had some props swords made. The costumes were the most important and expensive resource of the theatres. And so they were real clothes and so they might be obtained from deceased estates and so forth. Costume is very important because of the Sumptuary Laws in London at that time and that social status was indicated by the colour that you were allowed to wear; for example, purple, being a colour of royalty.

In a document called Henslowe's diary, Henslowe was a theatre impresario, and he records expenses and by far the most expensive resource of the theatre was the costumes. And the props included things like, as you say, swords and a throne and various other things that might be used in the plays. There's a note about a cauldron at one stage which you can imagine for Macbeth, but in terms of scenery, Shakespeare's theatre did not use very much scenery.

It was the scenery of the mind where Shakespeare will very often typically describe verbally what's happening and the reason that he does that so often and so clearly is because the stage is bare of that sort of scenic design whereas you would have some props but not extensive use of props. So it is a theatre of language and of the mind rather than of visual spectacle.

Matt Smith:

Modern day reinterpretations of Shakespeare, they often update the setting or update the story line. One that comes to mind is Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, that sort of thing isn't taking into account authenticity, with your quotation fingers, but does that matter? Is that important in today's society to be authentic?

Rob Conkie:

I don't think it matters. I think it matters to be authentic but in a different way. I've always thought about that film that it was very authentic in its response to the play and that it captures the passion of the story and it cuts a lot of the language away but it's also very faithful and authentic in other regards. So it's not interested in telling a different story and I think the updating serves that particular play very well.

But then, from case to case, there are different judgments to be made. Melbourne Theatre Company Richard III last year was a very contemporary updating and most of Melbourne absolutely loved the production and won lots of awards but for me, it didn't make sense at certain times if the play featuring medieval war, if Richard is styled as a politician and he turns around and stabs someone at the council table, that just didn't quite make sense to me.

And that production set up a very literal world but certain things jarred even though my own work at the moment is on original practices I wouldn't call myself a purist in any sense but I think it's important with questions of updating, certain conventions need to be established of whether the story is consistent and how the story is playing with history and what doesn't make sense and what makes sense because Shakespeare was very famously described in the first folio as not of an age but for all time and we have this idea of Shakespeare as timeless.

But that's only half right, Shakespeare is both timeless because the plays keep perpetuating themselves but he's also very much stuck in his own time. And so I think that's one of the key challenges of producing Shakespeare is negotiating that balance between its timeless elements and the fact that -- well, there are some bits that just as stuck in 1600 and don't make sense and so how do you negotiate that kind of interplay.

Matt Smith:

Not a lot, I believe, is known about the actual actors who played the role in Shakespeare's plays but do we know if Shakespeare did any acting himself or any roles clearly written to be played by him?

Rob Conkie:

We do know that he acted. He was probably an actor before being a writer and some would argue that that's probably given him a special insight into the way that he writes. There's an apocryphal story that Shakespeare played the ghost in Hamlet and perhaps Adam in As You Like It. There's no hard evidence of which roles he played but he was certainly a player. He was a shareholder in the theatre. He was an actor and he was the chief playwright, obviously. He was multi-skilled.

We know one of the famous comic actors, Will Kempe, there are a couple of quartos of Shakespeare's plays published in his own time where instead of the character name being written down, Kempe's name is written in.

So you can say it's just a sort of little slip and you can say which comic roles Kempe played, so he played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing and he played Peter in Romeo and Juliet. And he was Shakespeare's clown up until about 1599 when he left the company and then another clown came in. There's quite a bit of information about Richard Burbage, the great tragedian actor who would have played the big parts in tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. So bits and pieces of that information, but certainly not complete.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we have for the La Trobe University Podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at Doctor Rob Conkie, thank you for your time today.

Rob Conkie:

Thanks very much.