One of Shakespeare criticism’s singular blind spots concerns theatrical productions staged on university campuses. Apart from the occasional review in Shakespeare Bulletin, for instance, most campus shows go unnoticed by the larger scholarly community, unanalysed, unarchived, unobserved, consigned to obscurity with all their imperfections on their heads. Those imperfections are, of course, part of the reason for the omission. Those of us who attend college productions do not go expecting to be dazzled by the standard of acting or awoken to new ideas and resonances in the play, as we might be in the professional theatre. Yet while it is a practical necessity that most theatrical overviews of a play’s production history stray but rarely from the RSCs, the Nationals and their ilk, it is worth remembering that in these days where we look to performance criticism for more than insight into the play as text, a wealth of theatrical endeavour which could provide insight into questions of Shakespearian meaning in larger cultural terms is being ignored. More particularly, the campus shows we consign to oblivion are – regardless of their merits – often instrumental in defining the very nature of theatrical Shakespeare (and thus of Shakespeare more generally) in the popular consciousness.
The case I want to make has few claims to large-scale argument. Quite the contrary, in fact. As Michael Dobson’s work attests, the impact of amateur performance (of which, I will argue, university production is a very specific subset) is not assessed in global, national or even regional terms, and tracking its shifts and developments is rarely the mapping of coherent or extensive trends. Amateur performance tends to remain a strictly local phenomenon with productions in different places affecting each other in only the most indirect of ways. Assessment of such productions must thus take the worm’s eye view, and that is what I would like to do here, remaining deliberately at the level of specifics and the immediate shaping pressures of the local as seen from inside the production.