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By the time Dromgoole’s production of The Tempest opened in the SWP in February 2016, many repeat audience members at the venue were expecting to experience the ‘divided forms of looking’ Escolme had noted in her review of the first season, and had chosen their seats accordingly. Primed by Karim-Cooper and Tosh’s programme note and by how much they had paid for their tickets, even audience members who had no prior experience of the space were made aware of the uniqueness of their viewpoint. This was especially the case if they had cast even just a cursory look at audience comments on the Shakespeare’s Globe website about the production of The Winter’s Tale which preceded The Tempest by just a few weeks: there, many audience members expressed dismay at the sightlines for the unveiling of Hermione’s statue in the recess of the discovery space. ‘Hiding the … all important reveal of the play in a recess was unforgiveable I feel and we felt unnecessarily excluded from the action’, complained Hermione1665.
It is a more gendered form of technologically intensified bias that concerns me in this final chapter, which examines Thomas Bowles’ live performance capture of Cheek by Jowl’s Russian touring production of Measure for Measure in 2015. More strikingly yet than Lough’s activation of the offstage dynamic in the disorienting camerawork for Hamlet’s first appearance in the 2016 RSC Live cinema broadcast, Bowles’ live stream of Measure for Measure systematically ‘framed’ Isabella’s character and the ethical standpoint she represented by keeping her, at key moments, in the liminal offstage space just outside the frame of the image. That, in turn, triggered modes of spectatorial engagement with the broadcast and with other viewers that reveal the extent to which audiences of online streams, as computer users, are prone to combine watching with interacting and can, through the cognitive prompts offered by the broadcast, be provoked into the critical modes of response which we have repeatedly seen arise from ‘eccentric’ viewpoints and obstructed sightlines. In the broadcast of Measure, we can track a shift from response-ability in the theatre to the ability of remote viewers to engage with one another and with the producers of a broadcast in dynamic online communities and to respond to the broadcast’s formal features via social media. While it would be a fallacy to suggest that the majority of these responses are critical engagements, I argue that at least some of the online responses to this particular broadcast reveal the extent to which it triggered the audience dynamics associated with both the platea and the offstage, producing ‘activist’ modes of participation.
To mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016, the summer season at Shakespeare’s Globe was billed as the ‘Wonder Season’. Emma Rice, the theatre’s first female artistic director, promised to kick-start a ‘new era’ of gender parity and performer and audience diversity – and of artificial lighting, amplified sound and livestreaming of productions that would reach new audiences free of charge. By the autumn, however, Lyn Gardner’s hopeful prediction of ‘the start of a great love affair’ under Rice’s leadership was headed towards a bitter divorce. At stake was what Kevin Quarmby describes as the ‘insidious political fundamentalism that infects Shakespeare theater productions worldwide’, which decried how ‘Rice’s installation of heavy duty sound and lighting ha[d] destroyed the shared space previously enjoyed by actors and audiences and the unique complicity between the groundlings and great actors’.
When Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Marlowe’s Edward II opened in 2013, the production’s mixed reviews recorded the critics’ ambivalent response to a production David Nice described as ‘the polar opposite to Sir Nick [Hytner]’s conventionally handsome mainstream house style’. That house style, in the wake of Hytner’s flagship ‘modern media war’ production of Henry V in 2003, was known for its incorporation of live video. Edward II marked the culmination of ten years of strenuous efforts, by the National Theatre, to explore a broad early modern repertoire, while signposting a radical departure from Hytner’s ‘handsome’ diegetic use of video. This chapter explores how, with the involvement of video designer Chris Kondek and set designer Lizzie Clachan, live digital video, in combination with a set design that put the liminal early modern ‘discovery space’ centrestage, became one of the principal means through which Hill-Gibbins re-imagined the dynamic spatial relations of Marlowe’s tragedy. In the production’s first part, performance technologies enabled the creation of a post-naturalist stage which reconciled early modern ‘personation’ and the co-creation of characters by the audience with the provision of Stanislavskian ‘inner lives’ and ‘backstories’. Those contradictions were exacerbated to harrowing effect in a climax which juxtaposed the spatiotemporal organisation of naturalism with the extratemporal passion of the King’s tragic journey.
Whereas, at the SWP, the renegotiation of the relationship between performers and spectators involved a deliberate uncoupling from digital devices and nostalgic immersion in a sensory environment that accentuated socially differentiated modes of spectating, Britain’s National Theatre and the RSC, since the start of this century, have chosen to embrace digital technologies in a bid to widen their access and re-boot their relationship with core audiences in a seemingly more ‘democratic’ manner. In this, the two giants of British theatre were following in the wake of leading companies based in other countries such as the Berliner Schaubühne, Toneelgroep Amsterdam and New York’s Wooster Group, whose visiting productions over the past ten years have had a profound impact on mainstream UK theatres, not least because of the way they deployed performance technologies to reimagine the more fluid spatial dynamics and modes of engagement of the early modern stage. As a result, mainstream audiences came to expect similar ‘textual openness’, ‘multi-perspectivity in terms of presenting characters, situations, and themes; reflexivity …; and a direct relationship with the audience, along with responsiveness to current political, aesthetic, and technological tendencies’ from productions of early modern drama in Britain. For the National Theatre and the RSC, this necessitated a shift from seeing digital technologies primarily as a means of enhancing stage design, music and lighting to using them as an additional means of characterisation and of intensifying the spectators’ experience of co-creation, tying audiences affectively into the plays’ fictional worlds and ethical dilemmas.
The RSC’s approach to digital innovation differs from the National Theatre’s in that it was – in line with the company’s mission – more focused specifically on productions of Shakespeare and distributed across a wider range of activities and partnerships. When Michael Boyd took over the RSC’s Artistic Direction in 2003, he returned the company to its founding principle of using an ensemble dedicated to staging world-class productions of Shakespeare. Boyd recognised the impact of the internet and of how, in a ‘collaborative model, the input of the “consumer” is assumed to improve the product of the “producer” and to lead to a better outcome for both’. This is why, in a speech at the New York Public Library in 2010, he proclaimed his wish to include ‘the audience as part of this ensemble as well’, with the aim of offering ‘a better, more honest, more active and intimate relationship … between the performer and the audience’. This chapter examines how the RSC sought to create such an ‘active and intimate relationship’ with its audiences through digital performances in partnership with tech companies. I track the company’s ever more ambitious journey that led from its first forays into collaborative social media productions with Such Tweet Sorrow and A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming to its most advanced digital partnership with Intel and Imaginarium Studios on the 2016 Tempest, a production that set out to ‘break new frontiers in live storytelling’.
By the time the screening of Robin Lough’s broadcast of Hamlet, directed for the RSC’s main stage by Simon Godwin, was announced for 8 June 2016, much of the novelty of theatre broadcasts had worn off. This would be Lough’s tenth broadcast for RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, and the fourth Hamlet screened in arthouse cinemas in the UK and internationally in quick succession. Rory Kinnear’s performance, broadcast from the National Theatre in 2010, was rapidly eclipsed by the extraordinary star appeal of Cumberbatch at the Barbican in 2015, which itself had to compete against the sensational cross-gender casting of Maxine Peake in the role the same year in a production pre-recorded, also by NT Live, at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. The unique selling point of the RSC’s offering in this crowded market was the casting of Paapa Essiedu, a British performer of Ghanaian descent, as Hamlet in an almost exclusively BAME cast. In the wake of a prominent study of racially diverse casting by the University of Warwick and of pressure by Arts Council England ‘to address workforce diversity’, and hot on the heels of Iqbal Khan’s 2015 production of Othello featuring Hugh Quarshie’s and Lucian Msamati’s black Othello and Iago heading a multi-racial cast, this Hamlet contributed to the long overdue re-dressing of the balance after years of discriminatory casting in mainstream British theatre, regardless of commitments to ‘colour-blind’ casting in previous decades. By December 2016, the RSC’s leadership team would proclaim that they were ‘proud to be one of the organisations who have led the way in diverse casting and [were] thrilled to see more BAME actors in leading roles on our stages, though we know there’s more to do on many fronts’.
When London’s newest theatre opened its doors in January 2014 with a production of The Duchess of Malfi, this must-see novelty in theatre architecture and performance technologies conspicuously smelt of new oak timber and beeswax. Lit by candles during performances and with an unusually small stage (15’ wide by 20’ deep) and an audience capacity of 340, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (SWP) at Shakespeare’s Globe promises an insight into the performance practices of the Jacobean elite. If it shares the Globe’s aim to show ‘how dynamically the past flows into the present and helps us to create the future’, this ‘reimagining of an archetypal Jacobean playhouse’ wears its mission with a difference.
The broadcast of the RSC’s 2016 Tempest, I have suggested, transformed a production which had in the theatre produced exhilarating effects of spectatorial jouissance, triggered by technological glitching, sensory stimuli, challenging sightlines and double event aesthetics, into a product that invited a calmer sense of aesthetic contemplation and spectatorial plenitude. For remote viewers, I argued, the dominant experience was one of plaisir at the display of magic illusionism and the ability of the broadcast to offer a sense of continuity with the live production and, beyond that, with the intertheatrical network of influences that linked it all the way back to Shakespeare’s own technological innovation. In effect, this suggests that theatre broadcasting, as Phelan suggested, drives a technological wedge between performers and spectators that locks both parties into a locus mode which precludes interaction and response-ability and, therefore, responsibility. My purpose in this final part of the book is to unpick and complicate this wholesale assessment. By scrutinising the technological process of theatre broadcasting, paying close attention to its incorporation of cognitive prompts and examining how broadcasting can work in conjunction with social media, I will show how broadcasts may nevertheless incorporate ‘obscene’ dynamics that require spectatorial engagement and cognitive labour which can, in some cases, lead to platea-type engagements that go to the heart of the ethical dilemmas explored by the remediated early modern plays.
Far from acting as unequivocal barriers to direct interaction, this book has argued that technologies of performance can be the means of generating intense and individual experiences of theatrical presence and co-creation that have potential ethical force. Technologies can trigger involved modes of spectatorship demanding computational forms of viewing that appeal to hyperattentive digital natives and enmesh the viewer with the onstage fiction through cognitive and affective prompts. The model spectators of Dromgoole’s SWP productions, like those of Doran’s magic illusionist masque or the remote viewers of the RSC’s Hamlet, are privileged by the performance technologies that offer these spectators, at crucial moments, an experience of spectatorial plenitude or Barthesian plaisir resulting from an enjoyment of the aesthetic coherence of the stage image coupled with an appreciation of an artistry rooted in historical continuity. But even for these spectators, that experience of plenitude is precarious, constitutes an ethical choice in its own right and hinges on the deliberate blocking out of other prompts that demand a more responsible/response-able mode of spectatorship. Eccentric sightlines in the SWP – just like live video giving partial access to offstage zones, social media that create offstage interactive worlds, double event aesthetics and disorienting camerawork that obscures or re-frames the focal point of a scene – act as technological interfaces that require that spectators act responsibly/response-ably, both individually and as part of a collective audience that contributes to the creation of the theatrical event.
When The Changeling was first performed by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men at the Phoenix playhouse in 1622, the building’s history of class-conflict and bloodsports is likely to have played an important role in conditioning the audience’s responses to Middleton and Rowley’s tragedy. This, too, was an almost brand-new playhouse, rebuilt as The Phoenix after its precursor, The Cockpit, was vandalised by apprentices on Shrove Tuesday 1617 to vent their frustration at the move of the Queen’s Men from the popular Red Bull open-air playhouse into the much smaller and forbiddingly pricey repurposed indoor Cockpit. There, an elite audience now watched plays rather than the cock-fights which had also been also a popular form of entertainment for apprentices. Against the backdrop of this history of social exclusion and destructive rage at the elite, De Flores’ frustration at the mismatch between his sense of entitlement as someone who ‘tumbled into th’world a gentleman’ and the poverty that has ‘thrust [him] out to servitude’ brought the grievances of those excluded from the playhouse on to its stage (2.1.48–9). Beatrice-Joanna’s vicious rebuke ‘Think but upon the distance that creation / Set’twixt your blood and mine, and keep thee there’ conflates social superiority with sexual rejection (3.4.130–2), setting her up as the play’s gatekeeper and sexually desirable gateway to the social elite.
Shakespeare, Spectatorship and the Technologies of Performance examines how rapid changes in performance technologies affect modes of spectatorship for early modern drama. It argues that seemingly disparate developments – such as the revival of early modern architectural and lighting technologies, digital performance technologies and the hybrid medium of theatre broadcast – are fundamentally related. How spectators experience performances is not only affected in medium-specific ways by particular technologies, but is also connected to the plays' roots in early modern performance environments. Aebischer's examples range from the use of candlelight and re-imagined early modern architecture, to set design, performance capture technologies, digital video, social media, hologram projection, biotechnologies and theatre broadcasts. This book argues that digital and analogue performance technologies alike activate modes of ethical spectatorship, requiring audiences to adopt an ethical standpoint as they decide how to look, where to look, what medium to look through, and how to take responsibility for looking.