Past Performances & Performing the Past

After a recent theatrical visit our Artistic Director started to think about the performance history of dramas and how this can influence an approach to a production. Here are some of her thoughts and ideas.

This week, I had a chance to see the York Minster Mystery Plays. Whilst watching, I inevitably thought of all the other mystery plays I have had the chance to see and work on, in York and elsewhere in the country. I thought about all the mystery plays I have studied; both in the twentieth-century, the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period. I could no more have watched the play “just for fun” – un-analytically – than I could fly to the moon. And, in a way I hadn’t quite thought about it before, it occurred to me what an enormous weight there is on the shoulders of anyone working on historic drama.

In the past, it’s been a general axiom of mine that, if you’re getting ready to work on a play, you should definitely not watch other versions of it. Read the source text, or see the film, if there is such source material, but don’t see other productions of the exact same play you’re preparing for. It’s far too easy to latch onto someone else’s ideas, onto things that have already been done; better to come to the project with fresh eyes, I would think. But I realised, sitting in York Minster, that actually, that isn’t necessarily the best approach to take, because historic plays – have history; and the audience (or actors and others involved) may have a history with them.

When you tackle an historic play, it’s not just another script. It’s not even just a work moored to a particular place and time in the past. It has an entire entourage of heritage in production, and some of those productions may be well-known. How does that change things for your audience, or your actors? They’ll have expectations. They’ll have their own ideas about how things “should” be done, or something they expect the performance to give them. That’s not to say that you are obligated to give them what they expect or think they want; arguably part of what you’re often trying to do is come up with something that presents the play in a new light. But you can’t do new, if you don’t know what’s already been done.

I’m not suggesting that you need to know every production in existence of, say, Hamlet, before working on it. It’s not possible. But it might be a good idea to have some idea of what baggage might be coming into your theatre through the audience or those working on it, beyond the history as presented in the play. Like a snowball rolling downhill, growing larger as it picks up detritus along the way, an historic play will have an entire performance history battened onto it: seminal productions will be remembered, extraordinary performances vividly recalled. And in some ways, this history actually does change the play itself. The 2016 York Minster Mystery Plays would not be what they are if the past sixty years’ large-scale productions hadn’t happened; they were a departure in concept and style, in nearly every sense, from their original form, and have become their own proud tradition, because of that history. People engage with them, as performers and audience, as a direct result of that past. While ninety-five percent of audience members probably aren’t encumbered with in-depth academic knowledge of those earlier productions, and therefore aren’t analysing what they’re seeing with that dancing across the back of their mind, they’re not watching a play which is divorced from that heritage, either. The production history doesn’t have to be conscious baggage. Some of it – or most of it, perhaps – can be subliminal, or simply ambient culture. (Not everyone has seen The Sound of Music but I challenge you to find anyone who has absolutely zero knowledge of it.)

From a purely pragmatic angle, there is also a practical benefit to seeing other productions of a work you’re pondering. Without advocating for the wholesale lifting of any part of another production, seeing a few will give you some idea of broad concepts which work, or don’t. You can look at one and realise that there is an idea you think works very well, or at another and know that you want to do something particular differently because you didn’t think it served the play well in that form. The idea is not to make judgmental comparisons for their own sake (unless, perhaps, you’re in the field of criticism) but to get at why you might think one choice works better than another. In a world of theoretically infinite possibilities, it’s not really a bad thing to do some judicious winnowing of choices, and this is one way of starting to do that.

All of this is broadly true of any drama, of course, not just historic; the historic has just had longer to evolve and has often accrued more cultural baggage, more expectation, or tradition. As much as we’d like to think we come to it with a completely new perspective, we’re part of that wider cultural matrix, and so we should probably approach it intelligently, by being well informed. Besides, as a colleague commented recently, every chance to see theatre is a chance to think about these things, even if it’s a totally different play – you should go any chance you get. There are, as this very situation points out, always chances to try on new ideas.

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