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About this book

What do audiences do as they watch a Shakespearean play? What makes them respond in the ways that they do? This book examines a wide range of theatrical productions to explore the practice of being a modern Shakespearean audience. It surveys some of the most influential ideas about spectatorship in contemporary performance studies, and analyses the strategies employed both in the texts themselves and by modern theatre practitioners to position audiences in particular ways.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Frontmatter

1. I, Malvolio and Its Audiences: A Case Study

Abstract
There is a potentially bewildering multiplicity of angles from which one can approach the subject of theatre audiences. Some studies focus on the cues for audience response in the dramatic text; some on the ways in which theatre practice itself might shape spectators’ reactions. Others will record the impact of different audience responses upon the ways in which a production makes meaning. Those who are more interested in particular audiences might focus on the ways in which a sense of audience identity is formed, considering the social context of the event at which a given group of spectators has amassed. Some will analyse this group in depth, documenting their reactions, identifying discernible sub-groups, or tracing patterns of response. Others will direct their attention towards the ways in which such audiences are constructed in reviews or other retrospective characterisations. In the discussion of any given production, then, the word ‘audience’ might refer to a number of different identities.
Stephen Purcell

In Theory

Frontmatter

2. Making Sense of the Stage

Abstract
On 15 May 1611, the Elizabethan doctor Simon Forman went to a performance of The Winter’s Tale at the Globe theatre. He described the performance in some detail in his diary, concentrating mostly on the events of the plot: Leontes’ jealousy, the abandonment and discovery of the infant Perdita, and so forth. Forman’s account concluded with a description of Autolycus’ tricks and a moral: ‘Beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning fellows’. We should note, with Andrew Gurr, that descriptions like Forman’s ‘reflect the convention of describing plays much more exactly than they indicate the writer’s complete response to the experience’ (2004: 138). Clearly, Forman’s experience of the performance must have exceeded the few details he chose to record. What is striking, though, is that in composing his aphorism about the perils of ‘trusting feigned beggars or fawning fellows’, Forman was making a conscious effort to derive an articulable meaning from the performance.
Stephen Purcell

3. Agency, Community, and Modern Theatre Practice

Abstract
The key theorist—practitioners of the 20th century tended, as Jacques Rancière has pointed out, to see the kind of spectatorship associated with naturalism, cinema, or television as ‘a bad thing’, equating it with intellectual, political, or spiritual passivity. ‘The most common conclusion’, suggests Ranciére, ‘runs as follows’:
What must be pursued is a theatre without spectators, a theatre where spectators will no longer be spectators, where they will learn things instead of being captured by images and become active participants in a collective performance instead of being passive viewers.
(2007: 272)
Stephen Purcell

In Practice

Frontmatter

4. Controlling the Audience?

Abstract
This section of the book is about the practice of being a Shakespearean audience. It is easy to forget that being an audience is every bit as much a practice as, for example, acting, directing, or set design. We might think of the audience’s role in the theatrical exchange as being merely to watch quietly and make sense of what happens in front of us. But as we saw in Part II, even this is not an entirely passive activity. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that it is in the space between stage and audience that the ‘play’ actually happens. ‘Play’, as Jacques Lecoq recognised, is a verb as well as a noun. Plays play with their audiences, and audiences generally play in return. Without an audience to make sense of it, a play is much like Macbeth’s ‘tale/Told by an idiot’: ‘full of sound and fury, /Signifying nothing’ (5.5.25-7).
Stephen Purcell

5. Framing the Stage

Abstract
There are several passages in Shakespeare’s plays in which an audience is addressed, outside of the fictional world of the play, by a speaker who directly acknowledges their existence as a theatre audience. These take the form of prologues, epilogues, and chorus speeches. Six plays feature both a prologue and an epilogue (2 Henry IV, Henry V, Troilus and Cressida, Pericles, All Is True, and Two Noble Kinsmen), while four have epilogues only (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well, and The Tempest — though this number rises to five if one counts Twelfth Night’s epilogue-like song). Four plays, moreover, feature a chorus or chorus-like figure who provides narration during the play itself (Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale). Such passages script both direct and indirect requests of the audience.
Stephen Purcell

6. Playing with the Audience

Abstract
One of the problems with the Brechtian account of Shakespearean performance is that in its focus on the impact of locus/platea interplay on the audience’s meaning-making processes, it tends to underemphasise the same phenomenon’s role in the creation of audience pleasure.1 Theatre director Mike Alfreds has noted that critical discussions of performance tend to ‘batten onto a play in literary terms’, agreeing or disagreeing with a director’s ‘interpretation’ while failing to describe ‘what it was actually like to be there at that performance, what really happened between the actors and audience’ (1979: 8). This is certainly as true in Shakespeare studies as it is in any other branch of theatre criticism, where it may be due in part to the fact that the productions which tour most widely and are thus available to the highest number of critics are precisely those which take the least notice of their audiences. In his book New Sites for Shakespeare, John Russell Brown suggests that major international productions often become fixed, consumable products; he criticises the polished but inflexible ‘packaging’ of Richard Eyre’s Richard III (1990) for the way in which ‘the audience was given a production by a director/dictator who had subdued individual freedom’ (1999: 145–7).
Stephen Purcell

7. Immersion and Embodiment

Abstract
In its discussion of ‘ushering the audience’, Chapter 5 mentioned the induction to Ian Rickson’s production of Hamlet at the Young Vic in 2011. Susannah Clapp’s review for The Observer described it as follows:
The audience approach their seats … through a backstage maze of corridors, passing a gym, a library and a number of long-faced functionaries scribbling notes; we could be in a dreamthinkspeak production — let no one say that immersive theatre has not changed things.
(13 November 2011)
Stephen Purcell

8. Constructing the Audience

Abstract
The focus of the last few chapters has largely been on the ways in which the practice of being an audience might be influenced by the practices of the stage. It is not merely from a production and its performance, however, that audiences derive their cues for their own ‘performances’ as spectators. Ideas about the nature of Shakespearean spectatorship circulate widely in culture more broadly, and audiences will inevitably arrive at a Shakespearean performance with certain preconceptions about what their role is likely to involve. They may be or may not be seasoned playgoers. Experiences at school may well have taught them to associate Shakespeare with authority, with difficulty, with the institution, with literature, or with English history; a different sort of education might have contested some of these constructions or provided alternative ones. Audience members who are frequent visitors to Shakespeare’s Globe are likely to have ideas about spectatorship which are very different from those who are more used to the West End, cinema, rock concerts, or live sporting events. Responses to a given production, then, will be strongly influenced by the extent to which it either confirms or challenges those expectations.
Stephen Purcell

Debate and Provocation

Frontmatter

9. Pocket Henry V: A Collaborative Debate

Abstract
Audience response is a slippery and often elusive object of study. The individual spectator’s experience of an audience’s group response is inevitably highly subjective: attempts to describe that response, let alone analyse it, are heavily influenced by the spectator’s own context. On the very simplest level, the audience response in one section of the theatre building might be very different from the reactions evident only a few metres away; on a broader level, the social and cultural frames of reference within which a spectator makes sense of his or her neighbour’s reactions might be very different from those of the neighbours themselves. In Chapter 1, I made a case study of the audiences of a particular Shakespearean production using a number of different methodological approaches, but the analysis was all my own: the resulting narrative was thus the product of my own cultural priorities and reference points. What might somebody else have made of the same data? This question was the impetus for a second experiment in accounting for audience response, in which I invited a colleague to accompany me to another Shakespearean production. Our brief was simple: each of us would independently write an account of the production and its reception, and we would use these accounts to initiate a collaborative debate between us.
Stephen Purcell
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