Monday, 2 March 2009

To bleed or not to bleed, that is the question...

So this year I've already seen three Shakespeare plays - a total I'm extremely pleased with, especially since two of them were ones I'd never seen before, and one of them I'd never even read (Hadn't read King Lear, hadn't seen Othello, and I've read and seen Hamlet at least twice before.). Two of them have been in London, and one, as I may have mentioned before, is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. One had realistic but restrained amounts of blood (Hamlet), one had no blood at all, despite quite a number of fatal stabbings (Othello) and one had copious amounts of blood and a scene where someone bit out someone else's eyeball, rolled it around in her mouth and then spat it out into a trough at the front of the stage (Lear).

So which makes for a better production? I honestly don't know. The audience was revolted and horrified by the gore in Lear, although the eyeball almost provoked a laugh of disgust. There was no question that the violence in Othello was highly believable. Lack of blood didn't wake us from the suspension of disbelief. Strangely, these two, representing two extremes, were also the two set in venues where the stage and seating are intimately collocated, so that you are very very close to the actors. Sitting in the front row of the WYP, I had to uncross my legs at one point to bring my feet in for fear of kicking the actors dragging off the body of Roderigo.

You could argue that the difference lies in the plays. Lear is a play which revels in its violence, as the country descends into a bloody mess. But then, Othello can equally be seen as doing so, creating a sea of blood surrounding the central murder - the symbolic smothering of Desdemona, whose husband is deaf to her voice. The point is, you don't need the prop. The theatre is essentially a place of artifice, as someone much more knowledgeable than me says, and it is not realistic. Yet if we can believe that the same basic set is several different castles, or in different countries, if we can accept that the same actor can play several roles in the same play, and yet see the characters not the actor, why would we need realistic blood? Lear went one step further with a real rain storm on the 'blasted heath' (yes, I know, that's from Macbeth) which was spectacular, and fun, but fundamentally unneccesary. Maybe that's the answer: you don't need the blood, but sometimes a ketchup-splattered stage is just plain fun.

P.S. On another but related matter, I wrote an article for The Oxford Student earlier this term wondering about the current trend for celebrities taking on Shakespearean roles. I excluded David Tennant and Patrick Stewart because they were well-known Shakespearean actors before they became famous on television, but did mention Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear and Lenny Henry as Othello. Luckily, they both came through, with Lenny Henry in particular proving that he is indeed capable of acting his socks off. Pete Postlethwaite was slightly hampered by a production that only worked in places (blood being one of them). However, I have to admit, I'm not going to rush to see Jude Law as Hamlet...

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