By Dr Steve Chinna (The University of Western Australia)
In what follows I address a student production of a condensed version of William Shakespeare’s visceral revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus on the New Fortune Theatre stage at The University of Western Australia. Two ‘lunchtime’ performances took place, from 1–2pm over two days – Wednesday 29 and Thursday 30 October 2014. My main focus here will be on the revision of the script, and on the use of the stage space.
First, some brief history of the use of the New Fortune Theatre stage at UWA. When the Faculty of Arts building was designed the courtyard basically matched the dimensions of the stage and floor space in the original Fortune Theatre in London, built in 1600. There was some subtle planning and scheming, but the end result was the theatre space that still stands today – other than a lack of stage pillars, replaced brick paving and at least one replacing of the wooden floor.
A production of Hamlet was the opening daylight performance in 1964. The UWA Graduate Dramatic Society use The New Fortune Theatre in March each year for their evening productions. This is invariably of a Shakespeare play, although in 2015 it was Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. It is rare to see a daylight performance on the stage. However, in September 2011, Rob Conkie directed a group from Latrobe University in a daytime production of 1 Henry IV Part One as part of a ‘Performing Old Emotions on the New Fortune Stage’ symposium. It is rarely used during the teaching semesters due to its proximity to teaching spaces and academic and administrative offices. However, over the past few years it has been used for various conferences relating to the early modern period, especially conferences on Shakespeare.
I first took the opportunity to use the stage for some scenes from Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling at the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association (ANZSA) conference in November 2011. Students had performed the play in the Dolphin Theatre on campus in October 2011 and were willing to perform selected scenes for the conference attendees. At that stage there was no back wall to the theatre.
In the first semester of 2014 I had been co-teaching in an Honours unit, ‘Fortune Playhouses, Old and New’, set up by Dr Penelope Woods, then a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, and Professor Bob White (UWA/CHE), on the history of the original Fortune Theatre and the use of the UWA New Fortune Theatre. I worked on scenes from The Spanish Tragedy and The Roaring Girl over three once-a-week sessions with the students on the New Fortune Theatre stage, looking in particular at entrances and exits as well as the use of the stage space and upper levels. We drew on ideas for staging The Spanish Tragedy from Tim Fitzpatrick (University of Sydney) [Link to: http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/7847%5D and his ‘Stage Directions and Spatial Mapping on the Elizabethan Stage’, [Link to: http://hdl.handle.net/2123/2495] from Andrew Gurr on staging and stage directions at the Globe and Fortune theatres and from Andrew J. Power’s ‘What the Hell is Under the Stage? Trapdoor Use in the English Senecan Tradition’.
How the Titus production came about was very much student driven. I was coordinating and teaching a unit entitled ‘Shakespeare: Text to Stage and Screen’. Some of the students in the unit who had been involved in a production of The White Devil I directed in May 2014 expressed a wish to do another production, even though the unit was not a designated theatre studies unit. I procrastinated for a few weeks, considering doing some scenes from the plays we were studying if I could get the use of the New Fortune Theatre. Then I had a light-bulb moment. Titus Andronicus was on the text list, and I had a condensed script I had adapted for a one-hour lunchtime production in the Dolphin Theatre back in 1997.
The Dolphin Theatre is a 200-seat indoor theatre on the UWA campus, a proscenium arch set up, and the production had used lighting and sound effects. Here was an opportunity to use the open-air, thrust stage New Fortune Theatre for a lunchtime production – one hour – for free.
I was keen to perform this early modern play on the New Fortune Theatre thrust stage, particularly in order to explore the use of two upstage entrances through the two sets of double doors in the temporary back wall structure, the upper levels and the trapdoor. I knew this would create useful challenges in handling the flow of action in the play and testing whether the condensed script could still work in that different space. Furthermore, there was the question of whether a one-hour performance would allow the play to be accessible to a sitting and passing audience? That is to say, would the plotting and sequence of events be comprehensible, given the fairly severe cutting of the script?
Approximately two-thirds of the lines were cut, as well as two short acts. From audience feedback it appeared that it worked in terms of audience comprehension of the plot and characterisation. However, the program supplied a brief synopsis of the plot for those unfamiliar with the play:
Titus Andronicus, an old campaigner returning victorious from his wars against the Goths, sticking to the old customs and not realizing the world has changed, is betrayed by Saturninus, the new leader of Rome in league with Tamora, Queen of the Goths, seeking revenge for the ritual sacrifice of her eldest son. The world of Titus is turned upside down as his remaining children are humiliated and slaughtered around him. It takes a while, but when Titus gets moving on the revenge trail himself, he doesn’t play by half measures.
Approximately 1440 lines were cut out of approximately 2400 lines – which left approximately 1000. As well as lengthy speeches, three scenes and several characters were cut.
Scenes retained, with line cuts, were:
1.1 cut from 495 lines to 250
2.1 cut from 135 lines to 50
2.2 cut from 25 lines to 14
2.3 cut from 306 lines to 138
2.4 cut from 57 lines to 16
3.1 cut from 299 lines to 124
3.2 cut entirely: the dinner scene with the killing of the fly
4.1 cut from 130 lines to 36
4.2 cut from 181 lines to 77
4.3 cut entirely: the shooting arrows scene
4.4 cut entirely: the clown scene
5.1 cut from 165 lines to 72
5.2 cut from 205 lies to 115
5.3 cut from 200 lines to 112
Below is an example of line cuts from 1.1. Only the bold/underlined lines were retained.
Noble patricians, patrons of my right,
Defend the justice of my cause with arms;
And, countrymen, my loving followers,
Plead my successive title with your swords.
I am his first-born son, that was the last
That wore the imperial diadem of Rome;
Then let my father’s honours live in me,
Nor wrong mine age with this indignity.
Romans, friends, followers, favourers of my right,
If ever Bassianus, Caesar’s son,
Were gracious in the eyes of royal Rome,
Keep then this passage to the Capitol
And suffer not dishonour to approach
The imperial seat, to virtue consecrate,
To justice, continence and nobility;
But let desert in pure election shine,
And, Romans, fight for freedom in your choice.
Enter MARCUS ANDRONICUS, aloft with the crown
Princes, that strive by factions and by friends
Ambitiously for rule and empery,
Know that the people of Rome, for whom we stand
A special party, have by common voice
In election for the Roman empery
Chosen Andronicus, surnamèd Pius
For many good and great deserts to Rome.
A nobler man, a braver warrior
Lives not this day within the city walls.
He by the Senate is accited home
From weary wars against the barbarous Goths,
That with his sons, a terror to our foes,
Hath yoked a nation strong, trained up in arms.
Ten years are spent since first he undertook
This cause of Rome and chastisèd with arms
Our enemies’ pride; five times he hath returned
Bleeding to Rome, bearing his valiant sons
In coffins from the field.
And now at last, laden with horror’s spoils,
Returns the good Andronicus to Rome,
Renownèd Titus, flourishing in arms.
Let us entreat, by honour of his name
Whom worthily you would have now succeed,
And in the Capitol and Senate’s right,
Whom you pretend to honour and adore,
That you withdraw you and abate your strength,
Dismiss your followers and, as suitors should,
Plead your deserts in peace and humbleness.
(Titus Andronicus 1.1.1–45)
THE USE OF THE STAGE
In the 1997 Dolphin production I had utilised two upstage and two downstage entrance/exit points plus a rostra setting which gave us levels and a quasi trap.
Having only two upstage doors created a challenge in terms of entrances and exits, and there was a necessary flexibility here. Rather than adhere to a strict following of the logic of entrances and exits to indoor or outdoor spaces, pragmatism was adopted towards ease of staging as it is doubtful whether any of the spectators were tracking the logic of those entrances and exits. A certain flexibility was required, as the flow of the action is more important in my view than getting tied up with too academic a perspective based on a study of the print text. While entrance/exit points proved sufficient I had to reincorporate an original cut that had worked in the Dolphin Theatre to handle that use of only two entrance/exit doors.
There were three rostra which obscured the trap. The trap was utilised for the numerous deaths and exits, either into a tomb, or pit or entrances from the depths of hell for Tamora and her sons as Revenge, Rape and Murder, as were the upper levels of the ‘tiring house’ for entrances from ‘above’ and addresses to the audience by contenders for the emperor’s crown. With those rostra on stage, the trapdoor was not visible from ground and, surprisingly, from the first floor level – if sitting front on. This was an accidental effect, one I had not envisaged when deciding on the rostra, which were used to help disguise any obvious clumsiness in body disposal, and as seats or levels for the cast when necessary.
The first-floor level and balcony were used, as was the ‘groundlings’ space in front of the stage – near the start of the play for the entrance of Titus and his prisoners. No seating was placed in the ‘pit’. We only had access to a limited number of seats, about 50 in all, and from experience I know spectators prefer to be not too close to the action. Plus, I wanted that space for the initial entry of Titus and the others in 1.1.
Audience seating was on the ground floor walkway and first level with some seating down the sides, but many opted to move those seats to the front, echoing their experience of a ‘horizontal theatre’ proscenium arch arrangement. Notwithstanding the ‘vertical’ cube opportunities afforded by the New Fortune, I am not surprised that this was the preferred option. Spectators also used the step levels.
I moved around frequently during the performances, seeing what the stage looked like from various positions. One of my aims in the production was to create flows of performers on the stage – to use the space creatively as seen from above as well as ground level. Most of our rehearsals had taken place in an indoor studio space (the Bradley Studio) so I had to envisage something like a bird’s eye view as we rehearsed. However, we did get three evening sessions on the New Fortune Theatre stage before we opened so much of the fine tuning on the blocking and movement of the play happened then.
Here are some different views of the action on stage from various vantage points. [Photo credits: Charmaine Fernandez, Nicola Holman, Steve Chinna.]
Getting bodies off stage was a major consideration, given that we did not have the luxury of a black out, or a curtain. Bodies that were to be ‘dropped’ down the trapdoor had to be strategically positioned for easy disposal.
The set was changed for the closing banquet scene, which entailed a simple repositioning of the rostra by two of the actors playing Goths.
WHAT DID I FIND OUT?
The adaptation was popular and well received. Enough of the dialogue was kept to allow spectators to follow the plot, but much of Shakespeare’s wordy elaboration of the Ovidian themes of the story was cut. A focus on action rather than words was important given the competition – wind, passing mobile phone users and the screeching peacocks who inhabit the space. The big New Fortune Theatre stage space worked well in permitting experimentation with choreographed use of the actors utilising the full range of the stage space.
Certain early modern plays can be drastically cut. Furthermore, it can be argued that some of the revenge tragedies can still work very well when condensed. However, I directed The Revenger’s Tragedy as a one-hour lunchtime production some years ago, and that did baffle much of the audience, but that was due to my first not-so-successful attempt at trying such a condensation. I finally directed a full production of The Revenger’s Tragedy at the Dolphin Theatre in May 2015.
In an earlier presentation of this paper at a work-in-progress seminar at UWA, the point was raised that the characters are servants of the action. This is certainly true in performance. There are few moments of interiority for the characters, and they are all driven by fairly immediate desires. What I am reminded of in doing this play on the New Fortune Stage is how much Shakespeare’s own experience as an actor feeds the action of this play, especially in its condensed version. It also proves to me how much of the lines in this early play are unnecessary to the motion of the plot, notwithstanding their worth as exemplars of Shakespeare’s copious reading and drawing on Senecan and Ovidian models.
Dr Steve Chinna teaches theatre and performance studies at The University of Western Australia, as well as creative writing for stage and screen. He has directed numerous theatre productions, including early modern plays such as The White Devil, The Duchess of Malfi, The Changeling, The Revenger’s Tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Richard III and King Lear.
Note: This blog post is a revised version of a conference paper delivered at the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (ANZAMEMS) conference, Brisbane, 2015.
 Tim Fitzpatrick, ‘The Spanish Tragedy’. Available at: http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/7847; Tim Fitzpatrick, ‘Stage Directions and Spatial Mapping on the Elizabethan Stage’, in Being There: Before, During and After – Proceedings of the Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies Conference, 2006, ed. Ian Maxwell, (Sydney: University of Sydney, Sydney, 2008). Available at: http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/2470; Andrew Gurr, ‘Some Reasons to Focus on the Globe and the Fortune: Stages and Stage Directions: Controls for the Evidence’, Theatre Survey, 37.1 (1996): 23–33; Andrew J. Power, ‘What the Hell is Under the Stage? Trapdoor Use in the English Senecan Tradition’, English 60.231 (2011): 276–96.