There is much to admire in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current Titus Andronicus, not least of which are the performances of Katy Stephens as Tamora and John Hopkins as Saturninus but on my third viewing of the production since it opened, what struck me was the sometimes poor stagecraft of the director Michael Fentiman and the technique that has crept into RSC performances, beginning with the Courtyard Theatre, the RSC’s prototype for its re-design of what used to be the proscenium arch of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
The RSC now has three thrust stages, which may or not be a contributing factor to what I am noticing as a trend, but I first noticed what I perhaps may too harshly phrase as an over-reliance on looking at the audience. This was during Michael Boyd’s Histories cycle in 2006 when I observed that the cast spent an inordinate amount of time when not speaking gazing out into the auditorium, rather than being attentive to the speaker on the stage. This in itself is not a crime and the technique is rooted in the need to be visible, which on the proscenium arch finds expression in the act of “cheating out”. One of the most valuable notes I received when I was at LAMDA was after having played Sonia in Uncle Vanya, a production in which I apparently spent a lot of time introspectively staring at the floor being incredibly shy. Afterwards Colin Cook said to me, “Look up, you’re playing the lead, the audience wants to see you”. Never a truer word spoken, but what needs to be added to that is the fact that they audience also needs to see you interacting with your fellow actors (which I’ve never been accused of not doing, thankfully – if I may use a double negative to mean a positive). And therein lies the problem…
As I’ve said, there is a lot to admire in Michael Fentiman’s production, but I wouldn’t class his adoption of the Michael Boyd school of the usage of the thrust stage as one of them. The difficulty for me with the production came within what are some of the most difficult scenes in the play – those with Titus, Lavinia, Marcus and Young Lucius in moments of heightened emotion. These are *not* easy scenes to pull off, although if you experienced Deborah Warner’s uncut – I repeat: UNCUT – production with Brian Cox in 1987/88 then you’ll know that they can work in the theatre if you play them with absolute commitment and emotional truth. The major problem with these – in my observation – is the manner in which the director has created his stage picture.
My meaning is probably difficult to explain without photographs, but let me begin by saying that when the RSC built its prototype for the new main house, the Courtyard Theatre – a thrust stage, obviously – it was opened by Michael Boyd’s own The Histories productions. I began to notice then that the actors were taking in the audience – or looking out at us – more often than is the norm. It was as if they were surveying us as much as we were gazing at them. When I asked a friend of mine in that company about the phenomenon, it was explained as something that was being encouraged by Boyd in order to foster a better actor-audience relationship.
With Fentiman being what can arguably be classed as a Boyd trainee, this gazing at the audience has come up at what I have to say are completely inopportune moments within Titus Andronicus, particularly in these difficult scenes between members of the Andronicus family. Instead of characters talking to each other during scenes of high emotion such as the discovery of Lavinia’s sorry state – and by talking to each other, that’s exactly what I mean: human beings communicating with one another. Instead, each and every one of them was gazing outward toward the audience. Now, it has to be said that there is a fine line between making oneself visible to the audience watching you and talking to fellow actors (which is where “cheating out” comes in handy, when you can both talk to someone on the stage while enabling the people who have paid money to sit and watch you be brilliant can see you being brilliant). What makes these scenes in Fentiman’s production so leaden is precisely because the actors have crossed over the line of “cheating out” and are just staring at the house. None of them are able to engage either emotionally or intellectually with the other characters; not a single person is having a conversation with anyone else on the stage. It serves to make it Brechtian rather than allowing the audience into this world.
Back when the Swan Theatre was a sparkling, new, clean and barely used theatre the thrust stage had not become this highly theorized space like it seems to be now. Actors were allowed to speak to each other without worrying about sightlines. Nobody spent hours looking up and out while saying lines that should be addressed to a fellow human being inhabiting your onstage world, certainly not all four characters in an alleged conversation staring like automatons into the middle distance because they’ve been told to by their director! In Fentiman’s production at these moments of “thrust stage acting”, there is a distinct lack of connection which is highly unnatural and really rather boring. I’m not engaged because all I’m seeing is the technique, not the human being in the play.