Sunday, July 6, 2014

Another Perspective on Richard III

Last week I had the good fortune to see the first and second nights’ performances of Richard III at Trafalgar Studios in London. Although I had intended to write a review upon my return home, today’s articles about the play and fans in the Daily Mail, Times, and Telegraph, plus comments I heard from fans during and after the play, prompted me to put aside my jet lag and present another perspective on this production’s very early days and my experience as an audience member. I admit that I am a fan of theater, Shakespeare, and Martin Freeman, and undoubtedly those “fandoms” color my experience of the play. I’m also a critic, an author, and a humanities professor, and those roles also have a bearing on my comments in light of what seems to be a continuing media and public-forum discussion about the nature of “fans” and the essence of “theater”.

Please be aware that, although I do not think I have included spoilers for those who will see the play, I do comment on aspects of performance and staging. I may assume that you have read or seen the play and are familiar with the material. Just to be clear, IF YOU DO NOT WANT DETAILS ABOUT JAMIE LLOYD’S CURRENT PRODUCTION OF RICHARD III OR MARTIN FREEMAN’S PERFORMANCE, PLEASE DO NOT READ FURTHER. YOUR DEFINITION OF “SPOILER” MAY DIFFER FROM MINE, AND I DO NOT WANT TO UNDERMINE THE THEATERGOING EXPERIENCE OF ANYONE WHO MAY SEE THE PLAY.

Now, about the performances on Tuesday, July 1, and Wednesday, July 2 . . . .

The Play and the Lead

Jamie Lloyd has successfully pared what would have been about a four-hour play into a powerful two-and-a-half-hour (roughly, with interval) theatergoing experience. The official opening takes place in a few days (July 8) with press night and the subsequent reviews. I have seen two performances very early in the run, and previews may differ significantly from what becomes the “standard” version (although one reason I enjoy theater so much is that every night’s performance is unique because it is live). The version I watched on Tuesday night had been changed by Wednesday night. I noticed differences in blocking, the amount of blood on stage, the increase in humor, and dialogue in the final scene before the interval. Although I enjoyed both performances immensely, I found the emotional build-up stronger during the second night’s performance. I only wish I could watch the play again and again to learn how this production evolves (but that would be immensely greedy, and I hope as many people as possible can see this production. Trafalgar Studios is an intimate venue, which is another reason why I enjoy seeing plays there so much.)

This production differs from the interpretation of Richard III, as a play or a character, that many Shakespeare lovers may expect. The setting, for example, is England only a few decades ago--and I encourage patrons to read the program for an excellent explanation of the shift in time period. Modernization does not detract from the play, and if some in the audience don’t understand the hazy black-and-white television images at the beginning of the play, that’s OK. The actors’ dialogue (which has not been modernized) and actions clearly illustrate the political chaos. The only awkward line for me as a result of the modernization is Richard’s cry for “A horse! A horse!” but what would Richard III be without that line?

This production is vibrant, violent, engrossing, and sometimes just gross (depending on how much you like to see blood). It is more dynamic and physical than I had expected, but, since seeing Lloyd’s Macbeth last season, I should have anticipated more action for the lead actor. This production invigorates the characters and, to use a clichĂ©, makes them relevant.

Richard is surprisingly witty and humorous. For those who read this comment and automatically assume that Martin Freeman is playing Richard as a variation of The Office’s Tim, let me assure you that Freeman’s repertoire includes many shades of “humor,” just like he has the ability to make every character he plays surprising and different. He doesn’t rehash aspects of other characters he has made recently famous. His Richard understands the power of words and ably twists them. His humor lures followers and then entraps them. Because Freeman’s gesture, expression, or line delivery can make the audience laugh, they--like Richard’s inner circle--may want to like this man because he has a keen wit and sharp sense of humor. Richard, however, is not a likeable man, and the use of humor makes his callous cruelty all the more horrific. Yet Richard is not like one of Freeman’s most recent successes, Fargo’s increasingly violent and immoral Lester Nygard, either. From the beginning of the play, the audience knows exactly who Richard is--a villain. He does not change from good to bad or seek redemption. Still, Freeman does not play a one-note baddie. He lures the audience, too, with softly spoken dialogue, only to shout later. Richard may have that famous hump, as well as a slight limp and a useless arm, but he can be lethally spry when necessary. Both Richard and Freeman are compelling because they can still surprise the audience, even those familiar with the play.

On Tuesday night, I sat at the back of the stage, which, for that performance, had cons as well as pros. I chose that location because I enjoyed sitting there during Macbeth (even if a wayward branch got a wee bit too close as the forest marched on stage). I like watching the larger part of the audience seated in front of the stage, because that the actors' view while they perform, and I also enjoy seeing the actors entering and exiting stage right next to me. At times an actor makes eye contact (that happened twice on Tuesday night), and I feel much more part of the performance when I’m seated only a few feet away from the action and alongside a main entry/exit.

Those positive aspects of being seated up stage made my experience of Richard III special, but my location also meant that I had a little more trouble seeing everything that was going on. The set, while minimalist, still obstructed my view a few times when the action was down stage. When eerie smoke arose, it became so thick that the people around me started fanning their programs. There were a few mishaps and mistakes, and my vantage point made them seem more obvious than they likely were to those seated farther back, but those kinds of problems are expected at this stage of a production and likely will be worked out.

On Wednesday night, I sat four rows from the front of the stage. I had a much clearer view of the entire set, which made the special effects more understandable because I had a complete visual context for their use. On a second viewing, I also had a better idea of what to expect from the actors. The second night’s performance included more humor—or, rather, lines were punched up a bit more, and the play just seemed to work better.

Lloyd’s productions of Macbeth or Richard III may not be for everyone, but I find them exhilarating and provocative. Of course, I still enjoy a more “traditional” approach to the Bard, but I am challenged by Lloyd’s productions--I go home thinking about the characters and the actors’ performances. I want to come back and see more. To me, that is what good theater is about.

Fan Behavior and Theatre Etiquette

I hope the focus of reviews after previews returns to the production and performances, instead of fans and fan behavior. The Daily Mail, The Times, and The Telegraph (providing a summary of the complaints presented in the other two articles) today have blamed Hobbit fans for ruining the play for other audience members. The thrust of the argument seems to be that young fans of an actor maybe could contain their enthusiasm or express it more appropriately, but they don’t. They may not understand theater etiquette because they either do not know how to behave during a performance or don’t care. In particular, a venue like Trafalgar Studios, because of the theater’s size and the configuration of seats for Richard III, brings fans closer to the actors. The setting is more intimate and, because of seating on two sides of the stage, automatically involves the audience in the performance, which could lead to inappropriate behavior. Also, to encourage more people who typically don’t attend theater to come to plays at Trafalgar Studios, the producers have marketed plays to and made some tickets more affordable for a younger audience to come see what theater is all about.

These are purely my opinions shared in reaction to these articles:

Theater should be for everyone, not just those who can afford a high-priced ticket, and I like the way that Trafalgar Studios is helping to make theater more accessible to more people. I increasingly have problems with the “haves” and “have nots” division between those who are fortunate enough to attend a play, concert, or another type of live performance, especially those events starring a celebrity, and those that cannot get in. That “good fortune” may be the result of a lottery, fastest Internet connection to the box office, or ability to pay membership fees or the highest prices to get a ticket. Of course, the entertainment industry is a business--and popular, high-profile actors attract publicity and audiences. In recent years, the number of plays featuring a film or television star has increased. People like to see stars on stage, and fans of a popular actor may be very determined both to get a ticket and to interact with that actor. In a celebrity-driven popular culture, there will increasingly be a clash between people who want to attend the theater, for example, to see a television or film star in person and those who want specifically to see the play, no matter who plays the lead. The problems stem from individuals who do anything to ensure their own enjoyment at the expense of the experience for others, whether actors or audience members.

Not everyone who sees Richard III may be well versed in theater etiquette, which seems to be the focus of complaints about fan behavior. My experience may have differed from that of people who watched performances later in the week, but here are my observations of the audience and stage-door fans.

During the two performances of Richard III that I saw, I heard the audience laugh and applaud at appropriate times. I didn’t see or hear anyone around me applaud or cheer when Martin Freeman began his first speech; if Richard’s famous opening lines had been drowned out, I would have been annoyed, because I wanted to hear Freeman say those lines, even though I already know them. On the second night, as I previously mentioned, the audience laughed more often, and more people smiled or laughed at (in particular) Richard’s or Buckingham’s lines. The audience was involved with the performance, but no one that I saw or heard disrupted the flow of the play or made the dialogue impossible to hear.

The applause during those two performances took place right before the interval and during curtain calls. On Tuesday, during the first round of curtain calls, the entire cast was loudly applauded, and some people hooted and cheered. When Martin Freeman came out alone for his call, the audience began to stand, but I don’t think everyone gave him, or the cast joining him for the final bow, a standing ovation. Many people did, but a standing ovation is not unique to Richard III, even after the first performance, which probably was not as polished as it will become throughout the run. Within the same week, I saw Skylight (standing ovation), The Crucible (standing ovation), and the opening night/press night of Great Britain (partial ovation--a lot of people remained seated at the back of the Olivier, where I was, although their applause was just as enthusiastic as that of the people closer to the stage who gave an ovation).

It seems that most audiences nowadays will give a star a standing ovation. Regarding the plays and performances I saw last week, the response seemed justified. Perhaps there are so many standing ovations these days that the concept has become meaningless; an ovation has become an expectation rather than a true response to quality. That should be a separate issue from the problems of inappropriate fan behavior mentioned in the press today. The people who stood and applauded the entire cast of Richard III genuinely seemed thrilled by their theatergoing experience and appreciative of the performances. Those standing and cheering were not all Hobbit fans, or Sherlock or Fargo fans, or Martin Freeman fans. They were people who had a great evening at the theater.

I did see some examples of lack of theater etiquette that the staff tried to stop more than once. Some people walked across the set during the interval to visit friends or family seated in the opposite block. Walking across the stage if you’re not an actor in the production should seem like an obvious no-no, but in a small venue with seats on two sides of the stage, some people opted to take the shortest route to the other side. The staff courteously explained why that was not a good idea. Similarly, most theaters have a rule that photographs or recordings of any type are not allowed. A few people around me needed to be told, some more than once, that taking photographs of the set or trying to get a close-up of an actor is not allowed. That was about it as far as inappropriate behavior, and I have no idea whether the people who were asked to stop doing something against the rules are fans of a particular film, TV series, or actor.

During performances of other plays last week, I was annoyed by people around me who talked through the show, checked social media several times (not during the interval), sighed loudly enough that people two rows away turned around to glare, or opened cello-wrapped food and noisily ate during quiet scenes. That behavior is disruptive, self-indulgent, and inappropriate. I see it not only in the theater but at other live performances or during movies. Audience etiquette, not just theater-audience etiquette, needs to be taught and enforced so that the entire audience can enjoy the performance they paid to see. By the way, the people who annoyed me weren’t fans of any particular actor, nor were they part of a specific age group.

I seldom try to do stage door because I am afraid of being trampled or pushed, as I have been at red carpet events. I’ve heard the stories about actors being chased down the street or long queues braying for an actor to come out, then becoming unruly if he chooses not to do so. I’ve talked with theater staff who have worried about fans not understanding why they have to do something (like queue or wait patiently) or not to do something (like record a performance or grope an actor entering or exiting next to the audience) and disregarding staff or security members’ instructions. I was relieved that the fans awaiting Martin Freeman were well behaved; a few even said that they realized their behavior could affect whether actors continue talking with fans at all after a performance.

On Tuesday night, the cast had a party after the first performance. Martin Freeman sent word that it would be a very long time before he would be outside. The group standing outside the stage door wasn’t huge, and it was respectful. Sure, there were some louder conversations about fandom (or Sherlock, or Benedict Cumberbatch), but most people were fairly quiet, more so as nearly two hours passed. Some people left, and some pros wanting autographs to sell joined the crowd.

When Martin Freeman came out, he looked tired. It was nearly midnight by then, after he gave an intense performance and attended to other responsibilities after the play. Nevertheless, he signed for many people. (I don’t know if he signed for everyone who waited, because I left before he did.) He warned off one pro by saying that he would only sign for people who had seen the play. He posed for a few selfies, and he said thank you many times for fans’ kind words. It seemed that most people brought Richard III posters or programs to sign, but a few had Sherlock books or DVDs.

On Wednesday night, Martin Freeman came out much more quickly but did not stay very long. He was cordial and signed quickly for many people. He patiently waited while a starstruck young woman in front of me asked him to personalize a book and painstakingly spelled the name. He was more outgoing than he had been the previous night and kept thanking everyone for coming to see the play. Before he had come outside, the crowd received word that he would not pose for photos but would sign, and he stuck to that rule. Before he hopped into the car waiting to drive him away, he wished everyone a good evening.

At both times I was at the stage door last week, the crowd was friendly and respectful. I only hope that the fans who wait at a stage door remain that way and understand that meeting an actor is not an expectation or a guarantee that comes with a theater ticket.

Before I conclude my long ramble in response to today’s media reports, I want to mention one other aspect of theatergoing and fandom that troubles me, because it reflects that schism between people who primarily go to theater only to see/meet an actor and those who primarily go to see the play--and I realize that many people (me included) often go for both reasons equally. When I said, online or in person, that I was excited about seeing Richard III’s first two performances, the response I sometimes received surprised me: Why would I go on a first night, when famous people are more likely to attend the press night/opening night or final show? The gist is that I was not terribly bright to buy a ticket to these two previews because they would only be attended by fans. (Personally, I was ecstatic to even get a ticket, much less two, on dates when I would be in London for other reasons.) I dislike the idea that a performance is only or especially worthwhile to attend if a) a famous actor is in the play and b) the famous actor’s equally famous family and friends might be in the audience. I enjoy meeting actors, and I was thrilled to tell Martin Freeman that his performance was fantastic. But that’s not the reason I go to theater. If I don’t see anyone famous on stage or off, my experience of going to the theater, 90 percent of the time, is positive. Even when I don’t like a play or a performance, I generally have learned something or been given interesting ideas to think about. In the long run, that result is more satisfying than an encounter with someone famous, no matter how exciting that can be.

The short version of this review/cultural critique is that Richard III, currently playing at Trafalgar Studios, is an exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s text. The cast is very good, and their interpretations should give audiences a new appreciation for the play and individual characters.

The long version is that what constitutes appropriate public behavior, whether in a theater or another venue, is going to be a focal point of media analysis and discussion, and individual fandoms (e.g., Hobbit fans, Sherlock fans, Freeman fans) will be scrutinized. While a discussion of appropriate theater etiquette is important--as is the ongoing discussion about appropriate behavior in lots of public venues, including social media--it should not overshadow the hard work of the cast and crew who diligently and creatively, performance after performance, bring a play to life.

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