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What Light Through Yonder Theatre Breaks?

Light and dark is important both physically and textually in Shakespeare, how should we reflect this in performances?

This week, we saw the death of theatre director Terry Hands, acclaimed for his founding of the Everyman in Liverpool among various other theatrical, notably Shakespearean, endeavours. This news came within hours of the RSC’s announcement of their winter season of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, nearly forty years after Hands’ production of the Henry VI trilogy as artistic director of the RSC supplanted it firmly back into the public psyche.

Hands’ style of directing was distinctive, and often classic. His productions had a certain energetic hum that surrounded them, and in his more than 25 years as Director Emeritus and Artistic Director of the RSC, it became difficult to disassociate his productions from his latent directorial presence. He came to the RSC with a track-record of success, having founded the Everyman after graduating from RADA; he continued to wield his benevolent hands (pun not intended) over the theatre world when, after leaving the RSC, he saved Wales’ Theatr Clwyd from closure. His styles soon became trademark, as he made his way through Europe’s theatre circles. He had an almost unparalleled ability to pick out and persuading talent to his ends, mentoring the likes of Anthony Sher, Deborah Warner and Adrian Noble.

One of the most recognisable parts of his directorial style, though, is his idiosyncratic use of light, casting himself as lighting director in a number of productions. Hands made us light-sensitive as an audience; what were the possibilities of light in Shakespeare, and how could they enhance a performance? He seems to have tapped into useful directorial opportunities, noticing and exploiting the infinite variety of light’s possibility in Shakespeare’s plays.

Light, for anyone who has pored over an Arden Shakespeare, traipsing through theme after theme, is an image of notable significance. Romeo famously asks Juliet: ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?’; if the window is the east, and Juliet really is the sun, how can a director make her so? The 2006 RSC production, directed by Nancy Meckler, has Juliet perched not on a balcony but on a precarious metal scaffold. The light that bathes her face is not warm sunlight but the harsh whiteness of stage lights, as we are denied access to the fallacy in which the two lovers find themselves in. To Romeo, his paramour has the soft warmth of the sun, but to us, she looks harsh and distant, lit with a clinical pale glow. In the 2010 RSC production, Juliet is offstage when Romeo’s dramatic love exposition begins; the visions of grandeur in Romeo’s mind can be indulged by the director, or gently mocked by way of deliberate omission.

The relative scarcity of specific stage direction or set instruction makes a Shakespeare play a useful tabula rasa upon which a director can build an effective, stylistically distinctive production. However, there are some specific light requirements that are vital to the narrative while being difficult for a director to work with. A distinction between night and day is a recurring feature, a technique that would have been especially difficult in the open-air amphitheatre styles of some Elizabethan theatres. The script for our case study, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, includes the time markers of morning, twilight, noon, twilight, night and dawn. It is, obviously, at the director’s discretion whether they choose to play to these distinctions, or whether they will allow the play to exist in its own isolated timelessness. Time disorientation works well for the two lovers’ tragic story; a refusal to acknowledge the passage of time gives the story a cruelly ironic sense of having time to spare, when in reality the events take place over only four days. If the director chooses to note these fluctuations in light, the play becomes more urgent, more visceral and more real.

There are over thirty stage directions in Shakespeare’s oeuvre calling for lights to be carried on-stage. Three kinds of lights are specified: tapers, torches and lanterns. Torches are the most common by far, and undoubtedly the easiest for an actor to use effectively on stage. However, the Elizabethan nomenclature of specific lights was inconsistent, so relative free-reign, even then, was given to matters of lighting for the productions. It is unreasonable to presume that a modern director will feel constricted to the confines of Shakespeare’s own light specifications, but some performance spaces necessitate a modicum of orthodoxy. The Globe’s primary light source is sunlight, making the only significant differentiation in light that between London’s night and day. Even the indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, though artificially lit with candles, is illuminated uniformly throughout entire performances.  In such spaces, lights carried on and off stage were not a requirement, but a superfluity to the space: they were an exercise in aesthetics, rather than function.

Aside from the time markers mentioned previously, the use of hand-held lights in the plays are used traditionally to indicate dark, shadowy loci, where the presence of light indicates a lack it, as well as ceremony and metaphor. The extinguishing of these indicates a plummet into total darkness, in which Cassio can be ambushed and Lear can be left isolate on the heath. As Lear’s Fool says: ‘so out went the candle and we were left darkling’. The audience is trusted to suspend disbelief as we plunge, with the characters, into metaphorical darkness.

How, then, has Hands’ legacy of light been an influential force on the modern Shakespeare scene? The 2014 Park Avenue Theatre, New York, staged a production of ‘Macbeth’ that surpassed audience expectations not only of light but also of staging. The play’s cavernous space was transformed into a barren heath, complete with open flame torches lighting the audience’s way towards the steep, stadium seating. Strange and otherworldly shadows were cast on the faces of the (floating!) witches. The mass of candles at the end of the traverse stage that glowed hot in Lady Macbeth’s fieriest moments stood cold and dark when, hands stained with blood, she begs: ‘Oh light! Please take me! I deserve to die! / Now take me light! Now cover my darkness!’. Though elements of this production crumble under accusations of ‘style over substance’, it is exemplary in its manipulation of, or abject disregard for, Shakespeare’s original plans for light in his plays.

Nonconformist lighting techniques are not specific to tragedy; Shakespeare’s already farcical, unrealistic comedic scenarios can be made more so with lighting that removes us entirely from reality. The recent production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at London’s Bridge Theatre explores the dark sexuality that runs throughout the play, by keeping the in-the-round performance space mostly dark and shadowy, save select spots of bright lightness. In a play usually interpreted with the summer-gaze of cloudless days and soft heat, the Bridge’s chiaroscuro is a refreshing palate cleanser for some of its more sanguine adaptations. Sequinned and salacious, the play’s purple hue in the final scene gives it permission to revel in its unabashed campness, dragging the audience literally skipping into its midsummer fever dream.

One wonders whether Shakespeare’s verse benefits from these techniques; should we give in to purists, and have our open-air theatres lit exclusively by the sun and the odd taper? Some productions, like Park Avenue’s, undoubtedly suffer for stylistic diversity, sacrificing subtleties of language, style and blocking to make room for the enormity of these effects.  However, in order to guarantee our public appreciation for these plays for years to come, we have a duty to embrace and support attempts at stylistic innovation, rather than dismissing them as silly or superfluous. Done well, effects such as lighting can enhance audience enjoyment, and Terry Hands’ productions exemplified this. He used never-before-seen lighting techniques with consistent success, demonstrating how, even though Shakespeare doesn’t need to be modernised to the 21st century, we’d be happy to have him.

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