The material presented about each of the plays in historical performance on this website is arranged under the following headings: 'Impact'; 'Acting Performance and Casting'; 'Director’s Cut'; 'Design and Set'; 'Who Did What, When and Where'. Under each of these headings, information about selected productions is summarized and briefly discussed. The aim is to present enough information to deliver an understanding of what gave individual productions of the relevant play their particular message in the year of performance, with enough structure to allow particular strands of performance history (such as meaning, context, casting, or set) to be tracked through time. An index to these sections is found at the link to the right.
Meaning and Context in Summary; Performance Chronology in Brief.
For each play, a section entitled 'Meaning and Context in Summary' is found on the play's Home Page. The aim here is to capture key strands of meaning in the text that were brought out in the productions discussed, as individual directors and their production teams brought to bear their particular perspective. Some were extremely influential, permanently changing the way the plays are read. The idea of having a 'Meaning and Context' section sprang from the first-draft performance histories on which this website is based (by Penelope Freedman, Maria Jones, Clare Smout, Jan Sewell and Karin Brown) for these contain a fair amount of literary analysis, seeking out meaning in the text as a prerequisite to better understanding the productions, as well as citing contextual conditions that lent meaning, or changed intepretation. This section sometimes draws on some of their text, adding to it from discoveries made while reviewing performance archives and other material. At the end of this section, a brief performance chronology for the individual play under consideration can be found.
The sections discussed above ('Impact'; 'Acting Performance and Casting'; 'Director’s Cut'; 'Design and Set'; 'Who Did What, When and Where') and explained in a bit more detail below can be accessed by clicking on the links to the left of each of the plays' home pages. Under each of the headings, information about selected productions (starting with the most recent and working back to the early 1950s) is summarized and briefly discussed. A performance history can take one of two approaches. It can focus on a small number of key productions, drawing out important strands of development that led to them and away from them; or, it can take a more structured approach. The second approach is taken here, for two reasons. The first, that this approach is likely to be more useful to someone looking for ideas in less obvious nooks and crannies. The real reason for working through the full complement of RSC productions is that even those viewed as less successful can be seen as part of the organic process of learning through experimentation and risk-taking that must be the hallmark of a good theatre company. The purview of this website is therefore full set of RSC productions running, roughly, from 1951 to the present day, with reference to significant non-RSC productions from time to time. It must be stated here that this work would be impossible without the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT) Library and Archive, which deserves special mention as a significant source of information for this website - for instance all of the prompt books and reviews cited are held there.
One of the advantages of working on a website, especially in the context of the history plays, is the facility to include in the text a link to a relevant play or section somewhere else on the website. Where this is done, the page is designed to pop up in a separate window so that the original place is not lost. Links do not point to a specific spot on the relevant page - the relevant production must be sought by scrolling down. As productions are always in reverse order by date, this is easily done.
In the following paragraphs, the intention of the website sections (one of each for each play going chronologically backwards through productions) is described. In these sections, archive materials have been heavily drawn upon, and here too the footprints of the first draft authors (Penelope Freedman, Clare Smout, Jan Sewell and Karin Brown) are sometimes visible, albeit woven through the new structure and new materials built upon the foundations they established.
The main questions here are how the audience (mainly represented by reviewers and academics) reacted to invividual productions, and also, what difference the production made to the way the play is read as a work of literature or seen as a play, as well as what difference individual productions may have made in the field of performance art. The first is actually impossible to know, but it can be guessed at from the content of reviews, some of which may also help answer the other questions. Thinking about what difference any given production made must draw on the work of those who were thinking about it at the time, and here the writers of the first drafts of the performance histories provide some important pointers; their material has been freely drawn upon, and further explored and enlarged, with a significant addition of raw material from the Archives abovementioned. Prompt books provide key insights for some productions.
Acting Performance and Casting
History is fragile. It inevitably changes in the retelling. Reactions to it change with time and context. Nothing could be truer of attempts to document past acting performances on the basis of mostly textual evidence from variable sources - reviewers in the press, actors' or directors' own retrospectives, or academic articles. The small glimpses into individual performances randomly captured along the way by these accidental chroniclers may or may not be what was truly important about a production, if the right audience was not in the right place at the right time.
In relation to every production there are several texts. There is the play text physically chopped up and fixed into the prompt book to allow instructions to be written alongside. There are the prompt book instructions (blocking, prop management, lighting cues, sound cues), a whole other text in its own right sometimes. There is other material too: separate books containing movement and cues, production records, lists of props, to name a few. This title - 'Director's Cut' - sounds ambitious. In fact, it modestly seeks to highlight points of interest in respect of interpretations of the text, or changes to the text identified in academic articles, reviews and prompt books. The aim, through an inevitably random and incomplete collection of observations on the subject of textual cuts, transplants, additions, reorderings, as well as blocking, is to help identify what a specific production was intended to mean by the director and acting company; and what it actually came to mean to the production team and the audience.
Design and Set
This section focuses on what it was in aspects of design, set or costumes that had an impact when the production ran, on the evidence of reactions in reviews and other literature. Much more could be done here. For instance, music and sound effects are an important dimension of many productions, and this strand is not developed here. Textiles and other materials are occasionally mentioned but not explored.
Who did What, When and Where
This section briefly documents key dates, and who did what. Full cast lists can be found easily on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website if required.
A Brief Word on References in the Performance Histories
References in the text are kept brief so they do not intrude. The author, year of publication where needed, and page number are given in brackets. The full reference is available in the 'Bibliography' at the relevant link to the immediate left.