Shakespeare By Night at the Old Fitz sees a group of actors perform selected scenes from across Shakespeare’s works in an 80 minute performance lit only by candlelight. This is not (as we see at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe) an attempt to investigate historical staging practices, it is more simply a vehicle for actors to explore how it affects their choices and stimulates their expressive imaginations to work within the opportunities and constraints of this one production element.
It is a clever way to give an otherwise conventional premise a bit more zing, as well as being a charming way to spend an evening. They’ve done it at least a couple of times, and I believe it always sells out, but this was my first opportunity to see it. One of the features is a chance to see scenes from rarely performed plays. This one included Constance’s lament from King John, the Earl of Suffolk’s first meeting with Margaret of Anjou from Henry VI, and a very funny gender-flipped early scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona. So much attention is lavished on Shakespeare’s very famous plays, it is too easy even for fans never to hear wonderful passages spoken from plays that have little chance of being produced in full. The set-up also allows for artful juxtaposition of related scenes from different plays, in this case Shylock’s most famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech followed by Emilia’s “Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them” wisdom imparted to Desdemona.
When a higher level of lighting was preferred a bank of numerous white pillar candles, one on either side of the small stage, provided it, plus somebody’s prized possession of a multi-pronged standing candelabra. Three enclosed lanterns threw general light, usually held by the actors, only once suspended from above. The light was then topped up with tealights carried in useful little half-pint pots with handles.
The actors have very little time to rehearse all together in the performance space (and presumably next to no budget), which limits opportunities for very inventive or elaborate staging. Still, I was surprised a couple more experiments weren’t attempted in getting variations in light from the candles. Apart from some points where the hand-held candles were moved to give more light to the person speaking there were few attempts to alter lighting to reflect a shift in tone within a scene, and there were some clear openings to get more out of the premise that were missed. Portia confronting Brutus in Julius Caesar is extraordinary but not familiar to many. The moment when she reveals, “I have made strong proof of my constancy, / Giving myself a voluntary wound / Here, in the thigh” should rock the room, but I have seen so many productions where it is thrown away like an ordinary line. Here, given the constraints of lighting, it begged for the actors to keep the light on their upper bodies until the moment when she pulls aside her gown and lowers a candle to show us blood that we couldn’t see before. It would have been breathtaking, and have grown directly from the underlying production idea, but instead I’m not sure the audience heard and understood what was being spoken of.
The choice of scenes and casting within them, however, was inventive and delightful, with an active initiative to break down conservative expectations of race and gender, and an open-hearted enthusiasm for communicating the text to the audience in an unpretentious, conversational style.
This idea creates wonderful possibilities for an evening performance. I would love to see it spread to other groups and venues, and I am already working on my pitch for a scene if they do it again here (it’s a secret).