Did you know that Shakespeare's Macbeth takes place mostly at night? Hamlet, too, often wanders out in the dark. The main characters in Shakespeare's plays may not clue the reader in on the setting, however. In fact, Shakespeare's minor characters usually set the scene. It is easy to see how a reader focused on the major characters may miss an important piece of information. Shakespeare left so few technical stage directions, opting rather to have characters obviate the details. In addition to character development, many of the exchanges indicate passage of time, summary of past events (or offstage events) and environmental descriptions.
For example, Hamlet begins with dialogue between night watchmen. As they exchange pleasantries, the reader learns that: it is near midnight, cold, dark, starless and the guards are unsettled due to the recent appearance of a ghostly figure. Apprehension rises in the audience as a direct reflection of the characters' unease. The actual stage directions, however, simply state: “Scene I: Elsinore. A platform before the castle.” Another example of minor characters transmitting important information comes from Macbeth.
BANQUO: How goes the night, boy?
FLEANCE: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.
BANQUO: And she goes down at twelve.
FLEANCE: I take’t, ’tis later, sir.
BANQUO: Hold, take my sword. There’s husbandry in heaven; Their candles are all out. Take thee that too. A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, And yet I would not sleep: merciful powers, Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature Gives way to in repose!
Enter MACBETH, and a Servant with a torch
The five lines contain at least three mentions about the night. The repetition is not gratuitous, but emphatic. It is setting the scene. Staging the play, then, allows for greater reinforcement such as actual torches and stage lighting.
Staging a play begins with intense reading and observation from the text itself. From there, the props, lighting and actions must all fit in line with the text in order for the play to make sense. Not only does this conversations tell us what kind of night it is, but it also sets the mood for upcoming scenes. In this case, Banquo's words express nervousness, which must then translate into action as well. The trick is to find actions that can be universally understood as expressive of the desired emotions. Some of the richness of Shakespeare comes from the fact that there is not one right answer to these questions. There have been so many versions of Macbeth and Hamlet, each one enlightening in its own way.
In 2009, National Theatre Live began video broadcasts of their plays. The ability to view a live performance from anywhere offers tremendous benefits. But more than that, National Theatre Live films many useful tidbits about stage production and posts them on their website. These clips explain why and how actors take risks, or adhere to previous versions. These short videos enlighten the audience on particular difficulties related to staging a play, such as violence or off-stage actions.
In the 2014 production of King Lear (directed by Sam Mendes), Lear actually beats the fool to death. On stage. This violence is never stated in the play, hinted at perhaps and left open to debate. What a shock to see Lear, whom the audience is trying to understand and perhaps gain empathy for, beat one of his only friends. The production takes a risk. Add to that, the actual physicality of staging violence, like the brawl scene from Othello. Many difficult decisions are made during the staging of a play, and it helps to watch some of the background footage to understand what is actually going on. These explanations will benefit the next production you watch, Shakespeare or other.
The following two videos, available on National Theatre Live's website (http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/), discuss the difficulty of staging a play and will hopefully enhance your view of theatre. Other 'Behind the Scenes' videos discuss wardrobe, props, set design, etc. If you are lucky, you may even catch the next National Theatre Live performance in your local movie theater.