It happened that whilst I was writing these chapters on Shakespearean comedy, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened its 1971 season with a production of The Merchant of Venice. Terry Hands, who directed it, decided to play one of the games I was talking about. Before the first night he gave it out that there would only be one chair on stage, suggesting that his would be a production stripped of superfluities and reduced to its bare essentials. Then, as the audience filed into the theatre, they faced an uncurtained stage resplendent with precious objects, stately galleons dipping and rising upon a map of the oceans of the world, the whole blazing with golden light and sparkling as if studded with jewels. It is true that there was only one chair — the one in the trial scene. But the audience’s expectations were given a jolt. Why did he do it? Why, to start with, should the audience allow itself to be persuaded that this, of all Shakespeare’s plays, could sensibly be produced on a stage as empty as Mr Hands pretended his was going to be? We have shattered the fantasy that the Elizabethan stage was bare and costumeless. One glance down Philip Henslowe’s accounts in 1598 is enough to do that: Phaeton’s chariot, a tree of golden apples, a chain of dragons, etc. But there is a lingering puritanism in favour of bare boards and the power of the poetry to set the scene and keep it in the mind’s eye for the space of three hours. Mr Hands was playing on it, quite legitimately, to surprise his audience into entering the real, romantic Venice (and later Belmont) that had so often been denied them in the past.
KeywordsFairy Tale Leaden Virtue Bare Essential Successful Play Early Play
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