Performing Shakespeare. The Use of Properties in Early Modern Performances

Term Paper, 2019

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Theatre Review of Richard

2. Theatre Review of Richard

3. Scholarly Exposition
3.1 Introduction
3.2 The Globe
3.3 The Blackfriars
3.4 The use of properties on the Early Modern Stage
3.5 Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Theatre Review of Richard II

English ensemble anarché fascinates with minimalistic staging of Richard II For the very first time, a theatre play was performed in the foyer of the Philosophical Institute at Würzburg University on Wednesday 07.11.2018 at 6.30 pm. The directorless ensemble anarché, that flew in from England for this one performance, staged Shakespeare’s history play “Richard II”. The famous play, believed to have been written in 1595, portrays the last years of the reign of King Richard II of England who tries to defend the crown against Bolingbroke attempting to usurp the throne. The international actors did wonders with very few props, minimalistic costumes and an unusual and small stage, thus fascinating the audience and receiving standing ovations.

Throughout the play scarcely any props were used, however, the ones, which did appear, were very well chosen and supported the performance. One of them, a big silver ring, representing the crown, was the central element in an additional first scene in which young Richard and his cousins Aumerle and Bolingbroke chase each other and fight over the crown. The two take the crown away from Richard and only after getting it back he stops crying. The scene introduces the conflict between him and his cousins. Furthermore, it portrays Richard’s childish behavior, becoming King at the age of ten, and his obsession with the crown. Even though the ensemble is usually dedicated to stick as closely to the text as possible, this change was helpful for the understanding of the whole play and it was a humorous introduction to the topic.

Later in the play, shortly after Richard’s deposition, another prop, a looking glass, is impressively used. Richard calls for a mirror and, shortly after starring into the mirror, drops it to the floor where it breaks into pieces. He picks it up but the only thing remaining in his hands is the round frame of the shattered mirror. This empty metal frame reminded of a hollow crown and refers to Richard’s loss of power. Furthermore, it indicates how closely his personality is tied to his position as king and how empty and removed from his identity he feels after losing the crown. The flinders of glass from the mirror stayed on the floor for the rest of the performance with the actors stepping onto them. It was a great and creative way to symbolize Richard’s downfall and how his life was shattered into pieces by the end of his reign.

The costumes of the actors were mostly modern and fitted the era of the play surprisingly well. The male actors wore business attire, consisting of a button-down shirt, trousers and polished leather shoes. Lelda Kapsis and Alessandra Quattrini, both portraying male characters, wore rather dark and unisex clothing as well. However, the costume of Richard, brilliantly played by Ellena Pellone, consisted of a dark green corsage, jeans and boots which created a very feminine but less modern appearance. Though, as the Queen’s costume also included a corsage, it established a sense of unity between her and the king. Moreover, it set them apart from the modern costumes of the other characters and emphasized their traditional and conservative views. In addition, it was not at all disturbing that Richard, who was historically played as a gay man, was so obviously feminine but, ironically, it helped to make him appear more powerful and masculine.

As the play calls for 37 roles, though the cast consists of only eight actors, they had to change characters often. To indicate the switch between roles, the actors changed directly on stage by putting on caps or jackets for instance or they visibly swapped their costumes next to the stage. According to the ensemble, this was born out of necessity, however, it broke down the theatrical illusions and helped to keep up the speed of the performance.

Even though, the play was rehearsed in the foyer once, the actors were confronted with a different situation during the actual performance because the production drew a bigger audience than expected. The stage was very small and surrounded by the viewers on three sides, sitting on the stairs and on chairs. Additionally, some spectators followed the play from above, standing on the gallery upstairs. Nevertheless, the ensemble managed to improvise and to adapt the performance to the given situation. Moreover, they transformed the everyday space into an actual theatre stage. Another rather unusual characteristic of the stage was its location at the same level as some members of the audience. Sitting so close to the performance and being eye to eye with the actors, created a feeling of unity among the spectators and the performers.

The minimalistic staging of the play, even though it was originally not intended in this extent but caused by the fact that they could not bring more equipment with them on the plane, allowed to focus more on the text and gave the actors room for their interpretation and performance. Therefore, it was beneficial to the success of the play. Moreover, the ensemble stunned the audience with their excellent performance and their ability to adapt to the unusual circumstances so well. The cast deserves even more acknowledgment when regarding the short time they had for rehearsing the play, as some of the actors were able to join the process only four days before the day of performance. Unfortunately, this was anarché’s only performance in Germany, but, hopefully, they will come back to impress a wider audience with their raw and contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays.

2. Theatre Review of Richard III

Vornam’s creatively modern staging of Richard III convinces the audience In this repertory season, the Theatre Heilbronn devoted itself to Richard III, which is regarded as the masterpiece among Shakespeare’s history plays. The production, directed by Axel Vornam, premiered on September 28, 2018, ran until January 25, 2019 and drew a large audience even on the last day of performance. The play is set during the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars for control of the English throne fought between the rivalling Houses of York and Lancaster during the 15th century. At the beginning of the play, England enjoys a period of peace under the reign of King Edward IV. However, Edward’s younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, brilliantly played by Oliver Firit, despises these “fair-well spoken days” and in his opening soliloquy declares “to prove a villain”. To reach his goal, the English throne, Richard is willing to manipulate, backstab and kill anyone who bars him from the crown. Vornam’s production fascinated with an imaginative stage design, creatively used costumes and great single, as well as overall, performances of characters.

The stage, except the parts in front of the curtains, was covered with a thick layer of dirt reflecting the flyblown intrigues and mudslinging nobody could evade. Furthermore, it was a sign for the downfall of the political system. The actors did not just wade through the mud, but they incorporated it into their performance. When Richard forces Lady Anne to kiss him in the first act, she smudges dirt on her lips to illustrate her unwillingness to kiss him. Later in the play King Edward forces the rivalling groups to conclude peace. As Queen Elizabeth is not keen on doing so, she rubs her hand with mud before shaking hands, making her rejection visible.

Another brilliant part of the stage design was the rain which fell three times during the play. Right at the beginning before Richard’s opening soliloquy, in the middle of the play when Richard waits for his ally Buckingham, excellently played by Stefan Eichberg, to return from the gathering with the mayor, and during Richmond’s final monologue after the battle. The rain in the first scene is accompanied by a huge wall of artificial fog, creating a mystique atmosphere and placing the play into a typically English setting. Moreover, as the fogs spreads out into the auditorium, it connects the audience with Richard who is laying out his devious plans to usurp the throne. Using rain in the first and the last scene, links the beginning to the end. Thus, it creates the illusion as if nothing has changed and therefore undermines Richmond’s promise of salvation for England.

The costumes of the actors had mainly dark colors and fitted the gloomy atmosphere of the play very well. The male actors wore suits with ties, and short rubber boots, based on the muddy surface. Richard contrasted with their polished appearance, as his shirt was unbuttoned, and his hair uncombed. Additionally, all male characters, had a nametag which was attached to their back with Velcro, creating a military look and helping the audience to distinguish the roles. Whenever somebody was killed, their nametag was removed and stapled to the large portal at the center of the back of the stage. By that, the loss of identity was symbolized and as the nametags accumulated throughout the play, the large number of Richard’s victims became clearly visible. The only character with a different colored nametag was Richmond who wore a red vest and tag. The red color can be interpreted in several different ways. It can stand for a new bloodline, or the color of Kings. However, it is also possible that it goes back to the French origin of his name “rouge monde”, which includes the French word “rouge” for red.

The success of this play typically stands and falls with the performance of the main character. Oliver Firit played a cynical, mischievous, cold and calculating Richard. He was portrayed with a hunchback, a limp, and a crippled left hand in a brown leather glove attached to his body with a small chain. Thus, Richard still had a healthy right hand enabling him to hold a sword and swear an oath. Firit used his deformity purposefully and played with the hatred target at him. In the scene with the mayor, he lets his deformed hand drop on the mayor’s shoulder and forces him to kiss it to complete the oath. This enforces Richard’s calculating behavior and shows how he uses his deformity for his purposes. The actor manages to fascinate the audience, make them laugh and to create a close bond, which results in empathy towards him.

The scene which stands out in Vornam’s production is the one with the ghosts, set at the night before the final battle. Richard and Richmond are alone on the stage, sleeping in two lounge chairs at the opposite sides of the stage. Blue light effects, artificial fog and low-pitched sounds create a threatening atmosphere. The big portal at the back opens, and first only several white hands are visible, though slowly the pale-looking ghosts appear wearing long white gowns. They chorus their curses and blessings, and synchronically turn their gaze to the one who is addressed. Additionally, either Richard or Richmond are illuminated by the spotlight. The performance of this scene was very impressive and created a spooky and mysterious atmosphere which was supported by the sound and light effects. Thus, it justified Richard’s mental breakdown after waking up.

Even though the overall production earns high recognition, some parts could need improvement. The final battle between Richard and Richmond was very short, and almost non-existent. It appeared as if the cast had run out of time. As this is such an essential part of the play, allowing it more time would better reflect its importance. Though, Lady Anne, played by Stella Goritzki, seemed convincing and strong in her first appearances, her performance deteriorated throughout the play, as she was always extremely furious and did not show a wider range of emotions. A character with various emotions would have been more persuading.

All in all, the clever stage design and its brilliant incorporation into the performance supported the already great actors and concluded in an overall brilliant production. Especially, the excellent performance of Richard and his calculating use of his deformity helped the success of the play. Even though, Vornam’s production was fairly long, with almost three hours, it did not seem lengthy but was rather dynamic, moving from one intrigue to the next, and showed how a Shakespeare’s play from the 16th century can be performed in a thrilling, entertaining and modern way.

3. Scholarly Exposition

3.1 Introduction

When thinking of Early Modern Theatre, the Globe is one of the first things that come to mind, being “an icon of English dramatic and literary history and one of the most famous buildings in the world” (Cohen 209) . The outdoor playhouse, built by the company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men of which Shakespeare was a member, opened in 1599 and was located at the south bank of the River Thames in London. Even though, many of the company’s performances took place there, this was not the only location they used for staging Shakespeare’s plays. By 1611, the company, which was now called the King’s Men, also performed in the indoor playhouse Blackfriars, at court or in private houses by invitation. Additionally, the company went touring through the country. As the actors performed in many different locations, they had to adapt the staging of the play to the changing circumstances. (cf. Sofer 564)

The aim of this scholarly exposition is to give a brief introduction into how the various places of performances affected the use of properties on the Early Modern Stage. After introducing the two main playhouses of Shakespeare’s company the King’s Men, the Globe and the Blackfriars, the properties commonly used by the players will be examined.

3.2 The Globe

The concept which highly affected the construction of the Globe dates back to 1567. This year, James Burbage and his brother-in-law build a ring of galleries around a stage in Stepney to separate the stage from outside viewers and to make the spectators pay before seeing a play. Up to this date, travelling companies, performing in marketplaces, had to walk through the audience to collect money with a hat and the bystanders could pay the amount they pleased. By the end of the 16th century plays performed for money were very popular and the opening of a play was a public event. Thus, many playhouses were constructed during this period, for instance, in the years 1575 and 1576 three open-air amphitheaters and two indoor theatres were built in London. All outdoor playhouses which were erected between 1567 and 1629, including the Globe, shared certain characteristics. One of them was a raised stage in the central yard which was surrounded on three sides by the standing spectators. Furthermore, the central yard did not have a ceiling, however the stage as well as the galleried seating around the yard was roofed. Thus, the more expensive seats were located further away from the stage. As the plays took place during daylight and the audience was very close to the stage, they were fully visible for the actors, leading to an interactive process in which the players directly addressed the spectators who in return loudly expressed their opinion on the actions on stage. Even though, the Globe was a great playhouse to entertain the masses, it was only used in the summertime because of the weather conditions in the colder months. Hence, the companies needed an indoor location for their performances in winter. (cf. Gurr 186ff)

3.3 The Blackfriars

The King’s Men regularly staged plays at the Blackfriars, the “first purpose-built indoor theater in the English-speaking world” (Cohen 209). Although it was also the early modern theater with the highest profit, it is not as well-known as the Globe. This is caused by the romance which is connected to the open-air theater, as well as the fact that most of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed at the Globe. (cf. Cohen 209) Furthermore, the indoor playhouses simply had less capacity, leading to higher prices and access only for the rich (Gurr 188). The Blackfriars was located on the property of a former Dominican monastery and got its name from the friar’s black robes. In 1596 James Burbage purchased the frater, the dining hall and parliament chamber of the friars, as well as several rooms from the priory. This large indoor space probably measured 30 meters in length and 15 meters in width. Additionally, it had a high ceiling, allowing Burbage to erect two galleries on the side walls, similar to the construction of the Globe. Likewise, the stage of the Blackfriars was also raised and surrounded by the audience on three sides. However, the main difference was that the large central space was filled with rows of seating and the dependence on artificial light. (cf. Cohen 209ff)


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Performing Shakespeare. The Use of Properties in Early Modern Performances
University of Würzburg
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Julia Holleber (Author), 2019, Performing Shakespeare. The Use of Properties in Early Modern Performances, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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