Cutting Shakespeare

Paul Barnes
Producing Director
Great River Shakespeare Festival

A couple of months ago someone posted a question on the GRSF blog site
wanting to know how we go about cutting Shakespeare’s plays. Directing and travel have prevented me from offering a thoughtful response, so my apologies for seeming to ignore the request. I’ve got enough time now to serve up what I hope will be a helpful answer.

There’s no doubt about it: Shakespeare’s plays are long (Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors being the notable exceptions), and there’s also no doubt that we’re all held hostage to contemporary attention spans, babysitting needs, and various pressures that seem to impose a three-hour limit to any play-going experience these days, Shakespearean or otherwise. Many theatres, in fact, often ask directors to do their best to adhere to a two-and-a-half-hour run time (including intermission, in some cases!), so that audiences are on their way home at what they consider a civilized hour without having had too much demanded of them. The Utah Shakespearean Festival suggests a 2800 maximum line count for its productions, usually guaranteeing that a play will come to its conclusion in two hours and forty-five minutes, including a fifteen minute break.

We’re not that strict at Great River, and several of our 10 main stage season productions to date have clocked in at a robust three-hour playing time (with intermission). But we’re committed to a thorough examination of the text and to building confidence among our audiences that not only can they comfortably endure a “long sit” in the theatre, they are also completely capable of comprehending Shakespeare’s plays, no matter their length, providing we do our work specifically, clearly, and compellingly. We strive for absorbing productions in which people can become fully immersed and blissfully unaware of the passage of time, whatever the particular running length.

At the same time, it has never been our mission to produce the plays in their entirety without cutting a word; therefore, we cut the scripts as judiciously as is required.

Generally speaking, the first things to go are obscure puns that would have amused Elizabethan audiences but that are lost to us now; we often refer to these as “head-scratching” moments. Second up on the cutting block are references to Elizabethan clothing that is no longer fashionable or even known to us (often referred to as the “Elizabethan panty-hose” jokes). Sometimes we need to absorb or combine roles within a script (where doubling an actor isn’t going to do the trick); we’re a small company and most of Shakespeare’s plays require casts larger in number than the ranks at GRSF – and in so doing, some lines that no longer make sense for the character get trimmed away.

As we cut, we pay strict attention to meter and verse so that we honor and keep in tact lines of iambic pentameter whenever possible. Occasionally we change a word for greater clarity, but those instances are pretty rare. We’re committed to the idea that if an actor is specific when he says “My nyas?” (as Romeo does in the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet), an audience will get the gist of what he means, even if they don’t recognize the word. Likewise, we’re committed to honoring scansion, so when Romeo says “Thou detestable maw,” in Act V, Scene iii, the pronunciation of the word “detestable” adheres to the rhythm of the line:
“Thou DETestable maw. . .”, which may fall on the ear oddly, but for an actor is
often a helpful clue to the character’s emotional or psychological state or, more prosaically, an inadvertent revelation of how the Elizabethans might have pronounced the word. Similarly, we’re pretty convinced that Juliet (and Romeo) need all of the syllables in the word “banished” (“ban-i-shed”) in Act III, Scene ii and Act III, Scene iii of the play, when they learn that the Prince has exiled Romeo for his part in Tybalt’s death. Solid gold for an actor – and a director.

Radical or severe cutting of Shakespeare’s plays often results in what I have come to feel is the “Shakespeare Lite” syndrome – i.e., instances in which so much of the play has been cut away that you’ve eliminated not only the actors’
basic foundation, but the audience’s as well. The play seems to go by in a flurry of interesting but not terribly involving or compelling quick scenes, leaving us with the feeling of “what just happened?!” I’ve directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream a number of times (a surprisingly long script, given its popularity and seeming fleetness), and now whenever I go back to my original cuts, because I’ve come to know the play pretty well through repeated excursions, I’ve come to understand what the cut lines were doing there in the first place – how they reinforce, develop, or, in many cases, help an actor (and an audience) get from “Point A” to “Point D”.

We often ask actors to let us know if in cutting their lines (which directors do, before the company arrives for first rehearsal), we have eliminated essential steps in the development of the character they’re playing or in their part of the story; we also ask them to suggest other lines to be cut (in their own parts) when they suggest restoration of cut lines.

I also think that directors are often afraid to dig into dense or complex passages of Shakespeare’s scripts, and when they come up against knotty sections of a text, the easy choice is to simply cut. At Great River we are committed to a closer, deeper examinations of the scripts, and it’s in these instances that we really dig in. It’s why each of our two main stage productions has its own text coach, and it’s why we spend up to the first full week of rehearsal sitting at the table, as we call it, with dictionaries, Variorums, copies of the Folio, glossaries, and various editions of the text (punctuation vary, depending on editor and publisher) pouring over the words, making comparisons, suggesting periods where a comma might have been used, and agreeing upon what is for us the most specific meaning of a word, a phrase, a verse line, a passage, a scene, and ultimately, the entire play. Many times what we agree upon in a first, second, or third reading of the play changes once we’re up on our feet in staging and working rehearsals. It’s also quite common for an actor to suddenly hit upon an entirely new meaning of a word, a line, a phrase, a verbal exchange, etc. during the run of a production. But it’s in this kind of work that the plays come alive for the actors and, as important, for the audience attending the production.

We believe that if you’re a Shakespeare festival, your first commitment is to language above all else, and we continually remind ourselves that Shakespeare’s plays were performed in broad daylight, without benefit of much stage technology, elaborate costuming, or the other technical elements that can so easily become the focus of a production of his plays in our day and age – with the result being that audiences came to hear a story. GRSF playgoers know by now that we’re not hide-bound historians or traditionalists. We’ve set his plays contemporarily as well as in the Renaissance– and in all sorts of periods in between, including those of our own invention. Regardless of setting, however, our initial commitment is to the text and to clear storytelling. We cut when it helps us achieve a dynamic and compelling production, but we also hold our own feet to the fire and always try to examine and commit to the words before getting rid of them.

I don’t believe I’m smarter than Shakespeare. No matter how many times I direct one of his plays, I always learn something new. I don’t think he needs my “help”; rather, I think it’s my job to prepare thoroughly and thoughtfully and then do my best to follow his lead and keep up with the demanding pace he sets. I’ll cut where necessary, but if I can avoid it – and still deliver a riveting production that keeps people in their seats rather than trying to get out of them – that will always be my preference.

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2 responses to “Cutting Shakespeare

  1. Thanks for going into this in such detail; it’s a fascinating topic. I believe it was Charlton Heston who defended his own redactions by saying he was certain that “even Shakespeare cut Shakespeare.”

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