Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to participate in a read-through of the text that the RSC will be using for their production of Arden of Faversham later this year. The play, printed in 1592, tells of the various attempts made by Alice to kill her husband Arden so that she can be with her lover Mosby. Ultimately, she succeeds, but not after many bungled attempts by (among others) the brigands Shakebag and Black Will, a painter who claims to make pictures that kill all who look on them, and Alice herself. The various twists and turns of the plot take us from Faversham in Kent to London and back again, and at each step reveal more and more of the deeper problems in the play: the lover Mosby resents being treated as a social climber, Arden receives a grant of land but is blind to the suffering his good fortune causes, and Alice, for all her importance in the plot of the play, seems out of place in a world dominated by men.
In order to make the most of the reading, the director and dramaturg lined up twelve chairs in a row in front of the audience’s seats. Everyone then sat down looking at these empty chairs, but would rise whenever they were meant to be on stage and go occupy one of them. This gave a sense of how much traffic there would be coming on and going off at different times, as well as how much the audience would get to see of characters who said little.
I was reading Mosby, which meant quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, but still left time to observe the other readers. There was lots to see, for even though we were all reading, and had only to stand up, move and sit down, there was a discernible urge to act in the room. When the person reading Alice spoke the lines declaring her love to Mosby, she fixed me briefly in the eye. Whenever I came on stage, I (as Mosby) tended to sit as near to ‘Alice’ and as far from the guy playing Arden as I could. If there was a quick entry or exit, some of the readers would deliver their lines half-way to the chairs, and orientate their bodies so as to both speak to the audience and to their interlocutor.
I could go on with this list, but I wanted to write this blog post as a short testament to how little is needed for a performance. I am completely certain that this reading of a draft script was also a performance, and am especially so for how the peculiar situation still had the ability to activate the instincts and techniques of theatre. Of course, I am far from the first person to realise this, and I guess all this post does is give evidence that on a rainy day in a bare, underground drama studio in Cambridge, Peter Brook was proved right:
I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.