Step by Step Richard III: from Jessner to Jonjo.

Notes from my presentation on the Study of Shakespeare, YSJU.

Pirchan’s set (c) VRL

Mise, from mettre, to put.  Mise-en-scène, to put into a ‘scene’, or a literal or metaphorical space.  We often equate it with another word, scenography, which refers to the set, costumes, props and even music in a production. How these elements can combine to convey a meaning as powerful as that found in language is evidenced by Emil Pirchan’s iconography for Leopold Jessner’s 1920 Richard III(see Hortmann, 1998, and Kennedy, 1993b).  Jessner and Pirchan were part of the German Expressionist movement, which rejected Realism and decorative art, as they felt these simply upheld the political, social and aesthetic status quo.  Working in the interwar period after the destruction of WWI, and witnessing the rise of facism in Europe,  they instead embraced Abstraction, for as another artist of the era stated:

“I really feel a pressure to create something that is as strong as possible. The war has really swept away everything from the past. Everything seems weak to me and I suddenly see things in their terrible power. I never liked the type of art that was simply appealing to the eye, and I have the fundamental feeling that we need still stronger forms, so strong, that they can withstand the force of the crazed masses.”
(Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, cited in The Art Story)

Or, as Paul Klee would sum up: ‘the more terrible this world, the more abstract our art’ (cited in Kennedy, 1993b: 83). See Dislocation, Dislocation, Dislocation for more on this.

Looking at the set for the second half of Jessner’s Richard III clearly illustrates this.  Steps dominated the stage.  My students were reminded of pyramids and tombs, monumental images connoting power and death. We then looked at Pirchan’s sketches:

Pirchan: set for the second half of ‘Richard III’

The relationship between the scenography and the bodies of the actors on the stage took on added significance when looked at through Pirchan’s coloured sketch, the only colour image that exists of this part of the production, I believe.

In an interpolated scene (prior to 4.2) Richard ascended the steps slowly for his coronation […] At the top ‘the red of the steps was linked to the red of the sky by the crimson of Richard’s gown,’ Paterson explains, ‘as though an electric charge of evil  had leapt the gap between heaven and earth’. A contemporary critic, Alfred Polger, said that ‘it is as though the sky itself provided a bloody reflection for Richard’s atrocities.’  Pirchan’s design for the scene, showing the violence of this strategy of colour, is the best evidence that the scenography carried much of the burden of the production. (Kennedy, 1993b: p 87)

The version described above became the cover image for the first edition of Kennedy’s Looking at Shakespeare (1993)

(c) Cambridge

Yet mise-en-scène extends beyond the visual surface of the play to embrace all aspects of how the play communicates meaning to its audience. Non-verbal communication includes intonation, timing, expression, gesture, spatial relationships between performers and spatial relationships between performers and the audience (see Leiblien in Kennedy, 1993a). My colleague, Julie Raby, had explored some of these ideas in a previous lecture in relation to the RSC’s recent summer production of Richard III, directed by Roxana Silbert. In this clip students had been particularly impressed with how the actor, Jonjo O’Neill, like a latter-day Vice, had seduced the viewer (and on the stage, the audience) into being complicit in his actions through his direct address.  One student noted the way he walked away, and then turned back on the phrase ‘But I‘.  As he confided in her his sense of being a rejected outsider because of his deformity, his seduction, it seemed, was complete.

Richard III, summer 2012 (c) RSC

If it’s not just the words but the relationship between the words and the body that speaks them, however, that makes the meaning, then O’Neill’s Northern Irish accent as Richard was significant because it made a statement about ownership of ‘the Bard’ both on the part of the actor, who is Northern Irish, and the RSC, who produced the play. As a visiting American student said to me last year, after he had been praised for his reading aloud, ‘But I don’t sound like Shakespeare – you sound like Shakespeare.’ What if David Tennant had played a Scottish Hamlet? A small choice has big cultural implications.  However, to people in the audience of my age, there may have been another layer of meaning perceived in O’Neill’s rendition, because to anyone who lived in the United Kingdom in the ’70s and ’80s, a Northern Irish accent was inextricably linked through the media to the Troubles. In fact, under Thatcher, the government literally tried to silence certain Republican and Loyalist figures by outlawing the broadcasting of their voices.  Journalists got around this in a surreal manner, so that I grew up with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein routinely dubbed by an actor speaking with a strong Belfast accent. Even if there had been no intended link in the minds of anyone involved in the production, the circumstances of history, and the Othering of certain a certain group through their voices, would still echo on the 21st century English stage.

Finally, with the National Theatre of China’s appropriation of this play during the Globe to Globe season, we’ve seen how  mise-en-scène extends to the language of the translation and the language of the theatre codes of whichever tradition a production is appropriated into.
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