'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'
Some actors and directors study past performances, and others focus purely on the text. Whichever approach is taken, each production of a Shakespeare play must be a new reading of the text, yet may also be an old reading of the text. New because even revivals of productions just a few months or years old are unlikely to be a perfect replica of the original; old because even directors who do not knowingly borrow from past productions will end up doing so without being aware of it. Moreover, directors who think they are borrowing from the past must inevitably also add something from the here and now, and yet, what seems new could end up being as old as the hills, a universal response to something in the text.
In 2005, as part of its public dissemination remit, the CAPITAL Centre commissioned a series of brief histories of individual plays as performed by the RSC between 1961 and 2005. The material on this website is built on those first drafts. Even if time stopped today, catching up with performance history for all of Shakespeare's plays would be like painting the Forth Bridge - and so, the expectation is that a team of people, among them the Warwick MA students taking Performance in History with Professor Carol Rutter, will work on these performance histories over a period of time. The first intrepid mountaineer was Julie Hudson (MA Class of 2010), who focused on some of the history plays, building on the work of the team that worked on the first drafts: Penelope Freedman (Much Ado about Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, Cymbeline, Pericles), Maria Jones (Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II, All's Well that Ends Well), Clare Smout (The Winter's Tale, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Timon of Athens), Jan Sewell (Troilus and Cressida, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry VIII) and Karin Brown who did the rest.
Taking a cue from the Shakespeare in Performance series (Manchester University Press), the thinking behind the web-based histories is to see the ultimate question in the context of performance history as ‘how a play achieves meaning for a particular audience’ (Mulryne, Bulman & Shewring, p.1) Performance history may be of interest for any number of reasons – literary, dramaturgical, cultural, philosophical or even plain historical. Whatever the specific angle of attack the real issue is to try and understand what it was about the specific ‘convergence of material [and other] conditions [that helped] to shape a performance’. The message in any given production starts with the perspective of the director and production team (or, in an earlier era, the actor-manager and contributors); but it also relies on specifics such as the composition and chemistry of the acting company, the skills and experience of the individual actors, and the several determinants of stage setting and design. All of these will be affected in different ways by the ‘historical, political and social’ contexts that will also condition audience and critical reaction.
The material presented about each of the plays in historical performance on this website is arranged under the following headings: Meaning and Context in Summary and Performance Chronology in Brief; Impact; Acting Performance and Casting; Director’s Cut; Design and Set; and Who Did What, When and Where, further explained under 'Structure' at the link to the left. Under each of these headings, information about selected productions is summarized and briefly discussed. The aim is to present enough information to deliver an understanding of what gave any given production of the relevant play its particular message, with enough structure to allow particular strands of performance history (such as context, casting, or set) to be tracked through time.