Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Staging and Subtext

Staging is one of the most important aspects of theatre that is rarely touched upon in our discussions. More often than not we focus on the words on a page and give little thought to how the players use the space of the stage to layer these words with meaning. These actions are left more room for interpretation, and part of the reason we don’t talk about them is that they are left up to the discretion of the director producing each individual production. Film productions extend even more power, because the director can not only control the staging of the players, but even time itself. Through editing the director is allowed to extend time itself, breaking up monologue over different periods, changing location, even adding subtle subtext between the characters themselves. I was particularly inspired by the film adaption that we watched in class, and the bulk of this post will focus on an analysis of the differences between the words on the page and the image on screen.
Iago’s speech that sews the seeds of ruin is an interesting one. On stage, it is only a moment, and yet as we discussed in class, it careens the action into the realm of tragedy. It accomplishes this over the span of about 50 lines. On the page, and thus the stage, this reading is incredibly short. It depends greatly on the skill of the actor to convey this convincely to the audience. On the page, it requires the reader to suspend disbelief, robbed of the chance to be swept up by the skill of the actor. However, performed well this speech will captivate the audience.
When performed on the screen, this monologue can be broken up. In the version presented in class, the speech was chopped over several scenes, with an unknown amount of time between each segment. Indeed, the staging within the segments was loaded with subtext. Othello and Iago were doing battle in a courtyard, physically foreshadowing their verbal sparring to come. Then later, Othello points a loaded gun at Iago to coerce his lines out of him. This fundamentally changes the intention of the scene. Instead of relying on the power of the actor, such an arrangement allows the editor the ability to add back some believability to the scene, but at what cost. The chief problem is that by extending the scene out from one speech to a speech across several scenes is that you introduce extended time that Shakespeare did not intend into the play. What are the other characters doing, for instance? What has happened to Othello besides Iagos prompting that might affect his mental state? By extending the scene out the editor subtly introjects these ideas into the audiences mind, even if they’re not aware of them.
Not to say one way is better than another, but it seems to me that the editing gives way to much liberty to the director, more than usual. It adds some structural problems, and all and all weakens the scene.

2 comments:

Christina Lee said...

The flow of time and staging is really an important aspect that I am glad that you had decided to discuss. I agree with your sentiment of how the wrong type of staging, or carrying a scene to another scene and prolonging that scene creates this time gap that leaves the audience wondering of the other characters and the actual flow of time in the play. One of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths is his subtle but direct delivery of the texts in a short amount of time. The speed in which the texts are delivered such as, as you had pointed out, Iago’s short but effective speech that plants the seed of doubt, is a short speech. It is supposed to be delivered as fast as well. But in the movie it just keeps going on and on, to the point in which you lose a lot of the realistic feel of the text and situation. Staging the speech to be delivered in such a short amount of time brings home the fact of how manipulative Iago truly is, how cunning he is and the brillance that he exhibits to effect Othello this much in such a short amount of time. The film drags this on and on and I truly began to doubt the brilliance of Iago.

Clifford Venho said...

Dear Joshua,

Some very keen observations here. Your study is thorough and thoughtful and I agree with your conclusion as to the overall effectiveness of this technique in the film adaptation. Besides making awkward transitions which the dialogue isn’t structured to handle, the elongation (as you noted) seems to pull one out of the drama of the scene with questions like “What is everyone else doing while this happens?” Ultimately, I think the desire to somehow authenticate Othello’s jealousy by stretching out its evolution both spatially and temporally gave way to fissures in the flow of the drama that might end up disengaging a perceptive audience. The pros of the technique, then, seem to be outweighed by its cons, especially considering the potency of the scene when it stands on its own.

By the way, on the subject of how space/time plays out in staging, you might want to take a look at this interview with Korean stage-director Oh Tae-suk. His insights are fascinating:

http://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/blog/2011/10/01/interview-of-oh-tae-suk-korean-director/