The Play's The Thing

When I was around 10, my parents took me to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see a Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Twelfth Night in an effort to get me exposed to plays and especially Shakespeare before going through the trauma of secondary school English Literature lessons. I ended up going there several times with them and my school to see Romeo & Juliet, The Merchant Of Venice, All's Well That Ends Well, Sheridan's Rivals, Henry IVi, and many others.

Now  that I live in London, I've continued to see plays old and new by the National Theatre, Royal Court, RSC, Almeida, and many others.... and I find that it stretches the part of my brain that I use for editing in a most pleasing way.

The Editing Process

During the course of becoming familiar with certain works - especially Shakespeare - a certain amount of work not dissimilar to film editing becomes apparent. The works of Shakespeare themselves are published in many different versions even whilst Shakespeare was still alive, and any given production may use aspects of a certain quarto or folio. The recent RSC run of Hamlet directed by Greg Doran moved the "To be or not to be" soliloquy back significantly to the first time we see Hamlet after he has conversed with the ghost of his father, having discovered that it made more sense for their interpretation to follow the first quarto version at that point rather than placing it in the more traditional place between the arrival of The Players and their performance. They also chose to end the play as Fortinbras entered after the death of Hamlet, rather than fully concluding that particular political sub-plot.

Audience Engagement

See any modern production of a  play more than once in the same run which involves the same cast (more on that later), and the chances are that you'll notice some differences - even if you can't exactly pinpoint what they were. Changes can be made during previews and even the run according to audience response - much like test screenings for films. Even one night to the next, audiences will react differently (and often unexpectedly) to lines and events, and the mark of a really good company is in how they'll adapt to their audience response and make the evening even more memorable for those who are there.

Choice of seat can also have a marked effect on the experience a member of the audience will have. A balcony seat at the end of a row 100 feet away from a proscenium arch stage can imitate an extreme long over-shoulder shot for the duration of a pivotal conversation, whereas a centre stalls seat a few rows back can be an optimal position from which to choose whose reactions to monitor -  a sort of self-edit. A thrust stage side-on view can almost place an audience into the play itself, whilst a round situated below audience level gives an eerie uncomfortable CCTV feel to an audience witnessing scenes which become even more intensely private.


The most recent RSC production of Hamlet made the headlines in 2008 for the speed in which the London run (taking place after many months in the RSC's home of Stratford-upon-Avon) sold out once the tickets went on public sale. This was largely due to the casting of David Tennant in the title role, rather well known for being in Doctor Who since 2005 - and generally seen by many as a good time to introduce the wider public to Shakespeare because of the casting.

Then, during the run, he got sick. Several weeks of a severely limited run were led by the understudy Edward Bennett. People still went, although empty seats were very noticeable in stark contrast to the lines outside the theatre overnight waiting for returns when Tennant was still in the role. Accusations of 'star casting' had been largely vindicated by the press once the play had opened in Stratford (as I knew they would be, having seen him on stage several times in the past), but I took the opportunity to see the difference that casting can make.

In the RSC, when a lead player is ill and their understudy takes their place, it tends to have a knock-on effect amongst the entire cast. The understudy for Hamlet was playing Laertes in the same piece, the understudy for Laertes was playing Guildenstern, the understudy for Guildenstern was part of the general ensemble in the play, and on and on until there are just scenes with fewer people than there generally should be and someone with twice as many lines. I've seen understudy performances before, when Frances Barber was ill during the London run of Ian McKellen's King Lear... but having seen this Hamlet in Stratford I was able to compare between the two characters.

The results were interesting. Ed Bennett had had relatively little stage experience prior to 2008, and certainly not within the context of such a leading role on a West End stage. And whilst the performance was consciously different, it still had to fit in with the remaining cast who were still playing their usual roles - notably Gertrude, Claudius, Horatio, Polonius, Ophelia - as well as the staging extensively rehearsed by all and the motivations worked out by the company in rehearsal.

Ultimately, I was quite surprised by how different the characterisation turned out to be within the constraints mentioned above. A fairly different relationship with Claudius largely communicated by eye contact and posture, a more subdued form of madness with less conveyed via physical comedy, and success with humour within entirely different parts of the script. Of course, whilst understudies lack the chance to rehearse as much as the principals OR adjust the aspects of performance to entirely suit their own preferences, there was still the sense of watching two actors play the same role with the same director and external circumstances. Different performances will always suit different tastes, but the points at which they took control of the stage or passed it over to other characters were varied enough to be significant.

So when this transfers to the medium of video, it can never be enough to cut between actors just because of the lines they're saying.That's editing by numbers, and more than usually following a set format of  'line, cut, line, cut' ... potentially with some variation. Performance is so key. With a really good actor who's embodying the role and properly thinking about their motivations, their footage can be both a great signpost to appropriate editing decisions within the context of the story that their rushes are telling - as well as a joy to work with. A different actor in that role - even with the same director, motivation, surrounding cast - should result in a different edit, just as much as two editors would never edit the same scene in the exact same way or two concert pianists would never perform a sonata with the same emotional level at the same points.