What Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company taught me about minimalism
Last Friday night we went to see a production of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company‘s “Comedy of Errors.”
It was — without a doubt — the best I have ever seen.
I mean best play ever, not just best Shakespearean play ever.
The play is funny — about long-lost identical twins and mistaken identities, full of puns and innuendo and wordplay, always good for a laugh. And it’s funny how bawdiness never seems to lose its punch. I mean, we were laughing at sex jokes that were more than four centuries old.
The Bard is awesome that way. Or people don’t change much. Or both.
But I digress. What was really amazing that night wasn’t the set.
They had one. Just one.
It wasn’t the costumes (though they were pretty) — most of the characters wore a single costume, with a couple of accessories switched out on occasion.
It wasn’t the props — most could be found in a toy shop for less than $10.
It wasn’t how many skilled actors they had.
As it turns out, they had fewer actors than there were roles in the play.
In fact, most of their actors played more than one character.
Even when those characters were on stage together AT THE SAME TIME.
The actors in these roles (primarily the main characters of Antipholus and Dromio, the respective names of two sets of identical twins) had to switch back and forth between roles, with only a change of physical location and a simple prop (putting on or taking off spectacles or a hat) to provide the visual cues that they were switching characters.
On the surface, this sounds difficult and lame. I mean, c’mon, why not just get a more sophisticated set, or a couple more actors?
But then we would not have seen what amazing actors they were.
At the drop of a hat, both actors could completely change character. One Antipholus became the other Antipholus with a slouch of the shoulders and a change of expression. One Dromio could become the other Dromio with a straightening of his spine and a change in how he walked, or the tone of his voice. And they could do this, back and forth and back and forth, dozens of times. Fast. Sometimes, they would be one character, then another, then back to the first character, in a span of five seconds.
It was transfixing to watch.
I realized: There is a higher level of acting here than I have ever seen before. This was a world where the skills of the actors were so acute, so developed, so facile, that it was perfectly reasonable to expect that one actor could be two characters, and switch back and forth between them with heretofore unthinkable fluency and power. There was no need for extra sets, or extra actors. They become superfluous when skill is present.
Is this not minimalism at its finest? When we find that through the development of skill, thought, and discipline we can remove what is really not necessary, even if those things we are letting go of appear to most to be quite necessary?
Before this show, I would never have considered the possibility that you could have one actor be two characters who were onstage at the same time, and have it work.
After the show, I now have a new standard by which to judge acting. I will look at the cast, at the props, at the set, at the costumes and wonder — are they good enough to do it with less?
It was a magical evening, to be in the presence of a theatre company that didn’t let the theatre get in the way of its actors. It was amazing to see, and exhilarating to watch.
And if you ever, ever, ever have the chance to see this group — Shakespeare’s Globe — perform anything, anywhere —