Yalies are dramatic, of course — in every way from Dramat shows to performances in the boudoir. But when it comes to performing Shakespeare, Yale thespians confront our one stumbling block to dramatic authenticity: our glaring lack of English accents.
Fortunately, with its Sept. 12 performance of “Much Ado About Nothing,” the Cambridge University American Stage Tour, a theater group from the University of Cambridge in England, will show us exactly how the Bard meant for his plays to be experienced — stiff British upper-lip included.
CAST traverses the Atlantic every year to perform for audiences across the United States and prior to their trip across the pond, the predominantly undergraduate members of the company invest 11 months in honing their production. In 2004, CAST brought a production of “As You Like It” to Yale.
This year, the British troupe will offer its own take on the Shakespearean comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.” Set shortly after the end of an unnamed war, “Much Ado” depicts two romances: one couple that is almost foiled by the efforts of a jealous conspirator and another that is tricked into admitting their love. Departing from the original play, director Chris Salmon chooses to set the play in autumnal England in 1930 rather than Shakespeare’s setting of Renaissance Italy.
In director’s notes released to the press, Salmon expressed confidence that his decision would not affect the audience’s viewing experience.
“This play’s [relevance] is not dependent on the current political or cultural climate, but instead results from Shakespeare’s uncanny, timeless knowledge of the human heart and mind,” Salmon said. “And as such I felt that the use of Elizabethan costume and set is unnecessary.”
Murray Biggs, a professor in the English and Theater Studies departments who is teaching two courses on Shakespeare this semester, warned that simply moving “Much Ado” to a familiar point in time does not alleviate the challenging, unusually prose-heavy nature of the play. He pointed to “Much Ado’s” reliance on Elizabethan humor, which may draw blank stares from contemporary audiences.
“There’s nothing that dies so fast as the topical witticism,” Biggs said. “Directors have to decide how to play some of these lines in the here and now, and their choice is to try to make the lines work as they are or to cut them.”
In addition to streamlining dialogue, Biggs pointed out that touring productions often design lighting and sets for optimal mobility. Ellena Spyrides, the show’s production designer, and Andrew Sobala, the show’s lighting designer, acknowledged these concerns in a press release.
Spyrides said simplicity was key when designing the set.
“I did not want to create anything that would be too specific, intrusive or distracting, but that would be … versatile and easy to transport,” she said.
Spyrides cited the flexibility of a garden where most of the play’s action takes place. Elements of that set, such as a bench, were designed so that rotating them gave the illusion of different parts of the garden.
Sobala said the constraints of a touring production have made both designing and setting up lighting more hectic than if the play were located in one venue.
“As a result of the tight schedule, the design has to achieve its requirements whilst staying as simple as possible,” Sobala said.
In spite of the added obstacles of staging a mobile production, CAST will arrive at Yale with great expectations on its side. Biggs was quick to praise Cambridge for its reputation in the theater community — without detracting from the drama staged by students closer to home, of course.
“Cambridge is known for the quality of its undergraduate productions,” Biggs said. “It’s not the only place, of course. Yale is, too.”