All entries for Sunday 01 March 2009

March 01, 2009

Thomas Middleton's 'A Game at Chess' Symposium

Thomas Middleton is one of the most important dramatists for my studies, being author or part-author of several plays that have, at one time or another, been part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha. While there is no dispute about the authorship of his final play, A Game at Chess (we even, rarely, have a manuscript of the play in his hand), a symposium on this play is still of significant interest, particularly when it aims to combine academic scholarship with theatre practice.

A team of eighteen actors had worked for two weeks prior to the symposium on A Game at Chess, each taking multiple roles and working with directors from an academic background. While there are hopes for a future production, the rehearsals were specifically geared towards presenting a variety of stagings at this symposium for discussion and experimentation. Actors and academics could then use their respective experiences to discuss the options and further understanding of the play.

It's the kind of work that I've become fairly used to at Warwick, and I fully appreciate its value. However, many of the academics and actors were less used to this kind of collaboration, and much of the event was geared towards showing how the two 'sides' can mutually benefit each other, to no small success. The hope is that this kind of forum can be repeated with other plays, which would be a wonderful thing and I only hope it can work.

The problem, if one can call it that, is that a few hours only lets you scratch the surface of this kind of work. It's something I expressed at one point in the discussion: that what would be particularly fantastic as an academic is to be in the rehearsal room from start to finish. Not to interfere or advise (for that necessarily impacts on the actors' rehearsal process, rarely for the better), but simply to watch and understand the various processes, the experiments with and rejections of various readings, the sheer volume of could-have-beens which are simply not available to an academic who sees only the final performance. The symposium offered a variety of alternatives for selected scenes; what would be truly useful, though, would be to see how the final decisions are made. I had experience of this with Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline: we were in for a few days at the very start of rehearsals and then, months later, saw the final performance - but we lost the processses that had taken them from one to the other, and thus could never know the decisions that were taken and the things that were laid aside, only the ultimate effects.

This is, however, an inherent limitation of this kind of day: and for many reasons (not least practical) it's simply not possible to follow an entire process. However, even these few hours brought out many fascinating aspects of the play, which I'll try and briefly encapsulate.

  • Watching actors work intensely on short dialogue scenes brings out the fact that A Game at Chess is, at its heart, a deeply emotional and human play. Criticism and evaluation of the play is swamped by allegory and historical resonance, which is all extremely interesting but often serves to overshadow the heartbreaking individual stories within the play. This was especially true of watching the 'mirror' scene played over and over, as the stories and emotions of the Black Queen's Pawn and White Queen's Pawn were fleshed out and brought to painful life. Theirs is a story of betrayal, lost love, manipulation and carefully balanced risk, as intense as anything in The Changeling or Women Beware Women, and poses fascinating opportunities for actors.
  • Still on the historical note, I felt that there's a danger in the new speech prefixes used by Gary Taylor in the Oxford edition used for the symposium. He 'names' the characters (e.g. Black Knight Gondomar, Jesuitess Black Queen's Pawn etc.). This inevitably led to the actors referring to their characters as the historical figures, e.g. when asked what their purpose was in the final scene, the actors playing the White Knight and White Duke stated that they had come to woo the Infanta. Tying the play in to its historical allegory does make for a rich reading, but also presents the danger of trying to act two different things. I don't feel that you need to preserve the original allusions to make a successful production of this play, and in some ways the anonymity of the characters (Black Knight etc.), while making the play more difficult to read, allows for a variety of different allusions to be placed on it. Alternatively, does a modern production need the allegory at all? If you concentrate on the stories of the individual characters, and use the chess symbolism simply as a way to up the dramatic stakes (for chess is an inherently dramatic device in and of itself), can that not work in its own right? In many ways, what the symposium brought out for me is that you don't need to find allegorical significance to make the play powerful; the power is in the language and internal situations of Middleton's writing.
  • The staging adopted for the workshop turned the stage into a large-scale chessboard on which the characters moved. One thing that we didn't see much of but seemed fascinating was the idea of staging key moments as chess scenes; thus, in the final scene, the White Knight and White Duke actually manouvere themselves into the actual chess positions needed to establish checkmate. I'd love to see this developed further, though remain sceptical about whether this can be done in a way that is clear enough to the audience to make an impact. What definitely worked, though, was having characters move in ways evocative of their piece - so the knights hopped about and moved freely, the dukes and bishops moved in powerful lines, the pawns shuffled forward a bit at a time. If fully realised in production, there could be a wealth of interest come out of this idea.
  • The 'firking' scene, played between three men, made for the most hysterically homoerotic sequence I've ever seen on a stage, and yet also hinted at darkness. This black comedy ran throughout much of the workshop, and I'd suggest that this is one of the most compelling reasons to take this work on to a full production.
  • Themes that kept recurring through the various scenes were power and manipulation, and the experiments with status in the different versions of scenes were hugely effective. As the Black Knight and Fat Bishop manipulated the Black Knight's Pawn, the relationship between Knight and Bishop shifted enormously; when the Knight was powerful, the Bishop became a rather dull character, but when given authority the Bishop became hugely dangerous and more than a match for his rival.
  • Finally, the bag. While I'd naturally imagined a trap being used for the bag of hell into which the black pieces are finally condemned (I'd love to see, in an expensive production, the entire chess board collapsing into it), here members of the company contorted themselves into a writhing, hissing mass of bodies that engulfed the pieces. This image of shifting bodies worked particularly well; however, it hinted at a thoroughly more physical production than the symposium had time to go into. To bring in that level of physicality to a production would be hugely interesting, and perhaps work well with the overarching sense of manipulation that comes with any chess game - for, of course, there is always someone moving the pieces.

The symposium was certainly of use and interest in helping visualise and bring out the strengths of A Game at Chess. It seems a shame for the work to end here, and a full production seems the next natural step. It's the kind of work that funding bodies need to support, and one can only hope that a fuller academic/theatrical collaborative project might be born from this. In itself, though, a lovely event.


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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