“In the brave squares”: The Show Must Go Online

Stabbing scene from The Show Must Go Online's Julius Caesar

One of the lasting achievements of the extended COVID quarantine will surely be an extraordinary archive of the complete works of William Shakespeare performed on Zoom by casts from around the world, under the umbrella title The Show Must Go Online (TSMGO).

Co-creators Robert Myles and Sarah Peachey, who have backgrounds in Shakespeare and innovative technologies, were the first out of the gate with what some have called “lockdown Shakespeare,” recognizing in mid-March that any pending quarantine would undoubtedly last for quite a while. When London theater closures were announced on March 16, The Show Must Go Online was already in rehearsal for its first online production, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which performed two days later. Every week since then, TSMGO has produced a full Zoom production of one Shakespeare play a week, in the order in which they were written (as listed by Wikipedia), featuring actors gathered from multiple time zones on six of the seven continents.

Zoom Shakespeare is not everybody’s preferred medium (certainly not mine), but during this year’s quarantine, each Wednesday night performance (at 7pm London time) has been appointment viewing for people in over sixty countries. TSMGO has been particularly popular for those typically excluded from the traditional theater experience, such as neurodiverse audiences who are overwhelmed by a live performance environment, and critically-ill patients in hospitals or similar isolation who have been able to share the experience online with family members they’re unable to share space with in person.

Each play is judiciously trimmed to eliminate racist and intolerant language that doesn’t serve a thematic purpose, as well as some Latin and obscure allusions to Greek and Roman myths. With few exceptions, the actors read their speeches, but with such commitment that questions from “the groundlings” in the YouTube chat window frequently include the classic, “How do they memorize all those lines?!

To underscore the point that Shakespeare is for everyone, TSMGO reached out to underrepresented groups and performers on all levels of experience to work alongside professionals from around the world, including veterans of the RSC in Stratford, Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre in London, and Broadway and the West End. With a commitment to gender parity in its casting, no women’s roles are cut; in fact, one of the signature features of TSMGO is women playing kings and warriors with great ferocity. Actors come together from opposite sides of the planet, creating such wonderful pairings as a London-based Troilus sharing a bed with a Cressida half a world away in South Africa; and a Kate and Petruchio taming each other from their respective homes in Australia and Los Angeles.

Troilus and Cressida in The Show Must Go Online's production

Full disclosure: Wanting to be of service to this fledgling enterprise, I played Cardinal Pandulph in the TSMGO production of King John and witnessed TSMGO’s process first-hand. I quickly agreed to do two more productions (As You Like It and Troilus and Cressida) because I was so impressed by TSMGO’s focus on textual clarity and ways in which meaning can be conveyed through creative staging on this new platform. Since most of us “no practice [have] in the brave squares of” Zoom, I was astounded by how TSMGO found ways to break the format’s barriers and create imaginative solutions to technical challenges.

For instance, a fight scene in one of the early Henry VI plays was accomplished by cutting to two stunt performers who were quarantined together, but by the time TSMGO reached Richard II, they were able to arrange the Zoom windows so the lances of Mowbray and Bolingbroke were lined up facing each other. Arthur’s leap from the battlements in King John was filmed live using both the actor’s laptop and phone cameras, so that when Arthur “jumped,” he fell in slow motion towards the “Ground” camera (while the stage manager turned off the laptop camera), accompanied by dramatic sound effects. Similarly, both the drowning of Clarence in Richard III and the assassination of Julius Caesar were accomplished by cutting to separate camera feeds posing as, respectively, “Malmsey-Butt” and “Knives”. And the wrestling match in As You Like It was both exciting and (as you can see) funny.

Wrestling scene in The Show Must Go Online's production of As You Like It

One spectacular surprise of TSMGO is the remarkable intimacy it achieves. It turns out that Shakespearean asides and soliloquies gain additional power when spoken in extreme close-up, and other moments — such as Bernardo and Marcellus confronting old King Hamlet’s ghost with a Blair Witch Project-like intensity, or Oliver assisting “Ganymede” in As You Like It and inadvertently discovering “his” secret — grab the viewer’s focus and emphasis in ways they frequently don’t onstage.

The Show Must Go Online archives will remain on YouTube in perpetuity as a resource for future students and Shakespeare newcomers alike. Anyone reading a Shakespeare play for the first time, especially the rarely-performed ones that have no easily-available film adaptations, will be able to hear the words leap off the page as they read along, as well as glean insights from a diverse array of academics who preface each performance with a 10-15 minute introduction.

And personally, I’d love to have TSMGO’s unofficial motto on a t-shirt: “Shakespeare for everyone. For free. Forever.”

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