Shakespeare on the Factory Floor

Andrew Hilton
Nick Hern Books

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Shakespeare on the Factory Floor by Andrew Hilton Credit: Nick Hern Books

What an illuminating book this is, one that challenges us to come to Shakespeare’s plays as if for the first time, stripping away plot familiarity and pre-conceived notions of character. Why, for example, is Lady Macbeth stereotypically portrayed as a ruthlessly ambitious woman, even physically characterised as “tallish, thinnish and a little sharp-featured, her hair… either raven-black or a dark red”? What if we look not for fixed personality traits but to the sexual dynamics of an intense but childless marriage? Doesn’t this then allow the play to unfold with opportunistic fluidity, its tragic outcome so much more shocking for its lack of inevitability?

This was the thrust of Andrew Hilton’s approach to directing Macbeth in 2004 and to nearly two decades of seasons with Bristol-based company Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (STF) between 2000 and 2018. And almost until the end, it resulted in a freshness and immediacy so often lacking in other (often more renowned and better-funded) contemporaneous productions.

Shakespeare on the Factory Floor is born out of these years of tenure, as well as Hilton’s previous experience in teaching and acting. Drawing on academic sources, filled with close textual analysis but essentially practical, it is described as “a handbook for actors, directors and designers”. As well as examining the misery—albeit not preordained—of evil in Lady Macbeth and King Lear’s Goneril, Hilton also breaks down assumptions in his search for underlying themes and meanings. With plays such as The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and As You Like It, traditionally performed with frivolity and lightness, he argues that they should not be staged as simple slapstick, but rather flensed to uncover the serious motivations of characters who “mean what they say and say what they mean”.

Hilton sees “the word as deed”: words have consequences and once uttered can never be fully retracted. Yet while he argues for “scrupulous listening and obedience to the text” in some instances, he explains why he’s also not afraid to make emendations, change the order of scenes (in his 2014 As You Like It, for example) and even insert words where necessary for clarity to a modern audience. In Measure for Measure, Hilton’s long-term collaborator Dominic Power provided a new scene of some fifty lines in which the Duke, substituting for Friar Thomas, hears Mariana’s confession—an insertion so in keeping that it went unremarked by audience and critics alike.

This approach, combined with changes to settings and periods, so often allowed a twenty-first century audience to understand the nuances of social hierarchies and constraints that might otherwise be lost to them. This was enhanced by the intimate, in-the-round setting of the Factory Theatre, with staging and props at a minimum, and every actor’s expression seen in close-up. Many an A Level student emerged from an STF production with a clearer understanding of the play’s dynamics—but there would be insights for the wider audience too, no matter how many times they might already have seen it.

Hilton’s approach is highly collaborative: STF was a company without established stars but with a roll call of talented cast and creatives—both regular and new—joining forces to bring a production to fruition. That’s not to say that all decisions, however thoroughly examined, necessarily achieved what was intended: Hilton outlines in some detail the textual and psychological choices he and the company made for his 2016 version of Hamlet. And yet these resulted in a production that seemed more solid than inspiring, as though over-consideration had dulled some of its essential vitality.

This was a rare exception, though, to the success of a process both analytical and practical that paid dividends over the years. Shakespeare on the Factory Floor is a wonderful starting point for practitioners: a stripping back of superfluous assumptions to the core structures of character and word, as well as a testament to the quality of theatre that Bristol audiences enjoyed for so many years.

Reviewer: Claire Hayes