February 6, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Running times

While investigating the RSC’s new production of Othello (which I’m seeing tonight), I flicked onto the RSC site and saw that the running time for the production is three and a half hours. I won’t lie to you – my heart sank. I’ve realised that, over the last year or so, I’ve become far more excited by the idea of short productions than long ones.

That’s mostly for practical reasons – when you’re running for the last train after a production, you appreciate every spare minute you get (and I hate leaving during the curtain call, it seems to me to be the height of rudeness). However, once you start considering a production’s running time, it does beg the question: How long should a Shakespeare play be?

There’s no fast and loose answer, of course. I’ve seen Hamlets ranging from fifty minutes to three and a half hours that have both been excellent. It’s what you do with the time, rather than the time itself, that’s most important, and a dreary two hour production will seem infinitely longer than a well-conceived three hour version. However, it’s notable that most major productions (and I’m looking at you, RSC) default to a three to three-and-a-half hour running time, almost regardless of the length of the play. So, for the sake of entertainment (and because I haven’t done a subjective think-piece in a while), let’s look at this a bit further.

How long did plays run in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? The "two hour traffic" mentioned at the start of Romeo is a good hint, but that only applies to that play (if even that). Bartholomew Fair suggests "some two hours and a half, and somewhat more". Once plays began to be written for indoor playhouses as well as the amphitheatres, moreover, running times would doubtless have been extended to allow for act changes, effects and whatnot. Considering the fast pace of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, a modern running time of 3+ hours doesn’t seem unreasonable.

In general terms, I’ve never struggled too much with long productions of Lear or Hamlet. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in seeing decent productions, but I find that those plays sustain interest over an extended period of time. On the other hand, Romeo, Dream and Merchant ALWAYS feel too long to me. With the latter two, this is exaggerated by the double climax – the main plot is over by the fourth act of each, yet there are still extended comic scenes to follow. The late plays are a different matter – the structures are so complex, with so many miniature conclusions and developments, that they almost cry out for a measured approach.

The histories seem to bear long running times well – it strikes me that the relatively episodic nature of their structures (especially the Henries) serves to keep up a continued freshness throughout performance. More unified plays, however, seem to me to suffer from being drawn out. The shorter Twelfth Night is, in my experience, the better – not because its bad, but because it’s a fast play that loses momentum if a production lingers for too long. Errors is an even more extreme example of this; I’ve seen a surprisingly full version played quickly in just under 90 minutes, which worked wonderfully well. Comedies, in general, want to be fast. While I’m not sure anyone would try to drag out Two Gentlemen any longer than they can manage, I’m amazed at how slow and dull most As You Like Its I’ve seen have been – it’s a comedy! Slow and boring is not funny!

Caesar and Macbeth, as tragedies, are often slowed down to make them weightier. My preference has always been for fast Macbeths though, that allow the violence to mount up quickly. Anyone who’s read Yorkshire Tragedy will note the effectiveness and power of a tragedy that doesn’t give you breathing space between the killings. Plus, in a slow Macbeth, the England scene can become absolutely interminable. Caesar works well played slow for the first couple of acts, however – the content is relatively ponderous, the dramatic interest in the struggles and internal conflicts leading up to the assassination. The problem is if the slowness is maintained after the orations – let’s face it, the battle scenes are nobody’s favourites, and the impact of the early climax of Caesar’s onstage assassination needs to sustain its impact through the rest of the play.

So, onto the matter in hand: Othello. How long is acceptable? The shortest I’ve seen was drastically rewritten, so its two hour running time doesn’t really count. Other versions have run to more or less three hours. It’s a major tragedy, so understandably companies want to dignify it with a full version. It’s a goodly length, 3500+ lines. The difficulty with Othello, however, is that it’s quite a quiet play – the drama of the play comes in conversations, overhearing, the subtleties of Iago’s machinations. If you drag out these conversations in a long production, they have to be well performed otherwise an audience run the risk of being bored. Conversely, if you rush past and move the play too quickly, you risk losing what makes the play great.

I’d argue that Othello is one of the most open plays when it comes to running times. It allows the pace to be dictated by the production, rather than placing heavy demands of its own. This is one of the reasons that it’ll always be a fascinating play. The flipside of this flexibility, of course, is that it’s easy to get the pace of Othello very wrong, to either rush it or drag it out. The worst position you can be in by Act V is to be waiting impatiently for Desdemona to snuff it so you can escape the auditorium; but equally, you can’t get to that point too quickly, for it means nothing without what’s come before.

It’s a fun question, and an entirely subjective one as it depends almost completely on one’s own experience of Shakespeare in the theatre. Ultimately, any running time should only be exactly as long as the production needs, and some of the best productions I’ve seen have been the lengthy ones that thoroughly justified their length. The only real problem is when a production decides that fuller equals better. Life, alas, is just too short for Ken Branagh’s Hamlet.

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