Twelfth Night Polarities

IMG_3934As we put the production of Twelfth Night to bed here at CTPI and NUI Galway , I am thinking back to something I discovered about this play through the production, through my editing and through the process..

I had never before thought of Twelfth Night as a tragicomedy. Before we start to talk about the idea of polarities and how they exist in the play we should perhaps explore the unique form of tragi-comedy, because for me at least, that is certainly how 12th Night seems to work for a modern audience. Tragicomedy was made very popular through writers like Middleton and Rowley after Shakespeare, but it was clearly part of the collective psychology of the Elizabethan theatre goer way before then. Tragicomedy is not simply putting  comic scenes in with serious or tragic scenes in order to keep the wide social demographic of many Elizabethan audiences satisfied and connected to the performance. The tragicomic dynamic is a visceral engine, a cruelty which actually consciously rubs sadness and grief against laughter and joy. Tragicomedy is a genre which actively uses polarity to heighten the work. We ignore this at our peril or the play is constantly unsettling in the wrong sort of way. The scenes somehow do not sit together without embracing the full force of what tragicomedy unleashes. Indeed Shakespeare’s language constantly compares opposites, especially in soliloquy when a character is asking the audience what they should do about their particular dilemma. It’s built into the fabric.

Michael Chekhov focuses on polarity as part of discovering the score of the play. Often when I am working I like to take the actors as characters through the play considering one polarity only, to see where the character fits and travels along that theme through his/her story. I do this quite early on and whilst it may  be somewhat transformed once the scenes start to be played, it is amazing how the alchemy of imagery and instinct often reveal jewels of character we could never have imagined through discussion.

In Twelfth Night one of the polarities I see is Riot and Order. Feste represents the former and Malvolio the other. These two characters are diametrically opposed and it is their battle, culminating in the highly ambiguous prison scene, which for me is one of the big polarities of this play. The other is Love and Death, not exactly opposites, but in the Elizabethan world view, they are. In the beautiful Act 2 sc 4, the disguised Viola and Orsino speak intimately and lovingly, are then faced with the haunting song Come Away Death. Orsino’s mood is transformed and he becomes violent and desperate, whilst Viola refers to her brother [supposedly dead]. In that moment the two young people are forced to face the dark side of their souls.

IMG_3994The production has been a delight. Now back to working in my garden, writing, reviving The Sacrificial Wind and the first of three weekend workshops .The first – Chekhov and Ensemble will be held on March 9th-11th in Galway. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.

 

 

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Follow your heart

IMG_3875Two moments from rehearsal for the college production of Twelfth night last week turned my thoughts away from any idea that Shakespeare was necessarily making a satire of his own lost twins drama of romantic love.

It is so easy to see Orsino as a superficial matinee idol who is merely a fool who is in love with love, and therefore to see Viola as a fool for loving him. I would have fully supported this from reading and the various productions I have seen over the years where the romantic characters are either uncomfortably unbelievable or sent up rotten.

IMG_3886But this week when Viola began to speak of her fictitious sister whilst thinking of her own dead brother , the young actor playing ORSINO came up behind her and held her tenderly . It was a really beautiful moment When I asked him how the character felt at that moment he said, ” he just wanted to be close to Cesario. For that moment whether she was a man or a woman was completely not the point. He just wanted to hold him.” The directness and clarity of this response was lovely.

IMG_3861A similar moment occurred when Sebastian and Antonio said their goodbyes . We discussed a lot about whether the two had had any kind of physical affair. It is of course a popular choice to say yes, but we decided against it. It does not stop the characters from being physically close to each other in a moment of grief, nor from Antonio wanting more than Sebastian is prepared to give him. In fact the very fact that they have not consummated the relationship makes it all the more touching and edgy.

It maðe me consider that perhaps the play is about what happens when you follow your heart; that there are winners and losers, but that not following your heart is closing your life off. It will all be over soon enough anyway, as Feste tells us, so you must travel with an open heart. I am particularly moved as an older person looking at these young actors perform this; that the fact they are young makes this interpretation, growing from our work , all the more poignant.

Put me into good fooling!

IMG_3885One of the things that has struck me again and again in this preparatory week with the exuberant and talented student actors at the Centre of Drama Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway is the joy of working with young people, their boundless energy, talent and enthusiasm, such as may elude them if they enter the world of ‘the profession’ . It also reminded me of the issues.

When working as a professional director you expect to develop a vision at a high and competent level because the actors have most of the skills you will need, well they are supposed to. Of course this sometimes falls short with certain individuals as clashes of style develop between performers and directors, and often between performers themselves. In actual fact, the collaborative element in directing, whilst important in both professional and student spheres, is much easier to achieve with young people and hence paradoxically  the work is often ultimately more interesting despite the youth of the group and the fact they have to work harder at skills.

Interestingly, and I find this more and more as I get older, it seems that any vision I have needs to be tempered by the young people. They are coming from a very different place to me and as the exploratory week of the production evolves so does my sense of direction, because it is not just mine but theirs. This does not mean that I just go along with their wishes because sometimes, from inexperience, they are not seeing the play in a deep way or perhaps in a way what seems like a good idea at the beginning is going to become derailed by the needs of the play itself (Actually many professional productions suffer from this problem too – what seemed like a good idea at the start goes wrong).

In addition what is important for me in that first week is assessing their individual strengths and challenges . It is nearly always true that in the beginning the student actors after being free as birds in the first week where the story is explored through sound and the body suddenly come up against the needs of the text and the expectation they feel is there. ie talking in an English accent. While I always do a lot of physical voice work based on Michael Chekhov Exercises which promotes variety and grounded truth, the old stalwarts of breathing and diction are frequently serious challenges. Whîlst on the one hand I wouldn’t want to over force the practice, on the other hand without decent clarity all the depth in the world will not be radiated through the text. Weeks 2 and 3 often have this constant feeling of a plane landing uncomfortably as adjustments of time and focus need to be made. Once the lines are understood and learned, we can really play again.

What keeps emerging from our work with this play is this deep sense of loss and loneliness in so many of the characters, that the search for love is a search to forget loneliness. Maybe the play says that no matter how hard we try we are always lonely; that in relationships we save ourselves from loneliness but to some extent sacrifice our identity. This is an interesting if rather sad thought –  and particularly because the play is a comedy.

Teaching Voice Review –

I am so delighted with this review in Youth Drama Ireland , particularly as it talks so lucidly about the the holistic nature of the voice work and the use of M Chekhov in connection with creating the expressive and free voice.  Looking forward to running another FEELING VOICE weekend after the production of 12th Night in FebruaryReginaCrowleyReview

What country, sir is this?

So asks the shipwrecked Viola as she reaches the shores of Illyria , traumatised , bereft of a brother and embarks on a story of love, passion, drunkenness, identity and disguise. Whîlst away in a place by the sea, I have been using some of the time to fully consider the overriding metaphorical feeling of the piece, and to find some unity of purpose, and a feeling of the whole. I considered the influence of water in the play, not in a literal sense, but alchemical and astrological. This, I feel, is something which scores the play.
The element of water in astrology and ancient symbolism has a strong connection in this play. Water signs also rule drunkenness, wildness, sex, love, madness, chaos , loss of identity, death. Oh, and music! ‘If music be the food of live play on’. In fact, almost all things ‘the play treats on’ to quote another Shakespearean comedy, are ruled by the element of water. 

 

I have watched the opening of a number of 12th Nights on YouTube and most have seen fit to put the Shipwreck scene first. On the grounds of naturalistic narrative this seems to be a sensible juxtaposition. If we consider the Tempest, the storm makes a violent and powerful opening . But by this change in 12th Night, Viola, in many ways the spine of the story, is pushed too far into the heroine mould. The play becomes about Viola. However, even though she is in the most scenes the play is very much a team effort. It is about a world, many facets of a way of being.

The first offering I watched on YouTube ( and I have to confess I watched only sections of each production) was the Renaissance theatre production from the late 80s by Kenneth Branagh. Its Dickensian feel, though powerful, seemed humourless. Anton Lesser as Feste and Richard Briars as Malvolio were in battle from the start, but for me this was too dark. It needed to be fun. I think there is a massive challenge here to give equal depth to the polarity of comedy and tragedy so much a feature of this period of drama and a polarity which this play exploits considerably. The play has so much darkness bubbling beneath and yet you let it dominate at your peril. 
I then moved to a late 60s production by John Dexter starring Joan Plowright and Ralph Richardson. Again Viola’s scene came first. Set against a beautiful painted backdrop of a romantic land, Viola was the noblewoman still with her belongings, including fetching chiffon scarf. When I say Viola’s scene came first, the first part came first. We then moved to the dashing Orsino, and in the final moments of his scene saw Viola watching him, and then deciding that she would disguise herself and work for him. She fell for Orsino on sight, which as he was played by the dashing Gary Raymond was not too surprising, but it gave the character of Viola a naturalistic spur to her actions.
The first comedy scene was excruciatingly dull and dated. Sir Ralph as Sir Toby ŵas doing a Falstaff riff opposite a Maria who appeared to me rather lost, condemned to a chaste delivery in a racy costume. The scene had little connection to the world of Olivia’s mood or house, and everyone seemed to be sleepwalking through it, hoping that no one watching would confess to not understanding it. Tommy Steele as Feste looked now modern and interesting, perhaps because we knew he was a Feste himself. 
Then there was a bizarre Russian production with a sultry, wicked Viola. I love the way that the take of Eastern Europe on Shakespeare is so refreshing. There were dancing clowns and a trio of chanting mandarins in Orsino’s court. It looked very spoofy, and very design-led…. Fun for ten minutes. It too began with Violas storm.
One film that did not begin with scene 2 was a film of an Australian production set in modern dress with fabulous music . It felt very stylish but superficial. I think there is a massive danger with 12th Night to be over committed to style, to romanticism in a very superficial sense. The play, though it is a comedy, needs really digging into for its juice and heart to have as M.Chekhov would say, “a feeling of the whole”.

Finally I saw some scenes from the feted Globe production with Mark Rylance as Olivia. This had to advantage of being filmed at the Globe before a packed audience. 
It was hilarious. 

Where has it all gone to? 3 Sisters discoveries from Anton’s nephew!

In the final presentation of my MA Chekhov Technique class, six of the students performed the opening of Act 2 of the 3 Sisters by Anton Chekhov. As we worked on scenes from the first two acts, each act had a prevailing general atmosphere and for Act Two it was helpfully suggested by one of my students that it was fog or mist. This seemed a perfect atmosphere for the act as everyone starts to radically lose their way without really knowing why. it gave the characters a sense that things are not quite right. By using this general atmosphere, the first scene of Andrey and his wife became a  tragic pivotal scene with them losing each other, rather than watching a weak man dominated by a wily desperate woman. Andrey became a lost confused soul and Natasha a woman full of disappointment testing her husband to see if he would ‘man up’ and take charge of the house.  With regard to the ‘fog’ the whole cast of characters is on its way to confusion but at the moment it is not possible to quite discern what is wrong.  Anyway, this wonderful idea for an atmosphere fed not only the act but the whole play with a what was for me a wonderful new direction. This is the wonderful thing about atmosphere and indeed all of Chekhov Technique work – it leads you to avenues you would never imagine possible without over-engaging the intellect. The Higher Ego and the Creative imagination are the leaders of our creativity.

In an earlier class on Chekhov’s theory of composition this group started to look at the idea of good and evil in the play and someone said it appeared that the family and their situation create a vague hole into which evil creeps..” In a way everyone is culpable; all the characters, not just the usual culprits – Natasha and Solyony. The fog/ mist atmosphere really brought that out.

Perhaps one of the most interesting revelations through our work was in tackling the comedic aspect of the play. In Act two Vershinin and Masha come in from the cold night about to start their affair. This scene played very passionately by my two actors was interupted by a raging exhausted speedy Irina desperately trying to cling onto the idea of going to Moscow, pursued by her puppy Tusenbach .She is totally oblivious to the sense of subdued passion in the room as Masha and Vershinin try to act normally. The resulting scene kept the tragedy and comedy running side by side, and I learned something.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of many of Chekhov’s full length plays working really as comedies whilst at the same time retaining the human tragedy of the characters. I have seen some very unsatisfactory versions at each end of the spectrum, treating the play as high tragedy and others at uneasy comedy. And now I wonder. Is this comedy in A. Chekhov’s play rather more like the idea of tragicomedy which exists in Jacobean drama and which I am very familiar with. So the playing engine of the work is not that one scene is serious and one is funny but that both of these qualities exist in the same scene at the same time. This dynamic rubs against its opposite like it does in the best tragicomedies of Thomas Middleton, actually heightening both tragedy and comedy at the same time.

Interesting.

 

Making an Entrance

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Ronan Cassidy, John Cullen and Mary Monaghan in workshop

‘She really made an entrance ‘. We all know and understand this saying instinctively as we have all entered a room for a party or an event and felt eyes on us. I am fascinated by this element of performance and my next workshop MAKING AN ENTRANCE, LEAVING THE STAGE NOVEMBER 24TH – 26TH is going to consider and explore it with the participants.

In the past, in what are euphemistically called ‘well made plays’ often bound for the West End or Broadway, these entrances and exits were often punctuated with histrionic moments as characters came and went. A particularly campy exploitation of this power is present in James Goldman’s hit play THE LION IN WINTER from the 1960s . This comedy, based on a fictional meeting between the royal family of Henry 2 (which was later made into a movie) gloried in outrageous witty remarks made as people came in and out. Ultimately this process became formulaic and was often not rooted sufficiently in the reality of the situation nor did an entrance move towards an exit emotionally. The movie tried to redress this balance by setting the whole thing in a freezing castle and offering some more in-depth performances. However, the play for me is superficial and little more than a series of witty exchanges. However, it tells us something. It tells us that something happens to the character as they pass through the scene and that movement must be a genuine movement even if they do not make their objective. The fact they fail in their objective is an emotional movement in itself. It is a journey. As Michael Chekhov would say, it is “a little piece of art” from entrance to exit. Chekhov’s exercises which explore this element of form help the actor to give full meaning to the entrance and exit as a small beginning and ending to a journey we the audience are privileged to observe.

So how do we make the entrance meaningful and yet not melodramatic, taking advantage of the moment when we come in to the space as the character?  After all the audience is full of curiosity about who we are , where we have come from, what we might do and how the characters already onstage respond to your presence. the way we do it is by radiating our energy, not necessarily in a grand fashion but in the subtler way of imagining the energy emanating from our entire being.

I remember Philippe Gaulier saying in a workshop I attended, that when you entered the space, even if you did nothing more than bring in a message, for a moment you were the most important person on the stage. I am not always sure that it is quite true for every entrance or character but frequently it is so, if only for a few seconds. Certainly the audience is highly interested in a new character, a new energy entering the space. Their curiosity is aroused, even if what has been happening up to your entrance is pretty interesting. A new energy, a new dynamic opens to the audience; a new perspective. When the new actor is somehow not tuned in, the whole performance can be mortally wounded, because it is really disappointing. Your entrance is like your part in the relay, your piccolo solo in the orchestra, your dive into the swimming pool. You have to be sensitive and ready.

I think more than anything you have to bring on the atmosphere of the next room or wherever is immediately off stage. When I say the atmosphere, that’s what I mean. I do not mean the colour of the carpet or what pictures were on the wall necessarily, but what it feels like to have walked through that outer room. I remember seeing a really good actor coming onstage as if coming from a snowstorm, hanging up his overcoat, shaking it, shivering a bit, chatting away rubbing his hands etc. Despite all this carefully observed detail, all I could think was, ‘wasn’t that clever?’ At the time I did not know why but now I think I do. The details meant nothing without bringing on the atmosphere of the street. What he did felt to me studied and external, however accurate it might have been.

And then there is the past. I remember watching an exercise where actors were asked to imagine the past of their characters in a long chain behind them as if they were at the head of their life parade as they made their entrance. it reminded me of Marley’s chain in A Christmas Carol. Of course, what is in your ‘life parade’ might be holding you up and propelling you into the room rather than holding you back.

Then there is the impact your entrance makes upon the others in the room, to say nothing of the audience. Right now I am working with some students on the opening of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Something came up where we had to consider how everyone tolerated the strange Solyony. He enters making an irritating remark. |These continuous objectionable and insensitive remarks exacerbate an atmosphere thick with the past even though everyone is attempting to celebrate Irina’s birthday. We should immediately consider him an outsider. For me, he has a personal atmosphere which collides with the general many times. The connection between the personal atmosphere of the character and how s/he adapts to the atmosphere in the room is an absolute key to making the first moments true for yourself.

Making an Entrance, Leaving the Stage is now taking bookings. It takes place on November 24-26th [ a weekend]. email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com and check out the website http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com