Over the past few days, a group and I have been filming a series of Shakespearean speeches and finding Galway landmarks in which to set them. A way to connect the material to now and where we are in a concrete fashion. It has been a fascinating process thus far. From a Chekhov point of view, one of the iðeas of the project was to work with atmosphere and gesture, and really test what an atmosphere gave the speech in opposition to the intention of the gesture, and how those two opposing energies informed the character of the speech. When I watched a rough cut of my own piece ‘ the barge she sat in’ from Antony and Cleopatra, the camera panned out to Galway Bay and to swimmers at the diving boards and I actually gasped it was so beautiful.
I really was keen to explore with the group the character of the speech rather than playing the character and this was an interesting distinction. In the end of course, aspects of the character -after all it is a character who speaks them- came strongly, even though we had not talked about character and it made you realise how much is actually intrinsically rooted in the language. Enobarbus, for instance is telling a story. He is remembering. The very act of remembering an extraordinary memory sitting beside soothing water and being the age I am, brings a relationship to the material that feels wholesome and true. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a young woman spoke a speech of King Lear under a tunnel near a night club, which offers us a lone girl in a tunnel far away from the bustle of the streets and the people going about their business.
Another challenge for us was whether the speeches were internalised or spoken to camera. Some speeches were not soliloquies and those speeches were given to the camera, to an actual person or to a building. People watching them need to decide whether this works for them. However the actual soliloquies when characters address the audience, were more challenging. When I was young , filmed Shakespearean soliloquies were often spoken on voiceover, with the actor looking intensely at the camera and doing little or nothing, acting as if they were thinking the lines. I always thought this woefully inadequate because the speech is poetic and structured. Thoughts are not like that. A soliloquy is a ‘thinks’ but it is a dramatic ‘thinks’ a movement of energy, feelings and ideas going backwards and forwards . The voiceover soliloquy was akin to saying ‘ the audience is not really here’ and kept the energy locked and static. Even great images could not rescue it. Fortunately this fad passed through and is no more..
Soliloquies and the audience
We have to remember the fluid relationship of the audience to the actors and the play in the Elizabethan theatre, where the audience was considered part of the action throughout. Though not always acknowledged directly there is no real pretence that they are not there. When a character discusses his or her dilemma in soliloquy however, the audience must always be fully acknowledged in order for there to be a real dynamic. The soliloquy needs to be active and happening now. A style of playing I was unfortunate enough to see recently in the RNT’s King Lear took another common tack where several actors appeared to deliver their soliloquies like reports, as things they had already understood and accepted. This makes the soliloquies almost a waste of time. It makes me feel ,’ well just finish speaking and we can get on with the story.’
Soliloquies generally have a rhetorical question within them, one which we are asking the audience a question. We are asking them ‘What shall I do about this situation I am in?’ ‘What do you think about it?’ Of course within this extroverted approach there are also moments or periods of introspection where the character asks themselves the question, and that introspection and ‘moving backwards or inwards’ is what keeps us firmly tied to the play. It is almost as if the actor playing a soliloquy is like a connecting rod between the audience and the situation in the play. She creates and builds that bridge for us.
Directions and the Soliloquy.
Let’s explore this through Chekhov’s idea of directions, and imagine you are teaching, directing, helping facilitating or doing it yourself … Let’s physicalise this moving towards the audience and moving inside (or backwards) into our own torment with a speech. Let’s take two lines of Isabella’s speech :To whom shall I complain? If I told this who would believe me?’ from 2:4 of Measure for Measure.
Let’s look at the exercise and just work with walking backwards and forwards first. Get an impulse to move forwards. So what that means is you do not just walk forwards and hope for the best! If you are working with a group who are not connected to their body, it is useful first to ask them to look ahead and feel they want to move forward, that they have an urge. You will see them sway a bit . Ask them where they feel it, usually in the centre of the chest and legs. THAT is an impulse.
Ask them to walk forward on an impulse. They will feel strong, extrovert, maybe angry… Ask them to name the sensation/ feeling aloud. Then ask them to stop and get an impulse to move backwards.. Feelings then are usually tied in with fear, uncertainty, giddiness….ask them to name it as they go backwards.
Then ask them to move forward on an impulse and ask them to say ‘To whom shall I complain? If I told this who would believe me?’ The movement charges them to move and speak positively. Ask them to get an impulse to move back and use the same lines. they will feel uncertain, introspective, alone. Remember if they do not work connectedly from an impulse this will not work.
Now it becomes more interesting. Ask them to go forward on To whom shall I complain and then backwards on If I told this who would believe me. Tell them they have to take their time for the change over, but they will start to notice the shift in energy. then ask them to reverse the process to see the effect. Backwards for line 1. forwards for line 2. You can work through a whole speech like this . It is very simple provided you have some connection to your body. It is a great way to keep the energy flowing and keep the soliloquy alive and moving. For those not familiar with the Chekhov process, you mine your body for the sensations and then you stop the movement though you are still accessing the feelings, sensations and movements of energy inside.