Monthly Archives: December 2014

Webster and Shakespeare. Preparatory work on the Duchess.

Starting to prepare for a play is always an exciting time. I never want to prepare too much nor go in unprepared, and leave everyone (including myself) unnecessarily floundering,. While exploration is essential, time dictates that the exploration needs to be focussed to some extent. I have to be the judge of where that balance lies.

I know when I am teaching ( as opposed to directing) , many of the acting tools I actually teach is partially dependant on the scenes and play I am using to explore acting. For instance this year when using Lorca’s Blood Wedding, i focussed particularly on atmosphere, qualities and imaginary body, because I thought them the most useful.

So with Duchess of Malfi, which I am directing with Theatrecorp I am aware that the demands of this grisly lust filled political saga are quite different to a play like Measure For Measure, and have started planning pathways in towards the characters and essence of the text. I am of course tempted to follow slavishly the plan we used for our initial exploratory week of Measure but know this would be inappropriate. Of course many of the pathways to character and plot might be the same and are common to all plays. Working on ‘the score’ as described by Michael Chekhov and finding a wholeness to the piece so that it takes us on a journey is something all the actors need to find.

Despite the fact that Measure has several twists that make it like the engine of a Jacobean play, the play is not as dependant as Malfi is on the element of shock and surprise, where nothing is what it seems, and the audience is encouraged to believe Webster’s violent jerks on the dramatic leash, then find them to be untrue. When I first saw Malfi in a 1972 production at the RSC when still a teenager, I found some of these excesses ridiculous, but now I know the world better,I know that it is not ridiculous for the Duchess to appear to revive after her strangulation and die again; that it is not strange that the guilt ridden Cardinal might want to kill his mistress. Exploring that engine of shifting perspectives and get that into the very fabric of the production and the actors is vitally important.

Another important difference between Shakespeare and Webster is that Shakespeare’s plays are more preoccupied with place. In MEASURE , the worlds of Court,cloister, brothel, prison and street held for us strong poetic resonances which helped to guide us through the play. In Malfi you have a proscribed world of privilege which metamorphoses into something hellishly dark, and then destroys everyone in its wake. The ‘score’ or journey of this play is profoundly different . At the end there is only vengeance and punishment. This says something about the Jacobean world but also about the playhouses in which they were played. There was no need to include the working class in these plays because the seats were more expensive and did not need to cater to them. The issue of place was less relevant because there was some primitive lighting and the theatres were not as large. The performers were more in control of the audience.

Another of my recent musings is how like the story of Malfi is to the story of Princess Diana who beautiful and adored, thought she could defy the establishment and ultimately lost her life with the baying hounds of photographers at her heels. Like the Duchess she too was looking for love and happiness in an impossible situation, and found that in the end she paid with her life.

Theatrecorp’s DUCHESS OF MALFI plays at the Black Box Galway from February 3rd – 7th 2015. Phone 091 569777

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