Monthly Archives: October 2016

Dionysos Bringer of Chaos, Agent for Change

When I was a young actor I was fascinated by the character of Dionysos , the Greek god of wine, madness, sex and death… Oh, and theatre itself. So I decided to write myself a one man show which I performed in the late seventies/ early eighties. The piece was called Dionysos Re-membered about a young man who believed himself to be the reincarnation of the God, the premise being that he had invited the audience to announce his new coming on the world only to be disillusioned and destroyed by the audience’s lack of belief in his assertion. On the one hand it was an imaginary look at a disturbed young man whose illusion crumbles and on the other a look at how we accommodate the wonder and spirit in our lives. It was quite funny in part, and very strange and intense. Scan 142420000I had recently been in a production of Equus by Peter Shaffer and was quite depressed by the idea that I felt the power of the boy was ultimately devalued  at the end, and wanted to address the balance a little. What I mean there is that the boy’s fantasy of riding an Equine God was not ultimately celebrated enough in the play, even though the psychiatrist who investigates is torn about having to ‘cure’ the boy of his fantasy in order that he might be happier and fit more snugly into society. I am not sure I feel now that Shaffer was so conciliatory to his West End audience, but I did then.

The lure of Dionysos was at the time largely based on the feeling that he represented sexual abandon as a route for social change; something very prevalent in the attitudes of young, particularly gay people, at the time. At the time for instance, very few young people would have supported the idea of marriage, gay or straight, considering it a repressive institution and part of the World of Pentheus.

Thematically I suppose in my piece I was fascinated by exploring the invisible and really giving it its value and not letting the audience believe necessarily that the conventional materialistic way was the only way to experience and have success in the world; that there was stuff going on on a deeper level that we could be aware of if we wanted to be, stuff that would enrich our lives ( and theatre also). It is not surprising that I eventually ended up teaching Michael Chekhov technique which supports and encourages this world view.

So I have always been interested in doing The Bacchae, originally written by Euripides, which tells of Dionysos’ return to Thebes with his wild women to exact his terrible revenge on the materialistic city where he was born but I never found a version of it that satisfied me. I would often pick up translations/versions of The Bacchae and other Greek plays, read a page and then return it to the shelf. I cannot tell you the number of times I have done that. And then I tried to write a version of my own but somehow I never got it finished. It was not until I found the David Greig version that I thought it was time to meet the play.

When you meet Greig’s version you meet the clash of the elements; of wildness and materialism; of convention and chaos; of the intellect and the emotions. The writing is incredibly powerful ; modern and tribal at the same time; on the one hand , poetic and forceful constantly moving forward as the irreconcilable forces of unbridled sexuality , creativity and wildness clash with the forces of order, harshness and repression; on the other, modern, accessible and humorous as Dionysos lures his macho cousin Pentheus to his doom, asking us all sorts of questions about gender and stereotype.

The academic and practitioner Oliver Taplin reminds us that Greek Drama always asks big questions about society; questions that the plays explore in ruthless depth. It shows us what happens when we make bad choices in dilemmas which are sometimes irreconcilable, in unrelenting detail. When I was young I believed, much as I liked the grandeur of these plays, that the horrors were overblown. Now I know such horrors exist for many of the world’s peoples. In fact there are Greek tragedies in every small town. The plays also suggest, there is no ‘free lunch’; there are consequences for everything we do. Taplin also talks about polarities which exist starkly and uncompromising in Greek Drama; love and duty; order and chaos; revenge and acceptance; maleness and femaleness. Polarities are a big plank of Michael Chekhov’s shaping of composition, so in a play, each character has a relationship to certain polarities within a piece, and perhaps that is where his concept was born, in the Theatre of the Greeks.

The play warns us that ignoring the elemental rawness of our lives, of ignoring creativity and having too formal boundaries can only result in doom. That the very determination to set a society in stone prepares it for an inevitable earthquake. It reminds me a lot of the environmental issues surrounding us right now… Are the Maenads not like an avenging Nature ripping the head and limbs from the body of the King of civilisation? It reminds me of the whole clash of experience, intellectual versus instinctive, made much of in Greig’s translation, and something very dear to my heart as a champion of the experiential. But perhaps the trick of working on this play with my students at NUI Galway  might be to suggest all these issues but maintain an openness. Certainly for the time being.

It’s exciting.

Seagull Stuff -changes of style and movement of energy

It felt like a gift to be able to see a professional production of THE SEAGULL at the same time as I am using the play to teach Michael Chekhov Technique.

Anton Chekhov called his play The Seagull a comedy. And when I went to see Corn Exchange’s updated production in the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Gaiety Theatre the other day I was in no doubt that that was what the creative team had initially gone for. It was light and fun. In addition, the young writer Constantin became Constance, an interesting and effective gender change which immediately updated the text and made the relationships more easy to distinguish. It was easy to see Masha desire a lesbian relationship she could not have and marry Medvedenko, ‘go straight’ and reap the bitter consequences. The two actors playing Constance and Masha seemed to thrive on that decision and it worked well. Sorin was excellent as was Paulina who had a real understanding of tragicomedy especially in a wonderful moment when she ate Nina’s flowers. May I say here that I am not naming the actors, not out of laziness but because this is not a review. I am keen to explore aspects of the play which were thrown up in this production.

So the production made choices; of course it did; that is inevitable. However, choices create consequences. Initially, buying completely into the comedy aspect does create issues, and most prominently in the performance of Arkardina. Arkadina is the queen of the play and therefore the way her role is interpreted is crucial to all the other characters, their own character level and development. In order to have some movement in her character she cannot be portrayed continuously as a mere diva which for me, for the most part, was what was happening. In Act Three she attempted a few moments of sincerity but unfortunately for me it was far too late. For instance arkardinas pleading for Trigorin’s love in an exhibition of superficial campery made not just her character but Trigorin look foolish as well as he agreed to obey her after this insincere display.  I kept wondering who had made this decision, the actor or the director. In the play it appears to me, from the opening of Act Two, there is a sense of Arkadina losing control of her world and by the end of Act Three she is fighting to hold on to what she has. That is a progression; that is a journey. I was not looking for a romantic vision of Arkardina, but a more rounded one.

Something that did not help Arkadina was the loss of Shamrayev, the boorish landlord/steward of her property. I wondered whether they had cut the character to save money but it had serious consequences on the structure . In Act One we lose the fact of his toadying to Arkardina, important for her status and for us the audience to empathise with her. More importantly in Act 2 we lost his fight with her, which weakened Arkardina’s power. That argument, and Arkardina’s decision for them to leave marks a turning point in the act, an essential climax. Without it, the production lost its way for a good while.

The danger of over-exploiting the comedy makes the artists (the characters in the play) look like tedious self indulgent fools, which maybe they are, but still.. Do I want to see a play where actors and writers are all made to look like fools? Not really. I have spent my whole life working in theatre and believe in it as a transformative agent for change both personal and sometimes political. Only the character of Constance made me believe that there might be a possibility of truth through art but then things do not end well for her and she kills herself for love. Nina, the other young aspiring artist, just seemed to be a lost and confused child used by the older people. As Constance kills herself, starved of love from all quarters, I needed to get a sense of Nina at least having found something; some purpose, but she seemed lost. So from a structural point of view the play moved from being a fairly trivial suburban comedy to a dark tragedy of unbelievable hopelessness. I did not see sufficient seeds of the dark elements in the early part of the play to really take me on this journey. There was no real feeling of the whole.

So is this play a comedy or a tragedy? And do we need to define it? In a way yes we do, because we need to decide.

Perhaps it is that wonderful thing, a tragicomedy, beloved of Jacobean dramatists? In tragicomedy each element highlights the other. Tragicomedy allows the absurd because there is an understanding that life is absurd. I have worked with tragicomedy myself a good bit, most particularly with my adaptation of Middleton and Rowley’s ‘ THE OLD LAW’, a tragicomic play which explores mass euthanasia as an agent for greed.

But back to Chekhov. Anton Chekhov is a master of this tragicomic genre. In order for tragicomedy to be effective, there needs to be a strong understanding by the director and performers as to when the screws are turned, and the audience are suddenly moved. I felt that control and understanding was missing at the performance I saw.

Someone in class remarked yesterday, mistakenly I believe, that comedy enhances our sympathy, but I don’t think that’s true.It is only true when the performers and director control it. Without that understanding, comedy can be just an excuse to trivialise.

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participants in my Chekhov class, Niamh and Ronan, playing Masha and Medvedenko.

So the following day after seeing  the performance with my class of Continuers in Michael Chekhov technique  we spent a chunk of time exploring this conundrum. I asked each pair and two solo performers to work with their text in a particular style ; as a comedy, a tragedy, or a satire. I discussed Michael Chekhov’s belief that to work in tragedy you imagine something just behind you, and for comedy imagine something in front of you. That sounds strange as I write it but if you try it out with a piece of text, it makes perfect sense. We also discussed satire: the play could easily be seen as a satire against/about self-indulgent artists and we agreed that unlike pure comedy, satire had a particular point. It was not humour for its own sake.

This was a rich mine of exploration. Before embarking on this exercise we worked with a range of radiating/receiving exercises to play with the energy of pauses; to explore the energy of pauses. I did this because, in order to manage the shifts of mood, it required this understanding of the movement of energy that happens.

So we had, from Act 4,  a satirical exploration of an over-serious and melodramatic young actress who has come to visit her old lover Constantin. At certain moments, such as when she says, ‘I am an actress’ and she hears Trigorin laughing in the other room, I asked her to change the emotional movement to a tragic one, then gradually ‘turn up’ the satirical element as the scene goes on. This was incredibly moving as the class members suddenly felt that Nina was covering up her grief, even when she eventually returned to her comic satirical delivery. Primarily this focus from comedy, to tragedy or to satire is a change in movement of energy. It is not just a matter of (that much maligned word) style.

Another scene we worked with was the opening scene between Masha and Medvedenko. They played the scene in a serious tragic way. The result was occasionally hilarious. It was edgy and interesting, a potent mix of tragedy and comedy, as was a Trigorin monologue also played as a tragedy.

Finally, we worked with the Act 3 scene between Arkadina and Constantin. I mention this last because it epitomised where tragicomedy is successful. At first the actors found it challenging to make a scene in the intense third act funny , despite lines like,

“You look as if you are wearing a turban. Someone came to the door the other day and didn’t know what nationality you were.”

but gradually they let the comedy take hold. Then, quite naturally, they started to find dark and serious moments within the humour; poignant moments where the arrogant mother could not bear to involve herself in the messiness of her child’s despair and need.

Finding this balance heightened both the ridiculousness of our humanity and the tragedy of it; the subtle shifts of energy heightened both, something Anton Chekhov and some of the 17th century tragicomic dramatists fully understood.