Yet again I was dazzled yesterday by the power of the Michael Chekhov Technique in my Masters class which gave me a different take on the play we are working with King Lear. We did an exercise around the image centres of the character first taught me by the wonderful Dawn Arnold many years ago. I remember saying at the time after we had done this exercise that it felt like the characters had come into the room and met each other, that the room at moments was full of the play we were working on. Many of my students, despite masks and social distancing had the same response yesterday.
The exercise is the culmination of a whole number of exercises, so if you are reading this as someone new to this work it may not work for you if you just jump to this exercise, without doing the earlier ones. But listen to what happened and you will get an impression of the discoveries made.
It involves finding the character’s centre, by imagining an image in a part of your body which for you represents the character’s centre, their soul, their engine if you like; what is powering them inside. You work with that image and react to it and it stirs the character’s sensations , energy and feelings. For instance, if you are playing Juliet and imagine she has the image of a lighted candle in her chest, you might get a sense of her determination and fragility. Imagine you are radiating that energy and if you are sensitive to it, , you will immediately feel different; you might even move differently. What I mean by that is that it makes you feel like a different person in a very deep way.
Back to Lear. Each character working from their character centre entered the circle and slowly looked and exchanged their energy with each of the other characters; they radiated and received. I immediately got a sense that the people in the room were not the people in the room. They were a version, often a powerful one, of the characters in the play.
Once you can commit to this imaginative process, something can happen as you start to realise the possible relationships, resentments and passions which each character excites in the other. This can be really thrilling .
Yesterday, the most powerful one for me which opened up a lot of doors to the play was the moment Goneril met Cordelia. Cordelia was strong but still vulnerable. You could see Goneril really hated her . I felt the elder sister tried to dominate her but the longer they exchanged energy the weaker Goneril got. She kept trying to rally against her ( all this was incredibly subtle, there was no actual physical action) but Goneril could not win. When the actor playing Lear entered the space bringing the feeling of a repressed time bomb and really yelled at Goneril, I started to get a strong view of the family dynamic, of this raging volatile parent who could just explode in a moment, and who was incapable of really giving his love. Later I wondered whether everyone hated Goneril.
It made me consider that in this play perhaps the dynamic is actually about love and all the things that spring from it, selflessness, selfishness, jealousy, rage…when it has not been tended and acknowledged.
So my thoughts turned to Edmund and Edgar. In what seems like an insignificant lead up to the big first scene , Gloucester presents Edmund, his illegitimate son, to Kent, on the one hand boasting and on the other deeply embarassed by the young man. He barely lets Edmund speak. Could it be that Edmund’s revenge is also about a childhood with no love or respect? I have always considered Edmund a glorious Machiavellian villain, but this suggestion of a lack of love takes me and the play somewhere else.
It’s funny these discoveries sound very much like an acting technique which focusses on the intellect and the character biography and yet these discoveries were not thoughts but came from actions; ways of behaving, they sprung from interaction, images; and all this in spite of masks and social distancing. I am still surprised when these things happen to me and my students during Chekhov exercises, without much discussion where a new window to the play is suggested by a powerful exercise courageously performed.