I have just finished rereading Peer Gynt by Ibsen, which I understand was a play meant to be read. Its swirling epic nature makes it hard to bring to it any kind of earthy reality. It has always struck me as a massive problem to stage, especially if you are not familiar with the specific Norwegian culture from which it comes. Declan Drohan and I are using scenes from the play to explore how we approach fantastical characters using the Michael Chekhov technique on October 8th and 9th here in Galway. It is always an exciting by-product that you get to revisit these plays.
The first production of Gynt I saw was unsatisfying because of ‘where I was at’ as a teenager when I saw it, and 60s and early 70s realism was king. I wanted to see the early part of the play as realistic, with Peer as a realistic figure albeit in a mythological landscape, someone with whom I could identify and recognise as the hero. I wanted to like Peer and saw nothing to like, just a lecherous teenage thug who grows into a tyrannical arrogant monster of exploitation, and then in an attempt to find himself in later life tries to evoke sympathies he doesn’t deserve. Had I looked at his character in a more mythological archetypal way, the play and production would have had a holistic feeling and had a lot more power. Had I thought of him as one of the characters from the Ring cycle, or The Fool in the Tarot deck I would have immediately connected better both as an audience or as a character had I been acting in the production.
Paradoxically in a more recent production (though still a while in the past) I saw Peer in a shell shock hospital during/after the First World War and his story was a hallucination. To me this proved a disastrous concept, belittling the enormity of the play and literalising (or excusing) the dream like nature of the play. It left the actors with too many things to play. It materialised and belittled the play, rather like when people say King Lear has Alzheimer’s or Macbeth is a psychopath. This is a very reductive approach to epic literature. It may yield something but it most likely won’t.
So when we embark on these plays which are inhabited by fantastical characters we need to find something in the character with which we and the audience can relate to without necessarily bringing a feeling that we might meet them at the bus stop, if you you see what I mean. We need to find resources which are more than our personal egos. As actors we cannot use our immediate life directly on these characters. No one cares whether the button moulder prefers eggs or cereal for breakfast or whether he/she has breakfast at all. What they want to feel is the ominous nature of this character, their rage, perhaps their exasperation at waiting for Peer to change before the Button Moulder takes him away to melt him down into buttons to finally be some thing useful to the world in which he lives. they need to find their archetypal power. This does not mean stereotyping but something which unlocks something very deep. At their best, fantastical characters can allow us to explore things we would not have the capacity to explore. That’s why people put them in plays and stories. That’s why there are fairy tales.
Let’s play with Chekhov’s idea of imaginary centres. Perhaps the button moulder has an outworn scuffed button in his centre, at his imaginary heart. When I inhabit that idea, when I imagine that the character has at its heart this old button, the character becomes weak and strained…. holding things together with a few threads and a round circle of wood as buttons do. He is old and needy. If I truly embody that imaginary idea a whole extraordinary character is created through my imagination if I am open to the image. These are the kind of things we as actors can explore when we learn to trust this process. Or perhaps his heart is a gleaming button, a gleaming black button, polished and shiny. That makes me feel gleaming and cruel. It gives me a different body shape, size and voice.
Often these characters are the bearers of qualities we can easily find through atmospheres archetypes and centres. These characters express intangible qualities and this is what Chekhov talks about, ‘making the intangible, tangible’
Our workshop, “A human heart for me” – playing the fantastical runs October 8th and 9th at University of Galway. email firstname.lastname@example.org to book your place. Tutors Declan Drohan and Max Hafler.