Tag Archives: Directing

Messin’ with the Bard

shakespeareThe last time I mentioned the subject of editing Shakespeare quite innocently on FB there was quite a strong reaction –  a ‘don’t mess with the Bard’ reaction. These remarks made me feel quite the revolutionary! For the last two weeks, on and off, I have been cutting and shaping a production of 12th Night which I am doing with college students in Valentines week 2018.

So how does “messing with the Bard” work so that we don’t make a mess of it? First of all we need to acknowledge a few things.

1) Shakespeare did not write all of the plays alone nor were the plays fully written down so certain errors are inevitable. This co-writing frequently makes for whole sections of repetition which to my mind is not just reminding the audience about situations but it happened because the plays were sometimes written piecemeal by different people. The brothel scene in Measure for Measure is classic, where the same information seems to go round and round and lines have to be cut and reassigned for the scene to make any sense at all.

2) Why are key players in the stories frequently missing from key scenes? Answer most probably because they were playing another character in the scene. (why is Maria totally absent from Act 5 of 12th Night? Why is Cassius missing from two key scenes before Caesar’s assassination in Julius Caesar.? Could it be that he is playing the ailing Caius Ligarius?

3) Most scenes have very long lead-ins because in a stage with no ‘lights up/lights down’ actors needed to keep the energy going and so they enter talking -.often these intros are simply to get the people on the stage and the scene really starts about 8 lines in. This is not true of every scene but it is true of many.

In Peter Brook’s fabulous slim tome Evoking (and Forgetting) Shakespeare,(Nick Hern Books) he talks about what we do when we, as directors, change things. He says directors can do what they like, yet there is always a trade-off with every single decision made. If you modernise a design too specifically the play is inevitably not illuminated but reduced. That’s his view and I share it.

If you change the order of something, there are consequences. Let’s look at Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the RNT which originally began with ‘To be or not to be’ instead of the ghost scene on the battlements, which I understand was returned to its traditional place after some kind of outcry. I never saw this production but let’s examine what changing the position of this speech says to an audience. It says  clearly, ‘This play is about Hamlet, and everyone else is relatively superfluous’. It says ‘this is not about a world of corruption but an individual’. It’s about a star role not a world. In Zefferelli’s Hamlet , which starred Mel Gibson, the Ghost did not appear until Hamlet met him. This made for a tension and apprehension for anyone not familiar with the story and enabled the audience to play with the idea that Hamlet is imagining, or maybe he isn’t. It gave the play more of a kind of ‘thriller’ engine. Unfortunately, I felt this engine ran out of juice before the end. Whether you agree with my assessment or not, these two examples of textual adjustments have a profound effect on the response of the audience and the trajectory of the piece. So Peter Brook is right, you have to be careful ….


I don’t know about you but I get heartily sick of Shakespearean productions in which actors crack dirty jokes which no one understands nowadays, then in order to help us understand the actors laugh lasciviously and make some kind of crotch-grabbing gesture to which everyone onstage responds with hilarity. The audience then laugh and everyone thinks they did their job. This tedious behaviour has been happening for decades! Therefore something is revealed; many of these jokes have to be cut because no one, including the actors, really ‘gets’ them. THIS IS NOT A CRIME .It is simply facing the facts that some of Shakespeare’s work is really hard to communicate to a modern audience. Some jokes are still funny but some have to go; you have to keep some because if you don’t then the flavour of the text would be gone and anyway some are more accessible and are funny. However, care is needed.

And then there is the quality in Shakespeare’s writing which is lampooned, occasionally effectively, in Ben Elton’s TV sitcom Upstart Crow, which centres on the ups-and-downs of the Bard’s life. Very often he takes a  long flowery paragraph to say something incredibly simple. When you start to dissect some of the actual Shakespearean text you know when the imagery takes you somewhere amazing, illuminating the character’s psychology and when you just feel it is decoration. You have to use your own judgment and, as Brook says in his book, be very careful how you edit. We have to remember that in Shakespeare’s day, language was literally magic, a fabulous tool which charged our imaginings. So not only the descriptive power, but the punning and wordplay were like crackling conjuring tricks. These days we do not respond in quite the same way.

I have found that European companies are not so precious about the text. I remember seeing a splendid Latvian production of Romeo and Juliet with raunchy street boys at the Dublin Theatre Festival some years ago, where the two families ran pizza factories (much more successful than it sounds). One of the highlights of the production was the Queen Mab speech which became a strangely pivotal tragic moment as the whole ensemble was consumed by sleep, only to awaken and set the whole tragedy in full swing.

Michael Chekhov, whilst highly respectful of form and wholeness (two of the planks of his Technique are built upon this) nonetheless was of the opinion that we could be robust with Shakespeare. As someone who has done a lot of adaptation and dramaturgy of plays of this period, I most heartily concur.


Directing and Composition

If you want to be a director I believe you really ought to start work with youth theatres, young people or any group where you seriously have to adapt any plan you might have for the production and change it to make the play and production work.

On the one hand, I have to bring the team to the play and not impose too much. At the same time I have to continually be honing and sharpening my own feeling/vision about what the play actually reveals to me personally. It is like being the balancing point on a weighing scales.

For in the end I am doing the play with that particular group of creative people. They have their strengths and limitations and I have to embrace them. This is especially true when you are working with students or less experienced people but I have found it also true with professionals. We are all to some extent, limited.

Sadly many professional directors do not live in an environment which encourages this collaborative mindset, and this clunky idea, as I explained to a student who came to me to discuss production and design of a college show this week, of all the drawings having been done, and set made etc. before the actors begin their work is a really unviable process. It is actually anti-creative, with the actors like mannequins to fit into your plan. Sadly, many directors judge actors as to how well they can fulfil the director’s vision rather than their level of creativity.

When Peter Brook talks about directors having a hunch, it is completely right. Why is it? Because you cannot come with a set plan. Even with professionals it is not really acceptable to make a blueprint and stick to it because the actors creativity is every bit as important as the director’s the designer’s or anyone else on the creative team. Michael Chekhov’s view of inviting the object in, in this case, that is ‘the play’, of falling in love with it, is for me where this hunch is found.

I am not implying a free-for-all. When I direct a play I still feel I am a conductor, but that is my role. I am the conduit for the powerful creative energy that pours from my team. On the other hand though, I have to mould a creative environment for that creative energy to be fully released. and I have to be able to ‘manage’ it. if I do not manage it then the production can become horribly skewed towards a character, the set or some other detail of the production. It can  open the whole production to some kind of pseudo creative tyranny such as exists often in the professional world. This tyranny can come from awkward performers, power hungry directors or defiant designers.

This more democratic way of working is extraordinarily creative, which is one of the reasons why so many groups create ensembles; but it can also create a lack of focus in the piece [especially if it is devised] . Michael Chekhov’s rules of composition, which were not all original from him, are none the less incredible stepping stones through any piece, be it newly devised or a texted famous classic. I looked forward to exploring this aspect of Chekhov Technique with my MA group this Thursday as we worked on Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

The rules of composition basically encourages the whole company to believe that we, together , are trying to say something. It encourages us to believe that our ‘piece of art’ has a beginning, middle and end. This end is not necessarily twee or cosy. It can be brutal, trailing and uncompromising, but everyone involved understands what that journey might be ….how do we want the audience to feel ideally?

Of course we cannot fully control this, but we have some general idea. It reminds us we are producing our work of art to say something about the world universally, and as it is NOW.

Then there is the law of polarity. It is another important mine of exploration for theme, character or perhaps the whole play. For the play the Three Sisters, we might say that a polarity is hope/despair. For a character we might explore -Irina – innocence/ maturity. Exploring these polarities is a visceral thing not an object for discussion (well not too much) and as always with M.Chekhov a way of charting our way through the intangible journey of the character’s life in the play.

And then there is the battle “between good and evil”, a rather fundamental polarity which appeals to our moral compass. I love this idea now though I used to get a feeling that making moral judgements was not the place of drama. However, in life we always take sides. Why should theatre be any different. and in any case haven’t we a duty as artists to have a view? It doesn’t need to be one-sided, this view can be complex but Chekhov says a view is essential – especially for us in these crisis-riven times. The conflict of good and evil makes me analyse what are the negative forces which course through this play? Are these forces the lethargy of the family; their inability to change things? Or is the main force of evil something almost like a haunting from the past? Is it the ruthless greed of Natasha as she usurps the Prozorov lives or is she the fundamental truth of a brutal reality the other women cannot face? Or is it the spite and bitterness of Solyony who, unable to have what he wants destroys life? An interesting feeling came up in our MA group that the ‘evil’ is ‘doing nothing’, as in that stasis the evil is sucked into the world of the family and does its work. This evil is not charged by one person necessarily but is something in the atmosphere which everyone breathes and Natasha steps into it. this is a really interesting view – that it is the atmosphere to which the characters respond which creates the tragedy.

And then, what is the force of goodness in this play? Is it Olga and her benevolent motherly support, or Irina’s innocence or Kulygin’s forgiveness or Masha’s ability to fall passionately in love? Perhaps we might say that it is their collective humanity. The goodness is their humanity and their ability, however idealistically, to dream.


Woyzeck in Winter

This is a note I put on FB today after seeing WOYZECK IN WINTER  part of the Galway Arts Festival. I repeat a version of it here because I felt it might be missed. I feel the project yields up a lot of questions/considerations for directors – some complex and some downright elementary. The show, a meshing of Buchners Woyzeck and the beautiful Wintereisse music was a bold and interesting idea with some talented performers…well i am not going to do a review of it.  I have no idea of the journey they went on and can only respond to what I saw.  I called this on FB , Notes to a Director

Please, especially if your production has a massive budget, get a fight director who can make a fight look real from ALL angles, and also tell the actors, supposed to be poor soldiers, how to split logs.

Never use traversing an amazing set as an an excuse to fill in time when you are not quite sure what to do emotionally, nor rely on superb lighting, music and paper snow to create atmosphere entirely.  The snow for instance , at the beginning when it was effective, implied to me misery, cold, starvation. I rarely felt this atmosphere coming from the actors and they were more than capable of generating it.

Overall, rely more on your extremely talented actors to do the work. Believe me they have far more resources than you think, especially if you give them the right tools to work with; and by tools I do not mean set costume lights etc. but their inner tools.

Allow the actor more expression of the characters journey, conflicts and polarities to prevent sameness, leaving the audience and characters ploughing the same furrow over and over again. Be ruthless with them if there is no ‘feeling of the whole’ because without it, I as the audience member will leave dissatisfied and indifferent.

Remember that pacey entrances and strong energy whilst they keep the audience involved are not the whole answer.

Have a clear idea of what you are saying with your production and make sure the whole creative team know about it and are willing to go with you on it.

Beware of microphones. Though they seem to create variety and intimacy, very often they hamper the artists ability to do just that.

Congratulations to Rosaleen Linehan though who carried an incredible beauty and weight to her role and made the opening and the last two minutes really special.

Bacchic Alchemy

16112706_10207462147903095_4596838258018514637_oTHE MOMENT when you have finished working through the play for the first time and then run it all is a strange moment. It is the moment when you get a sense of how this play will work in this venue with this cast. Just by speaking it, by acting it out, however roughly, a moment sparks when you realise the magic of the play in a way you did not know before. This alchemy gives you glimmers not only of the ultimate performances but the journey that the play takes and how it might affect a potential audience .It tests your decisions on composition even when not fully realised by the cast (as yet) and the atmospheres and qualities on which you have agreed. It is a stage along the way, a moment of achievement. Whilst it is far from ready, I was inexpressibly moved by its power.

Of course that first run through also tells us what practically does not work; e.g. clunky blocking and how far you have as a group still to go but nonetheless a stage has been reached. It is also a crossroads. It is now time to consolidate and sharpen, but also judiciously discard. It means honing skills and making firmer decisions. This production of The Bacchae performed by students on the MA and BA programmes at NUI Galway in the version by David Greig requires great voice and movement work, singing, character, a strong sense of ensemble ,the ability to play with the audience, fearlessly explore vicious humour, ecstatic joy and the grimmest tragedy as the play descends into hellish and human despair.

On that note, along with getting a full sense of the humour of David Greig’s version of the play when we acted it out this evening, I also got a stronger sense of the tragic trajectory as the remaining  human characters, Agave and her father Kadmos, realise their folly and are left to deal with the consequences. It is extraordinary to me that two characters we have hardly seen in the earlier part of the play are able to carry the weight of this tragedy, and yet somehow they do not seem like some kind of tagged-on thing; they are most definitely ‘part of the whole’. They speak for each of us who has suffered tragedy; who understand the nature of endurance.

The clarity of this is something I would put down in part to our work on M. Chekhov’s ‘feeling of the whole’ in our first few days of work. Composition is an extraordinary thing and even though we do not refer to it too much in rehearsal, I feel by getting people to get the story into their bodies a sense of the composition settles there within us all.

You cannot get a full sense of a play’s journey simply by reading . As Oliver Taplin says in his book Greek Fire, the Greeks make you face up to aspects of cruelty and cataclysm to an unbearable degree but within a ritualised structure which makes it bearable – just. Because it is poetic it enables us to face it unflinchingly. That is why Agave and Kadmos’ scene does not feel at all tagged-on. Because it is where the play is going.

The Bacchae by Euripides in a version by David Greig, is being performed at the Mick Lally Theatre from Feb 14th-Feb 18th by students of the NUIG Drama Programme directed by Max Hafler


Getting Down With The Greeks

In The Empty Space, Peter Brook describes directing as ‘having a hunch’ . Yet how many directors consider their work to make a concept and fit the actors within it, usually within a set and costume design already decided upon? This destroys the creative voice of the actor as artist and reduces them to a performing animal. As an actor once myself I remember trying to get my undisclosed feelings and ideas for the character ‘under the radar’ of a director, visible to me if no one else. All too often, the success of the actor is measured and perceived solely in how much he can encapsulate the director’s vision, very often a vision which is borne from someone who never stepped upon a stage at all. We, as audience, often blame the actor or the playwright for the disjointedness we feel when we watch such a piece when very often it is the director who is primarily responsible for this sense of ‘un ease’. Whîlst the director is the conductor, he is essentially part of an organic team. I feel this organic work has to happen from the start and talking needs to be limited in order that everyone can experience in their body and imagination what the play is about.


working with archetypes

I walked into my preparation week with student actors for our production of David Greig’s version of Euripides Bacchae with some preparation done but I knew that the evolving work within that four day process would be totally transformative. I felt I was more open actually than I have ever been before. Of course my openness did not mean that I had no preparation done myself, I had done a phenomenal amount of work, but very very few decisions, including practical ones had been made. Hunches was what there was along with one version of a song, and a strong belief in my cast. I think this faith in the group is one of the key things I have learned in directing students in particular, though it’s something you need at whatever level you are directing. Trust however requires a lot of experience and a lot of faith. It also requires an acknowledgement that parts of your concept as it grows and accommodates the group will evolve, change and develop.

Michael Chekhov composition work to find a shape to the work is particularly fascinating when you are dealing with a play which though structured, appears to have a complex narrative of dovetailing stories interspersed with songs and chants which in a way appear at first glance to bear little relation to reality as we understand it… Dionysos allows himself to be captured and humiliated, rather like Christ, even though he has the power to destroy them all. The play shows two polarised way of being and living with catastrophic and brutal results. It begs you to take sides in the debate.. Whose side are we on ultimately? How do we want the audience to feel? How do we begin with the city of Thebes? What does it represent for us now? is it a sad place, a happy place, a place of order and harmony or rigid obedience? The play pits the imagination, and wild creativity against the colder intellect, very much a Michael Chekhov theme. As if by magic, after our tableaux work, the story appeared to have a much more obvious simplicity than it at first appeared. It’s far from set though we can see the options. When I directed Caucasian Chalk Circle last year we made I think, four endings and did not decide on the final one until almost the end.

One of the aspects of M. Chekhov’s work I love the most is his insistence on the responsibility of the artist to open up issues for us and our audiences and for plays to have something important to say to us NOW. The answers The Bacchae presents, if it presents any at all, are visceral relevant and real, if we remember that despite the fact that climate change is a reality and Nature is becoming wilder and more unpredictable, one of the principal leaders in the Western World is a denier of that reality. This is not the only level on which you can see this play but it is one of them. Because it is primarily a dramatic poem, it has a multiplicity of levels on which it can be seen. that is what makes it both fascinating and tricky, because you don’t want to prevent that multiplicity by being too literal with one overriding interpretation.
In addition to the strengths of the group I was also aware of limitations in time and training. We did a lot of training in these first days but I was concerned about the question of mask work, which, besides requiring thorough and precise choreography required complete feeling within the body at every single moment . At any time when that expression of the body was absent the performer simply disappeared. But the masks which are only to be worn by the Chorus, besides being quintessentially part of the Greek Theatre Experience enabled a number of things; firstly they clarified character; second they enable men as well as women to play the Bacchae; thirdly they take us away from the idea that these are a gang of women who are out on a hen night but show them as wild female forces of nature. That can only be a plus.

looking so forward to continuing the work next week.

The Bacchae by David Greig after Euripides will be performed by students of The Centre for Drama Theatre and Performance in conjunction with Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  at the Mick Lally theatre  in Druid Lane Galway Ireland from Feb 14th – 18th. 

‘Take this sad tale where you will….’

IMG_2367_2 copy

Orla Tubridy,Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning

What a fascinating exploration and discovery is The Sacrificial Wind, this small hard diamond of a piece by Lorna Shaughnessy,  which I directed at the New Theatre Space at the National University of Ireland Galway, which is shortly to be revived for the Cuirt International Festival of literature 2017 and playing in the Town Hall Studio Galway from the 25th-28th April .Tickets available at http://www.cuirt.ie or http://www.tht.ie

It is an absolutely thrilling piece to revisit.

Like all Greek theatre, Lorna Shaughnessy’s examination of the characters around the story of Iphigenia in Aulis asks big questions; in this case about our sense of helplessness in the wake of war and cruelty, our collusion in those events and our sense of shame in that collusion. It asks what can artists do to affect these horrors? What have we to offer? It takes us through a panoply of heroes, soldiers and victims and all in fifty minutes and with three performers. Interestingly one of the rules of the Ancient Greek Tragic competitions was that there were only three actors who played all the speaking roles.

What’s interesting about working with a set of poems as opposed to a play, even when the poems are dramatic,  is that the structure is more subtle like music and we have to understand that. Each poem is like an aria , changing the energy and movement of the piece suddenly for two or three minutes before a new character twists the story, often violently, in another direction. This is incredibly challenging for both actors and director as each poem exudes its  own particular atmosphere. A number of the poems, like the final set where the family and the playwright Euripides are all devastated by the sacrifice of Iphigenia, work together as a distinct musical movement.

So unlike a conventional play where the structure of the story limits the choices to a certain extent, a body of poems has a much more serpentine structure with many more possibilities. It means you could go on and on and on exploring but we had a short time frame. The poems gradually revealed themselves . We had not only to consider character but, like a song, a style of delivery which depended on how each poem was written. this work was greatly enhanced by the soundscapes of Aranos, and lighting by Bryan Rabbitte.


Catherine Denning as Clytemnestra

One thing I ditched very early on was the idea that any of the pieces would take place as ‘scenes’. The characters addressed only the audience. This did not mean that the other performers did not support the main actor but the principal acting partner was always the audience. This kept both a feel of Greek drama and a palpable collusion in the audience as to the Sacrifice and other decisions that the characters made. It was very direct.

This is not the same as doing a monologue to the audience, much beloved device of many modern playwrights, but a more Shakespearean take where the audience are asked to consider their role in the actions of the play . Shakespeare monologues are less reflective and more active. they are asking questions. Look at the ‘It must be by his death’ Brutus soliloquy  in Julius Caesar for one of many  examples . I was very aware of how our crisis – riven world is provoking the very kind of questions the characters ask.

Thanks also to Catherine Denning, Michael Irwin and Orla Tubridy , the actors, who made such an incredible job of the work.

Essence – Making Classics Meaningful for Today

As I was contemplating and imagining my next production, I suddenly got an image of the opening of the play which was radically at odds with anything I could possibly have considered in my rational mind. It was truly something that came from somewhere else, from my creative imagination, and completely blew me away. It came from a consideration of a beginning that fulfilled an atmosphere I felt was present in the text, and the unexpected character who presented me with this alternative provided me with a possible ending. This did not involve altering the text in this case other than some editing. More to the point, it takes the play in some respects into a different direction, one not contemplated by the playwright, and it made me consider the role of director writer and performer, and where our boundaries are when presenting our alchemical response to the text.

I love to work on classic plays because they reveal to me, my actors and more importantly the audiences, ways of dealing with the world of the present . The creative team take the play and build a bridge to now. This is for me a more powerful way to explore drama than with the plays of the present which are limited by the fact that we can often consider them only in a more literal sense simply because they tackle head on and realistically an issue which is now in the news. They do not leave the audience’s imagination the freedom to fly so easily, because they are taken up with these immediate materialistic issues. This is not a criticism, just an observation.

Classic plays are not showcases to show how well I can direct or the actors can act, how quirky and different we can be, or how ‘relevant’ just for the sake of it.  To start with, I don’t think you can force relevance. You can foster it, and bring an aspect to the fore, sometimes it just emerges from the depth of the team’s response. Basically though, if it isn’t there for you as the director, then why are you bothering to waste time and energy doing the play at all? If you are adapting the text as a writer then you can write your version and draw those modern parallels on a textual level which can then be expressed in the production as ‘a version by’. I remember the Financial Times reviewer compared my own writing process, when I wrote an adaptation of a Jacobean drama ‘from within’. to that of Howard Barker who identified his involvement clearly and distinctly.

When I was writing more, I did a number of adaptations of classic texts. In The Old Law by Middleton and Rowley, a Jacobean tragic comedy which deals with Euthanasia and the rule of law, performed in 1990 at the Lyric Studio in London by Commonweal Theatre Company, I took the play and wrote in quasi-Jacobean verse some substantial scenes which were my own invention, enmeshed within the original. Because the play was little known I had wonderful fun developing the underwritten female characters and in a strong final scene exploring a government’s responsibility to create laws that encouraged the individual to be responsible and humane, rather than the then current leader of the UK, Margaret Thatcher , who was encouraging us all to believe ‘ there is no such thing as society.’

The Old Law - my adaptation not our 1990 production in London  but at MIT 2006

The Old Law – my adaptation not our 1990 production in London but at MIT 2006

I was both lauded and criticised in the press for taking advantage of the fact that this was a little known play and with some clever writing, no one would know the difference between my own work and the original playwrights’ so I could steer the plot or put words into the characters mouths which were radical and not in the original. To my mind the adaptation, though a little long, built a bridge to the present day and was a perfectly valid exploration of the play. It was also clearly advertised as an ‘adaptation’. The original play (not my adaptation) was performed in 2006 at the Royal Shakespeare Company and I have to say was a somewhat patchy affair. The plot was bumpy ( something I didn’t quite resolve in my adaptation either) the women characters less significant, the play less of an exploration of morality, capitalism and society. Importantly it asked no questions, just presented a lot of bad behaviour on the part of the mostly evil characters. It was for me a museum piece.

A provocative version of a play of course does not necessarily need to happen on a textual level, but in terms of context or casting. Contextualising in a concrete way can of course be dangerous as the play can become less important than the strange context in which you place it. I remember attending a number of auditions for a production of Macbeth set in a concentration camp. I can only imagine how overwhelming this context must have been to the play. Peter Brook, in a short wonderful book called Evoking Shakespeare, makes a strong attack on modernising Shakespeare through the trappings of motorbikes and leather jackets arguing that these attempts to build the bridge between play and audience can often obfuscate and trivialise the play’s meaning, and I heartily concur. The plays have an integrity of their own, don’t they?

I can remember at a conference several years ago being slapped down by a well known director who did radical adaptations of classics in Europe because I was espousing the view that you could not just do what you liked with a classic text just because the author was dead, in order to create trendy new productions to bring young people into your theatre, and then call the play by the same name. It is essential you call it a ‘version’ or ‘adaptation’ otherwise are you not conning the audience to expect something they are not going to get?

At the end of the day there is an important consideration of artistic integrity at work here, and at the risk of sounding ethereal it is about being in touch with my creative spirit. If I feel that my vision is truly new or makes the play more open and holistic or relevant to the audience then i must go ahead . But as Brook says, you have to be careful because what you need to understand is not simply what you gain but what you lose by jettisoning some of the writer’s obvious intentions. Maybe losing whatever-it is is worth it, but to be aware that it is lost is the important thing. If my choice comes from an ego trip, or a superficial desire to do something different, or just to get more bums on seats, then the choice will always be thin. Go carefully and treat the work with respect; I guess that’s it.