Tag Archives: Dublin Theatre Festival

My Kingdom For a Horse! -Opinion

After hearing great things about the Druid Shakespeare project which played in the tiny Mick Lally Theatre in 2015 where they tackled several of the History plays and which I sadly missed, I was looking forward to RICHARD 3 which played in the Town Hall Theatre Galway for a week before going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.  Everyone I asked who saw the play earlier in the week praised Aaron Monaghan’s performance but were less complimentary about other performances and other aspects of the production.

Aaron Monaghan is a very talented actor and made a cracking start as Richard but as the production progressed he seemed to get lost in what seemed to me a very unfocussed production in both style and direction. (With my voice teacher’s hat on, and on the evidence of last night’s show, he also needs to do some serious voice work on the later scenes). In the end though, a talented actor cannot stand alone even in a huge role and needs the full focus and guided support of the other performers. Too often I felt many of the smaller roles were not inhabited either vocally or physically and they looked lost. Consequently, there seemed no world created by the actors in which the play could live.

Many people might think that it is the set, lights, music and costume which provide this sense of a world, this atmosphere, but these elements only partly contribute to it. In any case we were not helped by the design in this respect and nor were the actors. In a forbidding industrial set, the actors inhabited the space in sparkly colourful ‘medievally’ costumes. This contrast between set and costume went completely over my head and did not seem to be embraced by the actors.

In truth though, it is the actors and director who create a strong sense of the world, by the atmosphere they create. (Michael Chekhov calls atmosphere, “the oxygen of the performance”). Too often the scenes at court particularly gave no sense of the viciousness, backstabbing  and jockeying for position which is there in the play from the start. Interestingly the play has the feel of a Jacobean play, sharply juxtaposing comedy with horror and tragedy, even though it is a fairly early work by Shakespeare. This Jacobean sense was well served by some good editing.

Without atmosphere the actors are like fish in a goldfish bowl with no water. And that was the overall feeling it gave me. Every so often, through many of Richard’s early soliloquies, in the scene where Clarence is murdered and at least the first of the subsequent executions, the atmosphere would pour in and I felt like I was watching something with some dynamism. The performance of Marty Rea was in large part responsible for this. His emotional power and sense of inhabiting the whole of his character is palpable.

The lack of atmosphere and passion in the later scenes with the struggling, angry and grieving women was extremely disappointing. Too often I was playing out the scene in my imagination in response to the text and thinking ‘wow’ rather than watching the performers perform. Why was this? There simply was not enough emotional and vocal energy in those scenes which should tear me apart as I watch them. Are we not seeing enough of horror on the news to get some sense of what women are going through right now, trying to ‘speak to power’? These scenes had enormous potential to make these connections but I did not feel they were there.

In general, the characters did not go on a sufficient journey within scenes nor through the whole play. It is very tempting to believe that the energy of this play is Richard’s villainy but it is also about the culpability of those who choose to serve him and those who abandon him – a situation mirrored particularly in Macbeth as all the lords, one by one, change sides and leave Macbeth to his fate.

In terms of a character ‘journey’ let’s consider act 4 sc 4; the scene where the three devastated women meet. Queen Margaret, when asked to teach them to curse, says:

 

“Compare dead happiness with living woe.

Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,

And he that slew them fouler than he is.”

She leaves and the two wronged women then encounter Richard on his way to Bosworth. Richard has to deal with his mother’s curses. Indeed, her emotional journey seems to be that she learns to curse effectively, to channel her rage. When she leaves, he tries to get Queen Elizabeth to collude in getting her own daughter to marry him. The scene with Queen Elizabeth, who has had both of her other children murdered by Richard already, is very challenging as she tries to express her rage and save her child and herself. In my opinion, Richard is beginning to fail once his mother’s curses have been delivered, perhaps even earlier when he is abandoned by Buckingham. Without this real diminishing of his power, how can he then be visited by ghosts and delude himself into saying he was not a murderer?

Finally, I would have to say that, whilst I understand the acoustics of the Town Hall Theatre are tricky, having worked there myself, there were too many times when people did not root their breath sufficiently. Without breath, all the passion and intensity for the character will not radiate into the space. Without rooted breath you may also harm your voice. A voice coach would have been far more use than a movement director in my opinion. On that note, there was some very embarrassing “ensemble” work and ‘fighting’ which I would have been ashamed to see in a youth theatre, never mind a heavily funded project going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Ultimately, as a friend of mine remarked, the real star of the evening was the writer. Whilst I still enjoyed the evening I was only occasionally moved. I was baffled as the obligatory standing ovation took place, and I and my friends stared open-mouthed at a lot of backs.

 

 

 

 

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Artist as Critic

Recently I put up a post on FB and then elaborated it on my blog about a show I had seen in the Galway Arts Festival, with a number of basic tenets and questions I felt the director in particular should have considered. As a director, theatre and voice teacher of decades experience and having paid for my ticket I feel I have that right to be critical or at least to raise these questions. Yet I know that many fellow artists feel reluctant to do this and I understand this reluctance because I feel it too.

I can understand why this reluctance exists. Artists are generally nice people and understand how hard it is to make a good piece of work. They also do not want to be considered as whingers and begrudgers. They could be accused of being bitter; they did not have the opportunity to involve themselves in this project with such enormous resources etc etc. Thirdly, of course, is the fear that if they do criticise, it may affect their chances of securing funding or other opportunities at a later date.

I well remember criticising a play in the Dublin Theatre Festival in a talkback where criticism was actually requested about the play from the audience. I felt as a published playwright with several professional productions to my credit that I had sufficient gravitas to comment. The talkback began and the usual wave of congratulations from the audience started. A specific question was asked which I felt more than equipped to answer. As I started to talk I felt the waves of hatred filling the theatre creeping up to drown me. I did not raise my voice but made some serious suggestions.  Recently in Cuirt, we began our talkback for Lorna Shaughnessy’s THE SACRIFICIAL WIND by telling people they could ask or say anything they liked.

I believe that we have a duty to comment on a piece of work, particularly if we feel it is not fulfilling basic standards. We need to be constructive. I actually made my recent criticisms as Notes to The Director  to be seriously considered, but I know they won’t be.  Often when you are involved in a piece with problems you know it yourself but you can do little or nothing about it because that improvement needs to come from the top. That’s what makes performers give defensive performances where they grit their teeth and use their gimmicks to get them through. I did it myself as an actor. I remember it well.

Artists are better placed almost than anybody to make constructive criticism and ask these tricky questions because we are involved with this work of theatre and love it with our hearts. If we are not able to criticise and discuss then how are things going to improve? How will standards be maintained? And by standards I am talking about vision, skills and direction.

I am not talking here about student productions or community work where the principal goals may be different; educative or trying to draw a community together to express something important which is vital and different to the goals of a professional production.

Members of the audience can leave dissatisfied and yet are not able necessarily to articulate why. We must try and open that debate more to educate them, so they expect more. It is our duty to comment.

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.

Selling The Cherry Orchard with STAN

STAN is bark2not short for Stanislavski but Stop Thinking About Names, a Belgian theatre company founded in the 1980s dedicated to classic and modern work. I attended last Saturday’s performance of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov in the O’Reilly Theatre in Dublin, part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Anton Chekhov has to be the most humane and moving writer we have been privileged to have as part of the human race. His exploration of the passing of Time, the difficulty of change and transition for everyone, how our hopes and dreams so often jar with the circumstances of our lives, be they personal or political, is sublime. If anyone helps you understand the human condition, it’s him.

I notice that the production is having its premiere at the festival. Hopefully this is the
start of a journey. In the programme notes it says that their performances are not a result or a finished product but “an invitation to engage with an ongoing dialogue”. That is what I am trying to do here. This is not a ‘review’ but a series of observations and questions about making classics moving and relevant for now. It is also about what we believe is the role of the director.

The set and style of the production reminded me of watching a reasonably good rehearsal runthrough. The set and studiously haphazard costume got me into this atmosphere right away. I was not averse to this; some of the best things happen in rehearsal as any theatre worker will tell you. I rather liked it initially. However, it is a style now, a formula. Someone comes to the front and says “ok we are starting now,” smiles at the audience and we slide into the play. This approach was fresh and new once but, for me, not any more. And rather than an ‘approach’ perhaps I should call it a ‘style’ because it did not seem to have, for the most part , the spontaneity it claimed to espouse.

Unsurprisingly, I discovered on reading the programme that the show was directed by the company. At any rate there seems to be no director listed. This was utterly apparent. Whilst I am all for people exploring work without a director there are definite pitfalls. Tell tale signs in this production included: actors crossing the stage at the back, pulling focus, destroying atmosphere in the space during scenes which were being quite well acted, a marked differentiation in acting level and style, a sense of no one really having a sense of where the piece was going, a lack of cohesion as to how they felt as a group about the whole theme of the play. I felt there were many great ideas not fully explored or really taken to their limit – ideas and feelings about the subject matter that is, not the style.

In ‘The Empty Space’ where Peter Brook discusses the role of director, he says:

“Without leadership a group cannot reach a coherent result within a given time. A director is not free of responsibility – he is totally responsible – but he is not free of the process either. He is part of it. Every now and then an actor turns up who proclaims that directors are unnecessary: actors could do it by themselves. This may be true. But what actors? For actors to develop something alone, they would need to be creatures so highly developed that they would hardly need to rehearse together….” BROOK THE EMPTY SPACE (1968)

I did however enjoy some of the generally relaxed connection to the audience,
not usual in productions of this play, a kind of Shakespearean connection. The company feels this is an important mark of their work, as it says in the piece about them at the back of the programme. One or two of the actors, particularly the actor playing Firs and Yepikodov, who set up this connection at the beginning, frequently pulled focus by changing gels and moving furniture at the beginning whilst scenes were happening in what was for me a totally pointless and ineffective manner.

I suppose what follows on from this style is a decision to say: “we are not the characters and we do not want you to think we are, so we will make no effort to become them. We will commit ourselves to the idea we are actors and not play with this polarity.” This decision, which I take it is the company style, whilst it has some novelty value and can occasionally uncover some more modern immediate truth, also presents problems. Fir’s final moments in the play seemed pretty meaningless to me in that he played just himself, and not the old retainer. My feeling is that when you throw out the fact that he is an old man, you are throwing out one of the most important things about him.

Only in sections were the themes and atmospheres really captured. For example, Trofimov’s philosophising in Act 2, where all the characters listened to him railing against them and Pishchik’s windfall in Act 4 [ wonderfully played by Bert Haelvoet] was another
wonderful section. But there were not enough of these moments for me. Quirky giggles and modern responses do not make for realism or connection. Eccentricity is not depth.

Something I thought was wonderful though was the dancing. In Act 3 as the cherry orchard is being auctioned off, there is a dance held at the house. The music they used was modern dance music. Behind the movable screen which maðe up the set, the rich family, their servants, dependants and hangers-on danced the night away, emerging into the main space to have their scenes.

I loved this; it connected me to the play in a way most of their acting could not; it made me feel the whole notion of civilised society dancing its way towards chaos; of privileged people hanging on for grim death to a life where they can do as they please only to discover, that even for them, time marches on. For me, it is what is happening right now in the world.

What would it have taken to make this production moving and meaningful for me overall? Not much. More focus. Less anarchy with the costumes. More care with the cross casting. A little more acknowledgement of character rather than the rather tiresome ‘Brechtian’ cleverness which yielded little to me of the humanity of this amazing play. An understanding that everyone in the audience will not necessarily know the play. Some more direction which focussed the action and atmosphere.

This does not mean I want the play presented in a traditional way; I simply craved more depth.

On that point of depth; I attended a summer school run by Michael Chekhov Europe in Zurich a few years ago. All the people in the group I was in were advanced professional performers and teachers from Europe and America, already with loads of experience in Chekhov Technique (Michael, that is). We worked on The Cherry Orchard. Many scenes I saw that week were modern, moving, revelatory, spontaneous and extraordinary. Many had that depth of which i am speaking.

That’s what I want and what speaks to me.