Tag Archives: Duchess of Malfi

Excellent qualities

Whilst doing some of my own work on Chekhov’s qualities at home the other day, I forgot something I am always telling students; to scan your body and find the place in your body where that quality is not reaching and focus on it, for only then can you get the full benefit of the movement and the sensations and feelings it evokes for the work on your character , when these blockages have been eased.SAM_0250

Qualities –  a little definition

For those less familiar with the four qualities in Chekhov, they are moulding, floating, flying and radiating; they correspond to earth, water, air and fire, which you might come across in one or two other trainings, (Lecoq in particular). Allowing these qualities into your body allows you to explore the quality which might be a strong quality of your character. The qualities evoke sensations and feelings and often a whole viewpoint for the character or the world in which they find themselves.

Teaching Qualities

I ask students to imagine that this one tense place in the body is filling up with the quality you are trying to evoke. For me that is often a space between my eternally stiff shoulders; for floating I imagine my eyes are filling with water ( how often do you watch stuðents floating apparently effectively whilst their eyes move round in a staccato fashion because their whole bodies are not engaged? a lot.)

We all find different things that will work. But as teachers it is often hard to find anything other to say than ‘keep practising’. This is a bit like telling young actors to speak louder when you can’t hear them. It is a kind of blocking instruction. They often find the instruction authoritative and useless, because it evokes a kind of terror of ‘am I floating properly’ ?

A Classic Question

A classic question I hear over and over again is ‘ what is the difference between floating and flying’? It’s a hard one. We might separate  them by suggesting that floating involves resistance whereas flying does not. But in flying we are still at the mercy of the air as someone who floats is at the whim of the current. Perhaps flying has more will within it . With flying we know where we are going. In floating we truly surrender. We have to do so or we could not float. any advice on this question would be gratefully received!

Pretending Qualities

It seems to me it is so very easy to pretend to float fly radiate and mould , which often occurs when there is a stiffness or reluctance in a part of the body as described above. But it is the profundity of the whole body movement and how it affects gesture and ultimately the intention of the character that makes it useful. It is not a good plan to pretend. That is rather like  trying to force an emotion out,  like wringing a dry cloth. It is also essential the movement comes from inside. Many times I work with qualities and I am aware initially of someone’s dance training . Rather than the quality coming from inside, it proceeds from trained outer movement.

Discussing the Duchess and Chekhov Technique

Muireann Ni Raghallaigh, Zita McGowan Reidin ni Thuama and Eoin Dillon

Muireann Ni Raghallaigh, Zita McGowan Reidin ni Thuama and Eoin Dillon

I have been discussing the efficacy of the technique with the fabulous students who stage managed my recent production of THE DUCHESS OF MALFI which used the Chekhov Technique as the bedrock of the process. The students only experience of the technique were a few classes with me in a previous module which focussed more on working with nontext physical theatre so they had been very taken with its use in this Jacobean ðrama. We discussed the fact that on the one hand whilst Chekhov was easy once you knew how and could produce fabulous deep and fast results, it was also tricky to get people to commit. They noticed a big difference between my committed actors and some of the students in our class who had found it challenging. It reminded me how you had to have complete faith in the body and imagination in order for it to be successful for you, and also that even with experience you have to keep touching base and practise just like any other technique. As I was doing this morning!

Core Course in Galway

In this year’s Core Performance course starting here in Galway Ireland on March 3rd for ten weeks of fifteen hours per week, participants will have a chance to hone these skills and this magical way of looking at acting, finding feelings and sensations and character choices through imagination and the body through chekhov and other Ensemble techniques. There are still two places left. Check out Courses on this blog or go to http://www.coretheatrecollege.com .

Why, WHY? Masks and Curtains.

The Duchess is admonished by her brother. [Zita Monahan and Darragh O'Brien]

The Duchess is admonished by her brother. [Zita Monahan and Darragh O’Brien]

Whilst rehearsing the scene in Duchess of Malfi last week where the two brothers discover their sister has had a baby, and vent their rage at her disobedience, we first explored the ‘what ?’ And the ‘how’ of the scene; how does the Cardinal respond to his brother, rather than Why. What and How revealed a myriad of possible Whys, some of which were helpful and many which were not. It is so much easier to follow what and how and desperately important when you are dealing with such a labyrinthine story as  Duchess of Malfi. I can imagine if we had been a more table-work type company we could have spent months filleting the text. Months we do not have. And to what avail? To kill the creative impulse by creating a thin ice of intellectual understanding based only upon our direct life experience – a narrow sort of truth. This approach does not mean you ignore the text ( how could you even consider that with such visceral and profound stuff ?) Ultimately the language moulds the physicality, psychology and being of the character. ‘My mind is full of daggers’ says the Duchess, as she despairs and rages against her tragedy. This image alone conjures up her psychological state at that moment – get that into your body by making a stabbing gesture

But why do many actors feel they have to start with ‘Why?’ when it unleashes a whole confusing gamut of unactable facts? Starting with why seems to offer little or no juice, when it comes to playing. What is it that seduces them? WHY? ( Now I am asking why! ) Is it our idealised Method based background as actors? Or our sometimes misguided faith in science where the WHY appears to the outsider to be the only important result? Or is it a desire to make us feel as artists that through exploring WHY first, we are doing something ‘real’ and ‘important’ ‘adult’ and ‘serious’? Anyone who has worked psychophysically knows this process of exploring the piece through Imagination and body  is every bit as serious and a lot more demanding than an intellectual poring over the script at a table for hours where your energy is often finally sapped before you get up to work.

‘Why’ for me is like the ‘masks and curtains’ the Duchess speaks of. It has a place but it is mainly obfuscation . It protects us from the raw feeling and intuition necessary for our work. Also, the ‘Why’ may be labyrinthine but it is logical. Life, character and emotion are often not logical yet as performers we still have to grasp the character’s journey and intentions. As someone said when doing Measure for Measure two years ago, where we used Chekhov Technique as the bedrock of the rehearsal process, working on her journey through gesture rather than discussion,’I could never have put this character’s journey into words but now I understand it.’

A brilliant example of the dubious nature of WHY was Simon Russell Beale’s discussion of his performance of King Lear [The RNT production] where he suggested Lear might have some kind of Alzheimers . Who cares? In this case the WHY actually diminished his performance in my opinion.

I am not suggesting that actors and directors ignore WHY but explore it later in the process. In ‘real life’ we can know why something happens without having any real understanding of it. Nowhere is this more true than in the academic approach to theatre when students are sometimes encouraged to believe they can go out and do it without the real rigours of training. We can understand an approach from a book but without practise and learning through the body we have no experience of it and no learning we can effectively put into practise. Imagine if you read about how to play the violin but hardly did any practise, or learned the rules of basketball assiduously but only played  now and again?

On March 3rd , my co-tutors and myself at CORE theatre college will be running an intense but part time course for 10 weeks in Galway which will include three performances in May. This course puts the imagination, the body and creativity at the centre of the performers work. The HOW and the WHAT before the WHY. The imagination and the body before the intellect. Teachers are trained in Chekhov and Lecoq and there will also be a voice module. There are only a few places left for this course so if you are interested check out http://www.coretheatrecollege@gmail.com . And Theatrecorp’s production of The Duchess of Malfi plays the Black Box Theatre Galway 3rd – 7th February phone 091 569777.

‘She died young’. Duchess of Malfi. Rehearsal log Theatrecorp. week 2

After our first exploratory week involving finding atmopsheres, qualities and centres for this extraordinary play, we began this week to apply some of those discoveries to the text.

posterbleed - CopyThe last two days we have been working on one of the most horrific acts in Theatre , act 4 of the Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, which we are presenting in the Black Box Theatre Galway with an eight strong cast in early February. For those unfamiliar with the play, this act involves the capture and psychological torture of a woman whose only crime is to marry against the wishes of her brothers. With only her waiting woman and her two babies for company, her deranged brother locks her away, then in a bizarre charade pretends he has killed her husband and presents her with a dead hand which she presumes is his. The brother then sends her inmates from an asylum to attend on her. They taunt and molest her, and then finally there is a disturbing charade at the end of which she , her waiting woman and her two babies are murdered.

After working on this act on Thursday, we actually discussed the possibility of having ten minutes relaxation/ debriefing or whatever after we rehearsed this scene, the intensity of it was so profoundly horrible. To those not familiar with theatre and the depth of the work, most particularly when rehearsing and working with different qualities and atmospheres, often doing sections of a gruesome scene over and over,this can sound a bit precious, but it actually isn’t . When working with the body and imagination, powerful feelings flow through you. Even though it flows through , it can also leave a residue and this needs to be considered. Act 4 has the atmosphere of a torture chamber.

When I watched this scene for the first time today, I realised something. The brother and his lieutenant who have facilitated this torture and murder sit empty and exhausted near her murdered body and start to argue and blame each other for her death. By the end of the scene , I realised that both men were completely destroyed by their actions; how Webster understands that violence destroys the perpetrators as surely as it does the victims.

It made me think about the violence in France this week.

Someone said to me how much they loved the play because of the bloodbath ; so often the play is dismissed as some kind of Jacobean soap opera. However, for me this is a deeply political and moral play about decay, corruption and what can happen to those who refuse to bow to it. The gruesome poetry is magnificent. The cynical realisations of the characters are not so far from our own, and given the society in which we live the so-called excesses of the play are not at all far fetched. It is grotesquely funny in places, juxtaposing the deep downward feeling of tragedy and pain with a kind of wriggling upward struggle for energy and life, as if they are all trying to escape from a trap. One image in the poster of a decaying rose reminds me of how things die, pass and change, and against that backdrop how we endeavour to take our breath .

Duchess of Malfi BBC4

d4d95b15560a8615839d5b2100ca1203.200x200x1Ok what was good about THE DUCHESS OF MALFI On BBC 4? [You might need to read a synopsis of the play if you don’t know it, to understand this blog by the way!]

I loved the ambience of the recreated Blackfriars , and whilst the candle light felt a little problematic at times ( how do they get away with that, with Health and Safety?) it was very interesting to see this play in the kind of ambience in which it was performed, particularly with the relationship from stage to audience. Interesting how the ‘indoor’ plays of this time speak much less about location and general atmosphere than The earlier Elizabethan plays. The imagery in the text becomes even more focused on the characters’ psychology.

At the beginning ( as usual) all was relatively well. The Duchess (Gemma Arterton) was imperious, playful and beautiful; Her steward [Alex Waldmann] was an innocent, cute young man , her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal [David Dawson and James Garnon] were corrupt and dangerous, the mercenary Bosola[Sean Gilder] was gruff and dangerous looking . The verse was very clear which was no mean achievement given the complexity of the language.

However, the actors played at an incredible pace which whilst on the one hand was effective, it rarely changed, and like all set rhythms became monotonous. Furthermore, and worse, the relentless pace gave the actors very little space to act with each other. Indeed for the most part, as with the National’s Lear I blogged about earlier this month, there appeared to be nothing much going on energetically between them, or at least only fitfully. This apparent lack of real contact between the performers is death to the power of theatre. Nothing less. No money or set can replace it. As often happens, it was when actors did something to each other physically that real contact was made between them. This contact would then last for a short while and then the lack of contact would begin again. Two of the actors, Julia [Denise Gough] and Cariola[Sarah Macrae] in particular, were excellent team players and did seem to act as if they were in the same play with the other actors on the stage.

Where the play started to seriously disintegrate for me was when the going started to get tough for the characters, for then it was apparent that the development one might as an audience member be entitled to expect was beyond the actors or certainly the director, Dominic Dromgoole. Let us take the assertion made by Ms Arterton in the introductory film, that the Duchess becomes ennobled by her tragedy. I really do not feel this happened. She was merely a little more angelic and tragic at the end than at the beginning. To be fair to her, she actually has not too much stage time for this to happen as she is dead and gone by the end of Act 4. It would have seriously helped within the production though if the prison section of the play had taken a good bit more time to give the actors the opportunity to feel and really send out an atmosphere of foreboding, despair and loss . She had to have time to make this transformation and the director did not give her the space. The whole thing proceeded at breakneck speed.

When I first saw this play in 1972, the Jacobean plays were new to me. I remember how exciting this play was for me. The plot twists really work because we are not dealing with a well known Shakespeare play. So when the Duchess decides to trust Bosola with her secret we need to be gasping, ‘don’t do it!’ The actors need to use these moments to thrill the audience, and surely to create some sympathy for the good characters . This moment, one of many, was just rushed over .

In terms of the arc of the whole play, the scene in which she dies and is then revived by Bosola only to die again is absolutely crucial to the structure of the play. Bosola the mercenary is surely by this time seeking some kind of redemption. He is a contract killer, and yet he regrets murdering her. This polarity of the cynical murderer on the one hand, and the desperate man seeking redemption on the other is the engine for the rest of the play. Suddenly she revives and we see him revive . He even tells her Antonio is not dead, that her brother was lying. Bosola should be desperate, and then suddenly she dies. It should be an absolutely brilliant and powerful moment which completely changes him.

But The rest of the show , a whole act!, was little more than a series of bloody comedy sketches . Suddenly the actors did things with the audience as if everyone was getting lost with where the play was going. Whilst I can see this might be an issue with the play itself, surely it is the director and cast’s responsibility to take us through this , and give us a feeling of the whole, as Chekhov would say. A feeling that the play was taking us on a journey. As I said I feel that this responsibility rests with the character of Bosola steeped in blood, who struggles to redeem himself in some measure. At the end though Bosola kills the one man he was trying to help. It is as if he is in some kind of gory bog that is simply sucking him down the more he tries to struggle to get out of it. But he was not allowed to take this central role in the plot, or was not able to. As he and the brothers sink in the bloody mire of their own evil, we should be left for long moments to reflect on this horrible presentation of the world. This lack of focus in the last act I felt was primarily the directors responsibility and made me leap up to make a slice of toast and a cup of tea.