Tag Archives: Macbeth

Keeping those Cucumber Sandwiches Fresh! Working with Chekhov Technique

IMG_3278When rehearsing/performing a well known play, artists often  behave as if the audience already know every single twist and turn of a story.  It is unconscious – people often do not even know they are doing it. That dreadful mistake completely blunts the immediacy and urgency of the playing, flattens the pace, and often bores the audience who may applaud but leave the theatre unsatisfied without necessarily knowing why. It often belittles the work by making something very cosy out of something which can be much more visceral. This is a massive issue in Shakespeare but equally with Wilde, which I am working on with my group of fellow explorers in the comedy Chekhov and Cucumber Sandwiches course. It was only when we started to tell the story of The Importance that we realised how complicated the story actually was, how the series of ‘reveals’ occurs, and how it initially unravels the lives of Jack Worthing and the others.

The thing is that even if the audience have studied the play and do know it, you have to play it as if they don’t in order to keep it fresh and potent. This may sound so obvious that it is not worth saying and yet this simple fact is often totally disregarded. I have seen many a production of Shakespeare when this development of the plot is lazily and glibly presumed, and not in the way we know the ending in a Greek tragedy, say, where the foreknowledge adds to the import and weight of the tale. Do not misunderstand; this complaint is not an excuse for protracted ‘table work’,  but  the actor’s inability to be able to respond to impulses .

I remember when I was working on Macbeth in Galway decades ago, this was the first thing I said to them; we have to treat this as a play that was written last week. no one knows he is going to die; no one knows she will kill herself; no one knows he will become King and ‘get away’ with the murder[s]; no one knows that Lady M will not wake up during the sleepwalking scene and have the doctor and gentlewoman killed; No one knows that Fleance will escape. If you remember this, much of the play is delivered to you.

One of the great things about the Michael Chekhov Technique is it immediately rockets you from your comfort zone both as a performer, director and designer. A few years ago I ran a weekend on Importance and was staggered at its potential depth of situation and character. This is somehow often ignored in favour of the incredibly witty dialogue and the sophisticated veneer. One has to ask oneself of course, is this a comedy of manners, about a whole society, or is it also about the idea of people struggling to find their hearts in a privileged rigid world of do’s and don’ts, a kind of gilded prison of their own making? What ultimately should the audience feel at the end of this play? A smug satisfaction that everything turned out right ? A despairing comment on the folly of convention? As the group potentially working on this play we need to know. Michael Chekhov alerts us to the fact that we must know what we want the audience to take away when all are united and Lady Bracknell’s privileged world is saved from disintegration by some extraordinary coincidences.

Last night we made some extremely interesting discoveries through the intense ghost exercise, something I learned at MICHA (The Michael Chekhov Association) many moons ago; a character called Jack with dark and terrible secrets which are gradually exposed  only to eventually have the very key to his happiness within his secret life – as he uses his wealthy ward as a bargaining chip to buy all the young people their happiness; a woman called Lady Bracknell desperately holding on to a sense of Order; Miss Prism carrying within her her grief at the loss of a baby; Algernon, a fixer who plays the system but then who unexpectedly  falls madly in love with a beautiful young girl etc etc. This exercise not only enabled us to explore the darker possibilities of these characters but also find a whole trajectory for them. A great plus for the Chekhov work is how very very fast it is and how you can uncover things about characters and the play if you will but commit wholly with your imagination and your body.

The challenge for us now is to explore through the feeling of ease and the alchemy of the play, the possibility to transform these serious journeys into comedic possibilities. This is already starting to happen.

Observe her.Stand Close. Supporting Characters in Shakespeare.


Whilst working on the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth in class last week, I was reminded how the smaller characters crucially create the atmosphere for the running characters and the way in which they behave, creates the whole world of the play. We remember of course there was no set or lighting in Shakespeare’s theatre until they moved indoors later and the language, costumes and minor characters fulfilled this function of helping create atmosphere. But these supporting characters do so much more than this.

How are these characters normally treated?  Audiences, and even the actors and directors themselves frequently treat these small parts as just that – small. But the relationship between the Gentlewoman carrying this dreadful secret alone and the Doctor she calls in to see the Queen sleepwalking so he can share the burden of the knowledge of the Queen’s terrible crime, lead us to her tortuous guilt as sure as they are leading us to a cell in the underworld.

There is so much scope for these supporting characters, PROVIDED the basic goals of creating the atmosphere are fully achieved. There is a danger of overbalancing a whole scene with an actor over obsessed with character, like a kettle drum in a quiet movement of a symphony. What do I mean by this? Let’s look at the scene in Macbeth where Macbeth takes Macduff and young Lennox to the king’s door. The young lord waits outside the King’s chamber with Macbeth, who knows that any second his act of murder will be discovered. Lennox says, as they wait outside the King’s chamber:

“The night has been unruly: Where we lay
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say
Lamentings heard i’the’air; strange screams of death,
And, prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion, and confus’d events,
New-hatched to the woeful time, the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake.”

The only thing we actually know about Lennox from a character point of view is that he is young. I watched one particularly bad version of this scene where the actor played the character as if he was young and awkward in the presence of the great Macbeth, and in order to deal with this he was trying hard to find something to say. Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable character choice for the situation, it does not sit well with the language nor with the tension of the scene, as I watched the antics of a schoolboy lord, instead of the musical thrust of the scene which is leading to the explosion of catastrophe. When we examine the imagery of the storm Lennox describes ,we see it is recreating for us the bubbling turmoil in Macbeth’s head rather as occurs in King Lear, like a disturbing soundtrack . Lennox needs to give power to the speech , serve the language and not apologise for it with some awkward characterisation. When the actor serves the imagery and general atmosphere then the great tightening coil of that scene is observed. However this is not as restrictive for the actor as it sounds because within those perameters there is still a lot more scope than we first imagine for the supporting roles.

Let’s go back to the sleep walking scene and the class  .We worked at first with atmosphere , asking the actors to imagine the scene. With closed eyes, they saw Darkness, prison, fear, secrecy. Danger. Guilt, hell, a vast cellar… a few key words. We then worked with a couple of these images and qualities. Breathing them in. The scene instantly came to life. Suddenly the Woman and the Doctor became immersed in this thick dark desperate conspiracy , their voices whispered, irritated and uncomfortable as they waited to see if the Queen would appear.

When we added Psychological Gesture to our exploration, the actor playing the Gentlewoman realised how much she needed to share the knowledge she had, that she did not care so much for the Queen, but she simply needed to give someone else the responsibility to do something. The Gentlewoman was not a fool, she was someone who knew she was in danger, not only the physical danger of carrying this evidence of the queen’s perfidy, but also the spiritual danger of being complicitous to murder. It was as if her mistress was pulling her down with her. The Doctor, wanting to reject and push away the responsibility, was also mad with curiosity, in the way people who watch reality tv shows are, hungry and curious. Pauses were filled with dread and awful uncertainty as the Woman searched for support from the healing professional.

None of this was discussed at first. It came all from language, and the feelings and sensations from the gestures. This for me is the magic of Chekhov Technique, that so much can be discovered without discussion.

At the end of the scene the full complexity and satisfaction of these discoveries played themselves out. The Gentlewoman was overwhelmed with relief at being able to share. The doctor realising the position he was now in, tried to cover his fear with instructions of care towards the sleepwalking woman still trying to push away his involvement

There is then an extraordinary speech in verse by the doctor, when he addresses the wider impications of what they have heard, in which he cries ‘God, God Forgive us all .’  which unites the whole of humanity in this terrible pain. He concludes the scene feeling pity and confusion, having brought us the audience to a wider consideration of suffering , whilst she with her ‘Thank you good doctor’  grasps his hands in gratitude. This exploration of these two supporting characters with their beautifully created arcs created in embryo in two hours was incredibly moving. We never see that woman again [the doctor appears again] but this exploration showed how her character was beautifully formed with a beginning middle and end, and how both characters served the play. A feeling of form and wholeness.