Tag Archives: Midsummer Night’s Dream

“Of Imagination all Compact.”

IMG_6045For me, A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM has at its core the speech of Theseus in Act V where he basically demolishes the story of the lovers’ magical night in the forest. His materialistic attitude attempts to invalidate the great power of the Imagination.

In defiance of the materialist Theseus, this last dismal damp weekend was transformed by the work of the twelve participants in Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s weekend workshop who together explored Archetypes and Atmospheres using Chekhov Technique with Shakespeare’s magical play.

Lenard Petit’s The Michael Chekhov Handbook speaks eloquently and clearly about the use of Archetypes. It is an area that can be confusing. It is challenging for us in this individualistic world to trust the power of archetypes, the names of which appear to belong to a fairy tale rather than actors in the 21st Century. Perhaps we fear that involving them in our creative work is going to make cartoon characters rather than characters who are fully rounded. Handle them well and this fear is utterly unfounded. Basing your character on an archetype or at least having this archetypal energy as a kind of unconscious pool does exactly the opposite. Working with the archetype gives the character added depth and the performer incredible freedom.

To recap on the previous blogpost, an archetype is an energy or set of energies which constellate around a type or idea: The Lover, The Soldier, The Coward, The Queen, The Wizard. The archetype is not all a character is, but it is a set of energies or way of behaving which penetrates our lives at moments or in particular situations. As esoteric as this might sound, think of times when you have on the spur of instinct, as if from nowhere, acted in a particular way, perhaps heroically, or aggressively, or maybe subserviently. this is what I understand by archetypal energy. As with all the concepts we explore through the Chekhov Technique, we can always focus it on an actual real way of experiencing our world as it is.

By creating moving statues of the Archetypes, we began to understand the direction the energy of the archetype was moving in. Several participants noticed something interesting with regard to this; that though The Lover, say, may have a forward energy, reaching forward and looking to the object of their love, there was also a pull downwards to keep them grounded and on their feet, which made for a feeling of egotism and selfishness in love. By really experiencing this polarity of feeling, the energy of the beauty and agony and unsettled nature of love came into their beings. Whilst being “in love” is empowering, it can also make a person incredibly vulnerable. Using this example alone tells us that basing your character on an archetype provides you with a number of conflicting feelings the actor can really experience and play with.

One of the most interesting discoveries of the weekend was the idea of Hermia being The Rebel. Very often Hermia is played as sweet and good, rather than a feisty young girl who is willing to defy society to get the man that she loves. This was a very exciting revelation to me. Suddenly an angry Hermia and Lysander were really partners making plans to have a life together.

Playing the Archetype can of course initially make for overblown playing: it is a stage you have to go through. Looking at the scenes and radiating/receiving between the acting partners first, then adding the archetype and radiating and receiving that towards your partner, you finally start to play the scene moving freely using the archetype. You commit fully and wholeheartedly to the archetype, playing your scene. After that, you just use it as a basis and let your own creative instincts and responses to your acting partner come to the fore, with the archetype falling back and then intensifying at moments through the scene. Even more than centres or psychological gesture, which are fantastic elements but more forensic, using archetypes in this free way is a truly liberating experience for the performers.

Having explored that, we started to look at moments where other atmospheres or driving forces needed to be strong, for instance in the scene between Titania and Oberon when he removes the spell.  I asked for an atmosphere of magic to fill the space. This was a lovely moment.

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Next up is the fast-filling up 4th Summer School, August 15-18 working with Buchner’s Woyzeck led by guest tutor Declan Drohan and myself. It is four days training 10-5 .For more info visit http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com ,visit the fb page or email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to express interest and pay a deposit.  The cost is €200 for four days training.

Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson (and William Shakespeare)

Everyone has at least one important inspirational teacher. I am lucky to have had several. Mrs. Florence Robinson was the first. To say she was a front room drama teacher belittles her impact on me. She was inspiring, intelligent, funny, enthusiastic and joyous as a teacher. I hope I have taken that from her, because as a teacher, enthusiasm and joy are what makes you effective. They are the things you remember about someone.

She was about fifty when I met her. Her husband worked on the railways and she had two sons both of whom went into theatre administration. Like many women of the period, once married, she did not feel she could take her life into a theatrical career. She satisfied herself with youth and amateur work, doing lessons in her front room and helping people like me get to drama school. She spent many unpaid hours working with me and several other aspiring young actors.

Over the eight years I worked with her, she gave me a love of spontaneity and imagination at the same time as giving me a love of technique and precision. When I went to drama school nine years later, I found I had a lot of the building blocks already in place because she had encouraged them in me.

I was ten when I started taking class with her. She decided to give me the incredibly challenging Puck speech from act 3 sc 2 of Midsummer Night’s Dream, “My mistress with a monster is in love,” in only my second week. ” I am not sure you are ready for this yet, but if you want to be an actor, then you must give Shakespeare a try.” The idea that Shakespeare was not for the faint hearted or only for a privileged few is a myth which still exists today, Florence implied it was difficult but in some ways I noticed that actually it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Yes there were some tricky words but the rhythm and excitement of the piece which rattled through was what thrilled me. As a young man said who played Puck for me decades later in a production in Galway,  “I was scared of doing Shakespeare and now I am not”. In fact in many ways, Shakespeare is easier for young people because it is poetic and out of their immediate reality.

The day we began on that speech was the first time I heard about breathing. I realised that where you breathed in a line was important and gave you control which you needed, at the same time as having to radiate and fully inhabit Puck being boastful and wild. It was a big discovery, very early in my life. Like lots of my own students, who I am sure find the discipline of marking breath boring and counter-intuitive, it took me many years to realise that discipline and spontaneity needed to be symbiotic. She opened the door for me to the universality of Shakespeare, that poetic drama as great as this can encompass the world, at the same time as being intimate and personal.

Another thing Florence taught me quite quickly was emphasis and how emphasis could totally change meaning. It still astounds me how often actors speak text and emphasise words which make a line almost nonsensical or trite. This happened most annoyingly recently in the Andrew Scott Hamlet. This is so bad because it fails to acknowledge that language is the main thing in Shakespeare, the main conduit for everything; psychology, atmosphere, character, motivation. We can of course say, “well now we have visuals we don’t need to worry about painting a picture with words,” and “don’t people know the story anyway?” but really there is no escape; the language is everything.

And when I say that, I mean it. The story is important too of course, but Shakespeare used stories from Plutarch and other sources, like most of the Elizabethan playwrights. So the stories may well have been familiar to some. Part of the fun, for the nobles in the audience at least, might have been to see how the playwright had adapted the story. But some of the audience will not have known the story and that is a place from which we should always start if the play is to have an impact. Too often for me, professional actors carry the great weight of history on their backs, a kind of cynical exhaustion which says , “yes, I know you have seen and heard this a thousand times”.

Florence demanded enthusiasm and spontaneity. She could smell it if it wasn’t there! Though we did a whole variety of material, it is my work on Hamlet, the choruses of Henry V, Enobarbus, Puck and Romeo that I remember.

Florence and I got a little estranged during my later teenage years as I began going to youth theatre and thought devising far more cool, making theatre with my friends (something I recognise in some of my own students now!) I none the less went back to her to help me with my drama school entry audition.

Florence disappeared from my life after I started LAMDA . However, after my first term I went to visit her in her little house on a dangerous bend in the road. I looked at the stairs where I had sat as a little boy going through my poem  before i went in for my lesson . That day she arrived and hugged me and brought me into the room in which I had been given so much learning and encouragement. It was full now of her watercolours ,a hobby she had taken up over the last few years. She loved to show them. I particularly remember I loved the one of a puppy sleeping. She was lively as usual that day but I noticed that the oft repeated stories which had accompanied my later classes with her, had got more insistent. Later, I heard from others that she would go out and not be able to find her way home. This vibrant wonderful creative person was succumbing to Alzheimers.

One of the things she said to me at that visit after I had started drama school was that she wanted to know everything I had learned in my first term. She asked me, “do you think that the work we did here was….well…..was on the right track?”

Absolutely.

How came these things to pass? Magic, Chekhov and Shakespeare.

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MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM must be one of the most performed plays of all time. It is also the most interpreted. I myself have tackled this play twice and was in a cut down version when I was 8. ( the subject of a radio piece broadcast I did on RTE in 2003 )

So many interpretations and experiments have been performed on this play and therefore anything I might say subsequently might have the riposte, ‘oh, I saw that done in xxxx’s production in 1993!’ But I am going to plough ahead anyway because it is the manner in which this was discovered that was interesting, as much as the discovery itself. In my extremely brave and adventurous Chekhov and Shakespeare class this week, we explored general atmosphere with the empty rectangle which you fill with a given atmosphere from your imagination. We are working with Midsummer Night’s Dream

Chekhov and General Atmosphere.

For those not in the know about atmosphere, Chekhov believed that atmosphere was a palpable thing, the oxygen of performance. All characters operated within this atmosphere, accommodating it in some way, or absorbing it. He also believed that atmosphere was something that existed whether an individual was there or not, that it was not something that we brought into a space, but something that was there and we walked into it. Much of this kind of idea has been supported by science. All you have to do is go into a church or a hospital or a library to feel the weight of this truth.

This was demonstrated to great effect last night when we moved from our working room into a smaller kitchen/ utility room to illustrate this point and sense the difference in atmosphere in each place . As we came back into our working room, I watched the faces of people as they came back into our room, amazed at the difference. To cap it all, as if on cue, a man on his way to another meeting arrived to try and cross the room ,and the feeling of him facing our resistance was palpable. It was as if he hit a wall of atmosphere. It was incredible yet an ordinary everyday occurence. One of those palpable invisible things made visible once you are aware of it.

As we worked on the Dream , we explored the world of Athens from words and pictures created by the actors. We filled the rectangular space with an atmosphere of COLDNESS and CONTROL . As the actors explored these thoroughly with their bodies and feelings, and began using pieces of text, I got one of the actors to take in a new atmosphere of her own, one of the colour RED and she was to say to each person, ‘I love Lysander!’ As she responded to each of the others in turn, she came upon someone who she felt put up more resistance , [ an older man who could have been Theseus] and became joyous loud and defiant . It felt like she was real threat to the atmosphere and everyone responded. It was most exciting, and filled the room with something fundamental about the play. This is what is so wonderful about the Chekhov work, that it brings from the abstract something tangible, actable and real.

The role of Theseus.

It made me realise something about Theseus , something I had struggled with before. Theseus is a difficult part because he does not really have enough stage time to take an emotional journey and yet he is important enough to make one. He and Hippolyta are the first characters we see and so somehow they need to be key. In the first scene he is established as the ruler and lawgiver. He has just defeated an army of women and is about to marry their leader, so the two of them set up the theme of the challenge of heterosexual relationships which is then played out through nearly all the major characters one way or another. It has often been supposed and there have been many productions exploring this , that Oberon and Theseus are cross cast with Titania and Hippolyta, thereby giving the Theseus/Oberon character a running emotional/poetical journey through another character ( note how this appears to be the case with Cordelia and the Fool in Lear too.), but what if we are to consider Theseus alone?

It occurred to me through our atmosphere exercise, that the threat of Lysander and Hermia’s love to the very essence and atmosphere of what Athens represents is much more serious than it appears. The unruly sway of the emotions against order and control is what provokes the wrath of the state against them, to the extent where Hermia’s father calls for her execution and they have to run away into uncertainty and danger. Theseus as the ruler should be the one most threatened by Hermia’s defiance , but also moved by it, as he changes her prospective punishment from execution to banishment to a nunnery. When they emerge from the forest towards the end of the play and Egeus pleads for his punishment , Theseus has a change of heart, and all ends happily. But through this exercise I discovered that perhaps this change of heart is set in motion from the moment that Hermia defies him in Act one and she sets this change in motion to take him from a cold rational man to a warmer human being. In the production I did in 2008 , it was Hippolyta who caused his repentance by kneeling silently before him after Egeus had demanded the full punishment, a nice idea I had not seen before which gave some closure to her own defiance. The Theseus act 5 speech ‘ I never may believe these antique fables….’ where he challenges the story of the lovers in conversation with Hippolyta suddenly makes sense in this context, with this journey.

As I watched my class going off into the sunny evening discussing how energised they were feeling, and the words imagination and discovery were heard repeated again , I felt so empowered by their energy and the power of our work.

If that sounds ‘blissy’, I’m not apologising!