Tag Archives: Nick Hern Books

Give Me Your Hands


On adaptation and versions of Shakespeare and particularly Russell T Davies Adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on BBC4. This I discover was actually made in 2016.


There are lots of reasons to edit and transpose in Shakespeare. I am certainly not averse to it and have a whole chapter on the subject in ‘What Country Friends Is This?’ my new book to be published by NHB later in the year. Michael Chekhov wrote, way back in the middle of the 20th century, that Shakespeare often needed editing and shaping for a modern audience. But as Peter Brook warned in Evoking (and Forgetting!) Shakespeare, to modernise, cut or transpose meant that you had to be fully aware of the consequences.

There are lots of things we might challenge in the Dream; the over-arching idea that heterosexual love and marriage was the natural and only way out of conflict; that it is ok for the ruler Theseus to conquer  the Amazons and then to marry their queen whilst the blood is still soaking into the battlefield; that it is ok to have the king of the Fairies to destroy the environment and fight with his queen over possession of a changeling boy and then to get his revenge by bewitching her into having sex with (essentially) an animal.

All of these problems were faced head-on in a feast of pyrotechnical skill and pace with clever editing and truncating of plot, and some very nice use of language (though of course the edits were enormous). It opened us to different sorts of love, which was great. But for me it did not fully work in a very fundamental way. I want to look at just a couple of things.

At the centre of this problem are the roles of Theseus and Hippolyta, to my mind two of the most underwritten parts in Shakespeare. Unless they are played by the same actors playing Titania and Oberon who play out the warring conflict of Theseus and Hippolyta in a poetic way, then they are nearly always unsatisfactory. Davies’ solution to this was a bold one. He made the kingdom of Athens a totalitarian state, Theseus a fascist madman and Hipployta a kind of fairy creature (I won’t elaborate in case you haven’t seen it) . I remember when I worked on this play in ’08 I toyed with something similar but felt that unless I changed the play completely, it simply would not carry through. In the TV adaptation it meant (and this is not a bad idea) what happens in the forest somehow liberates and frees everyone in Athens itself. That is intrinsic to the play but somehow does not always happen in production.

The speech of Theseus in Act V “I never may believe these antique fables” where he decries and rubbishes the lovers’ story of the forest and love and imagination in total is the complete opposite of what the play is telling us. Shakespeare had great faith in romantic love, even though everyone does not end up a winner (look at Twelfth Night). So, if we are looking for a polarity, this cynical, superior, materialistic speech is a dynamic to explore and set against the thrust of the play. When I did a production of this play in 08 I gave that speech to Egeus, who is the one person in the original who is not happy about the young lovers’ decision. He was mobbed and pursued by the fairies and chased from the stage. To keep the speech with Theseus makes it completely unbelievable that he would pardon the lovers for the transgression and have them marry with him.  In answer to this criticism you might say to me, “this is a fantasy”. Yes it is a fantasy but one that needs an emotional logic for the actors to play. For John Hannah I really felt for a moment his characterisation was squeezed by the demands of the adaptation.  Had he somehow made it look that his decision to pardon them was in order to make his own marriage look acceptable, I feel this would have gone with the concept. In other words, that he needed those young lovers to legitimise his own marriage.

A similar problem occurred with Titania and Oberon. By cutting the changeling child and making the argument between Titania and Oberon about Titania’s love for Hippolyta (a neat idea considering how badly Theseus treats her), that idea needed to be followed through in Oberon’s character trajectory. Despite some beautiful moments, the character of Oberon who should go on this big journey in the adaptation was lost. A key moment was a line change in Act 4 Sc3  “Oh how mine eyes do loathe his visage now” which Titania says when she awakes from the enchantment when she sees her ass-headed lover, but it was changed to “Oh how mine eyes do loathe thy visage now” as a jibe to Oberon but said as a joke…. So hey presto, he puts her under a spell to humiliate herself and she says, ‘ha, fair cop,love!” It was another moment where a decision made in the adaptation did not for me sit well with the actors.

Like many adaptations, I felt somehow that in some of these crucial journies and atmospheres director, writer and actors were not quite on the same page. So despite some great energy, for me this made it rather superficial. Why, for instance were the mechanicals not terrified at the Duke’s Palace when they did the play? An atmosphere was explored here later in the scene but they should have come in with this expectation that, though this was an honour, it was dangerous. Having said this, the adaptation and the acting hit some really good notes, not least Flute’s final speech as Thisbe (Which, by the way, we would have been much better to stay with rather than constantly cutting back to the demise of Theseus – you need to see it).

Though I liked Maxine Peake (Titania)  and  Nonso Anozie (Oberon) for me the acting that sat best with the adaptation was Puck (Hiran Abeysekera) , Lysander (Matthew Tennyson), Hermia.(Priska Bakare)  and finally  Flute(Fisayo Akinade).

The one thing that really annoyed me though was the continual music track. For me the words are music enough, at least for some of the time.






Talking Teaching Voice


a member of Dublin Youth Theatre works with gesture and language – photo Sean O’Meallaigh

Yesterday  I had a launch of my book, ‘Teaching Voice’ at the National University of Ireland Galway. I had just come back from teaching my 2nd year Voice and Shakespeare class which had been a great exchange of energy and learning. In fact, a student said something which I am going to make the centre of a blogpost soon.  After a lovely introduction by Marianne Ni Chinneide, whom I have known for many years both as a youth theatre member and an MA student many years before she became a colleague, I said this [ with a few embellishments to clarify further]-


‘Before I came to Galway, I had had some success as an actor but had enough of acting and was starting to make a name for myself as a playwright. What do I mean by, ‘had enough of it’? I was worn out by ‘the business’ and the destructive and ridiculous cliches with which a young actor is encouraged to live. Cliches like  ‘talent will out’, that if you work hard , you will make it in the end, whatever ‘make it’ is supposed to mean. I knew that despite some success, that somehow the love for acting had somehow been seriously eroded and I was losing my way,  that there had to be some other route forward for myself. I had done a bit of teaching but really wanted to explore teaching theatre and particularly voice.

My first contact in looking for a place to teach theatre was actually here in the university, though of course no drama programme existed. I remember meeting Kevin Barry, then Head of English,  who sent me off to the feisty and determined Rebecca Bartlett, the founder of the Galway Youth Theatre, which was actually a part time programme for young people here.  After a talk with her  I decided that what they needed was a specified voice programme. It was only a few hours per week but it meant a serious improvement in performance skills, and to begin with, that is how I viewed the voice training. Despite the fact that voice can often be perceived as tedious – I can remember dreading double voice on Monday morning of my second year at college – I was determined to make it as energetic and joyous as possible.

Working there was a big part of my life for the next twelve years, with subsequent directors Niamh Dillon and Andrew Flynn, teaching voice, ensemble, and directing many productions there. It was exciting and I found that I loved teaching. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. And whilst I still love to direct and write, teaching is what really fascinates me because as we discovered the other day, when you are in a class you often do the best work, the most subtle and the most exciting. The reason for this is perhaps, as one of my students suggested, because your ego is not so much in the way. And I, as the teacher, am priveleged to get to see and nurture that work . For instance in my Continuers Michael Chekhov class the other day I experienced a most beautiful nuanced version of ‘Our revels now are ended, “ from the Tempest. I have rarely heard it done as movingly.

The more I worked in this sector of youth theatre, eventually being sent by the National Association of Youth Drama all over the country to a massive variety of youth theatres , the more I understood that voice work is essential, not just for acting or for the myriad of jobs and situations in which the voice is important , but also into making us a whole person. If you connect your voice, imagination, feelings and body you operate holistically, completely. That’s got to be good for you.

Further work at the Blue Teapots Theatre, a programme for adults with learning difficulties with a thriving theatre company, taught me not only about teaching voice, but also the art of teaching itself. I realised that teaching was not just about me imparting knowledge but was an act of service.

Students were not there to garner my pearls of wisdom or simply learn skills, but to really truly develop they need to be encouraged by my care and enthusiasm for my subject and for them. It taught me that you cannot just expect students to do as they’re told or to ‘know what is good for them’. That as a teacher, it was as they say, ‘not about me’. You might say that about all group endeavours actually. Even directing a play is not ‘about me’ either. Its more about ‘me’ than teaching is, but still…

Later I discovered that whilst it was my job to build a bridge between the knowledge and the students in a way they could appreciate and build on, it was vital at the same time not compromising your knowledge by making it so ‘cool’ that it became unrecognisable; that there was an integrity there.

On the other hand, as I learned from that wonderful Michael Chekhov teacher Ted Pugh, students have to find out. It is their job to find out, and you as the teacher cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting. I find this balance actually can be quite challenging, and of course it varies from class to class, from student to student. Of course I can say these things, because in drama I have the luxury that the classes are invariably small. And of course the learning you do through drama can often be life changing quite quickly, so the impact, when a light goes on in a student’s learning, can be immediately visible though of course it does not always last.

As some people might know I have taught a number of voice courses to lecturers here and in other colleges as well; what was ostensibly a voice class became also something about the philosophy of teaching, how we actually feel about teaching. Whilst I was not trained to be a teacher myself, I do now understand that teaching is a skill, it’s a generosity and an offering, whilst at the same time setting limits and boundaries. Its an art form in itself.

This book of mine, in addition to being a book of workshops and exercises, which covers a whole range of themed sessions on different aspects of voice, including acting with poetry, rhythm, delivering presentations, Shakespeare, working in productions, holds some of that ethos. It’s for anyone who works with young people and wants to help them express themselves, to help them find a voice, especially if you have only a little training and are working in a kind of keyhole situation  as you might be in the college environment.  I trained at drama school and did five hours of voice per week for two years. I am running a class here where the students have two hours contact time per week and have to practise daily  without me. That course however is still invaluable especially if people do practise. It is not wasted time. With limited time you can still do something useful.

And learning is not linear either. I remember driving down to facilitate  at a youth theatre project a few years ago with Miquel Barcelo, an excellent movement and ensemble teacher, and he and I were discussing training . He said something which I kind of knew but was a good reminder. He said when he was training at Lecoq there were many things he didn’t understand and sometimes it was only when he thought about them years later that he truly understood them. Sometimes it takes years to sink in. Truly understanding something is not about instant gratification.

That’s certainly been true of my own learning.

Teaching Voice is published by Nick Hern Books and can be purchased from their website  and is available in, as they say, all good bookshops!