Tag Archives: Peter Brook

Messin’ with the Bard

shakespeareThe last time I mentioned the subject of editing Shakespeare quite innocently on FB there was quite a strong reaction –  a ‘don’t mess with the Bard’ reaction. These remarks made me feel quite the revolutionary! For the last two weeks, on and off, I have been cutting and shaping a production of 12th Night which I am doing with college students in Valentines week 2018.

So how does “messing with the Bard” work so that we don’t make a mess of it? First of all we need to acknowledge a few things.

1) Shakespeare did not write all of the plays alone nor were the plays fully written down so certain errors are inevitable. This co-writing frequently makes for whole sections of repetition which to my mind is not just reminding the audience about situations but it happened because the plays were sometimes written piecemeal by different people. The brothel scene in Measure for Measure is classic, where the same information seems to go round and round and lines have to be cut and reassigned for the scene to make any sense at all.

2) Why are key players in the stories frequently missing from key scenes? Answer most probably because they were playing another character in the scene. (why is Maria totally absent from Act 5 of 12th Night? Why is Cassius missing from two key scenes before Caesar’s assassination in Julius Caesar.? Could it be that he is playing the ailing Caius Ligarius?

3) Most scenes have very long lead-ins because in a stage with no ‘lights up/lights down’ actors needed to keep the energy going and so they enter talking -.often these intros are simply to get the people on the stage and the scene really starts about 8 lines in. This is not true of every scene but it is true of many.

In Peter Brook’s fabulous slim tome Evoking (and Forgetting) Shakespeare,(Nick Hern Books) he talks about what we do when we, as directors, change things. He says directors can do what they like, yet there is always a trade-off with every single decision made. If you modernise a design too specifically the play is inevitably not illuminated but reduced. That’s his view and I share it.

If you change the order of something, there are consequences. Let’s look at Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the RNT which originally began with ‘To be or not to be’ instead of the ghost scene on the battlements, which I understand was returned to its traditional place after some kind of outcry. I never saw this production but let’s examine what changing the position of this speech says to an audience. It says  clearly, ‘This play is about Hamlet, and everyone else is relatively superfluous’. It says ‘this is not about a world of corruption but an individual’. It’s about a star role not a world. In Zefferelli’s Hamlet , which starred Mel Gibson, the Ghost did not appear until Hamlet met him. This made for a tension and apprehension for anyone not familiar with the story and enabled the audience to play with the idea that Hamlet is imagining, or maybe he isn’t. It gave the play more of a kind of ‘thriller’ engine. Unfortunately, I felt this engine ran out of juice before the end. Whether you agree with my assessment or not, these two examples of textual adjustments have a profound effect on the response of the audience and the trajectory of the piece. So Peter Brook is right, you have to be careful ….

But….

I don’t know about you but I get heartily sick of Shakespearean productions in which actors crack dirty jokes which no one understands nowadays, then in order to help us understand the actors laugh lasciviously and make some kind of crotch-grabbing gesture to which everyone onstage responds with hilarity. The audience then laugh and everyone thinks they did their job. This tedious behaviour has been happening for decades! Therefore something is revealed; many of these jokes have to be cut because no one, including the actors, really ‘gets’ them. THIS IS NOT A CRIME .It is simply facing the facts that some of Shakespeare’s work is really hard to communicate to a modern audience. Some jokes are still funny but some have to go; you have to keep some because if you don’t then the flavour of the text would be gone and anyway some are more accessible and are funny. However, care is needed.

And then there is the quality in Shakespeare’s writing which is lampooned, occasionally effectively, in Ben Elton’s TV sitcom Upstart Crow, which centres on the ups-and-downs of the Bard’s life. Very often he takes a  long flowery paragraph to say something incredibly simple. When you start to dissect some of the actual Shakespearean text you know when the imagery takes you somewhere amazing, illuminating the character’s psychology and when you just feel it is decoration. You have to use your own judgment and, as Brook says in his book, be very careful how you edit. We have to remember that in Shakespeare’s day, language was literally magic, a fabulous tool which charged our imaginings. So not only the descriptive power, but the punning and wordplay were like crackling conjuring tricks. These days we do not respond in quite the same way.

I have found that European companies are not so precious about the text. I remember seeing a splendid Latvian production of Romeo and Juliet with raunchy street boys at the Dublin Theatre Festival some years ago, where the two families ran pizza factories (much more successful than it sounds). One of the highlights of the production was the Queen Mab speech which became a strangely pivotal tragic moment as the whole ensemble was consumed by sleep, only to awaken and set the whole tragedy in full swing.

Michael Chekhov, whilst highly respectful of form and wholeness (two of the planks of his Technique are built upon this) nonetheless was of the opinion that we could be robust with Shakespeare. As someone who has done a lot of adaptation and dramaturgy of plays of this period, I most heartily concur.

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Essence – Making Classics Meaningful for Today

As I was contemplating and imagining my next production, I suddenly got an image of the opening of the play which was radically at odds with anything I could possibly have considered in my rational mind. It was truly something that came from somewhere else, from my creative imagination, and completely blew me away. It came from a consideration of a beginning that fulfilled an atmosphere I felt was present in the text, and the unexpected character who presented me with this alternative provided me with a possible ending. This did not involve altering the text in this case other than some editing. More to the point, it takes the play in some respects into a different direction, one not contemplated by the playwright, and it made me consider the role of director writer and performer, and where our boundaries are when presenting our alchemical response to the text.

I love to work on classic plays because they reveal to me, my actors and more importantly the audiences, ways of dealing with the world of the present . The creative team take the play and build a bridge to now. This is for me a more powerful way to explore drama than with the plays of the present which are limited by the fact that we can often consider them only in a more literal sense simply because they tackle head on and realistically an issue which is now in the news. They do not leave the audience’s imagination the freedom to fly so easily, because they are taken up with these immediate materialistic issues. This is not a criticism, just an observation.

Classic plays are not showcases to show how well I can direct or the actors can act, how quirky and different we can be, or how ‘relevant’ just for the sake of it.  To start with, I don’t think you can force relevance. You can foster it, and bring an aspect to the fore, sometimes it just emerges from the depth of the team’s response. Basically though, if it isn’t there for you as the director, then why are you bothering to waste time and energy doing the play at all? If you are adapting the text as a writer then you can write your version and draw those modern parallels on a textual level which can then be expressed in the production as ‘a version by’. I remember the Financial Times reviewer compared my own writing process, when I wrote an adaptation of a Jacobean drama ‘from within’. to that of Howard Barker who identified his involvement clearly and distinctly.

When I was writing more, I did a number of adaptations of classic texts. In The Old Law by Middleton and Rowley, a Jacobean tragic comedy which deals with Euthanasia and the rule of law, performed in 1990 at the Lyric Studio in London by Commonweal Theatre Company, I took the play and wrote in quasi-Jacobean verse some substantial scenes which were my own invention, enmeshed within the original. Because the play was little known I had wonderful fun developing the underwritten female characters and in a strong final scene exploring a government’s responsibility to create laws that encouraged the individual to be responsible and humane, rather than the then current leader of the UK, Margaret Thatcher , who was encouraging us all to believe ‘ there is no such thing as society.’

The Old Law - my adaptation not our 1990 production in London  but at MIT 2006

The Old Law – my adaptation not our 1990 production in London but at MIT 2006

I was both lauded and criticised in the press for taking advantage of the fact that this was a little known play and with some clever writing, no one would know the difference between my own work and the original playwrights’ so I could steer the plot or put words into the characters mouths which were radical and not in the original. To my mind the adaptation, though a little long, built a bridge to the present day and was a perfectly valid exploration of the play. It was also clearly advertised as an ‘adaptation’. The original play (not my adaptation) was performed in 2006 at the Royal Shakespeare Company and I have to say was a somewhat patchy affair. The plot was bumpy ( something I didn’t quite resolve in my adaptation either) the women characters less significant, the play less of an exploration of morality, capitalism and society. Importantly it asked no questions, just presented a lot of bad behaviour on the part of the mostly evil characters. It was for me a museum piece.

A provocative version of a play of course does not necessarily need to happen on a textual level, but in terms of context or casting. Contextualising in a concrete way can of course be dangerous as the play can become less important than the strange context in which you place it. I remember attending a number of auditions for a production of Macbeth set in a concentration camp. I can only imagine how overwhelming this context must have been to the play. Peter Brook, in a short wonderful book called Evoking Shakespeare, makes a strong attack on modernising Shakespeare through the trappings of motorbikes and leather jackets arguing that these attempts to build the bridge between play and audience can often obfuscate and trivialise the play’s meaning, and I heartily concur. The plays have an integrity of their own, don’t they?

I can remember at a conference several years ago being slapped down by a well known director who did radical adaptations of classics in Europe because I was espousing the view that you could not just do what you liked with a classic text just because the author was dead, in order to create trendy new productions to bring young people into your theatre, and then call the play by the same name. It is essential you call it a ‘version’ or ‘adaptation’ otherwise are you not conning the audience to expect something they are not going to get?

At the end of the day there is an important consideration of artistic integrity at work here, and at the risk of sounding ethereal it is about being in touch with my creative spirit. If I feel that my vision is truly new or makes the play more open and holistic or relevant to the audience then i must go ahead . But as Brook says, you have to be careful because what you need to understand is not simply what you gain but what you lose by jettisoning some of the writer’s obvious intentions. Maybe losing whatever-it is is worth it, but to be aware that it is lost is the important thing. If my choice comes from an ego trip, or a superficial desire to do something different, or just to get more bums on seats, then the choice will always be thin. Go carefully and treat the work with respect; I guess that’s it.

The Path of the Actor and the power of autobiography

Michael Chekhov

Michael Chekhov

At last I was given The Path of the Actor for my birthday – Michael Chekhov’s autobiography written when he was only 36. Whilst Chekhov’s classic acting technique texts To the Actor and On The Technique of Acting give you a strong sense of the man himself, this beautiful, honest and moving book gives me a real sense of the roots of his life and personality which helped give birth to his amazing work. It is a moving experience and I would recommend it to any Chekhov student. Unlike Peter Brook say, who never seems to explore his own personal world or indeed his failings in any of the books about or by him that I have read, and despite his undisputed genius always appears a kind of distant guru, Chekhov’s painful human description of his breakdown, family relationships, alcoholism, exile etc gives insight into how the artist found his path , a path that was not always clear and defined, but was a path never the less . All the personal episodes trace back however to the ‘spine’, his work, his feelings about it, and the way in which he developed his technique which give a real ‘feeling of the whole’ to his experiences. Whilst I am sure the biography is selective, and some traumatic episodes are undoubtedly left out, there are enough difficult and embarrassing episodes remaining to admire his honesty, openness and directness. Chekhov is not afraid to look challenged or foolish or strange, as many respected actor/ director theorists might be , and yet at the same time he is not being indulgent or egocentric and apologising for his behaviour or his ideas. He does not obfuscate, he illuminates. He has this amazing faith in the wonder of artistic creation that any attempt to explain it does not diminish that wonder. What comes over to me as I read, is this archetype of the Searcher. it is a spiritual search in the broadest sense.

Autobiography is a powerful tool of exploration.  In my personal experience,  and I am not trying to compare myself here, an extraordinary thing happened to me on my birthday when I played  some radio essays I had done for RTE ( the Irish broadcaster) for the assembled guests. I had recorded them over a decade earlier and they explored something of my own approach to creativity, and my life as an actor, director, teacher and playwright, beginning when I was in a play when I was 8. As I listened to one or two of the more painful episodes in this series of essays I was again reminded of the way the events had fuelled my attitudes, and shaped my path.

The very form of the essays was restrictive and the form forced a narrative. Was the narrative really there as clearly in the reality of my life? There were some aspects I did not use, both high and low experiences, but nevertheless the thrust of my journey was as I experienced it, even though I was not able to discern it always as a journey at the time it was happening. Is form only something discernible in art, when we shape our lives through creative exploration? Or does it exist intrinsically of itself? Has my life a true form? Or does form only exist in art? Hmmmm. Maybe My life is a work of art? As Chekhov speaks of every action as ‘a little piece of art’ ?

I remember when I recorded the essays, in the RTE studios in Galway. I sat alone in the studio on a sunny day and spoke to the director whom I think was in Limerick, on the telephone. There was no real human contact. It was strange. But when I had finished recording and walked out into the sun, I felt an extraordinary weight lift from my shoulders as if a part of my life had suddenly been explained to me.

More Light – Imagination and Simplicity

IMG_0780Beginning serious work on a play is for me like jumping into the ocean. You have to be alive and awake to the currents and yet at the same time find your own way. Your way is not only influenced by the writer’s imagination – in this case a spectacular flight of the imagination – the actors’ imagination, the design team etc, but something else, something intangible. Michael Chekhov says that as artists we ” make the intangible, tangible” I love this idea; that something completely unique and unknowable comes from this process, dependent on every single member of the creative team and their alchemical contact with each other , with the characters and the score that is the play. As a director I have to be open and yet focused. It is like living in a dream sporadically through the day.

The students on the Current Core Performance course and I are about to embark on the short play More Light by Bryony Lavery .We are working mainly with Chekhov Technique to produce this work. The play depicts an ancient empire where the Emperor is God. He arranges for a tomb to be built and all the artists and craftsmen who build it are left to die with the Emperor in the tomb. Along with the emperor are the concubines who have not borne him sons. They are expected to tend him, serve him – and die with him. Left in this terrible position the women take a momentous decision.

The world they create is like a crucible for the imagination, not without its terrible compromises and polarities but one in which the women for a while at least survive and thrive. Bryony Lavery constantly describes impossible stage images which only the most well funded company might produce but nonetheless her images make you gasp at her vision when you read them. Her vision is little short of audacious. The images are an important part of the fabric supporting one of the most important themes of the play, the place of Art and imagination in our lives. It seems to me now that we are going to mime many of these impossible images or create them with sound – in other words we are asking the audience to engage their imaginations as much as the writer and the creative team have done, in bringing this play to performance; that it will be a truly collaborative piece of work for the audience as well as for us. Only then will creating many of these extraordinary images, like the flying flock of origami birds become possible. Anyone who has seen a real origami bird knows they are, disappointingly, quite heavy !

So simplicity will be the key. Simplicity in fact is a liberating force. Simplicity and Imagination encourages magic in a way that literal presentation can hardly ever do. This of course does not mean that you eschew the visual aspect, in fact ironically, by simplifying , you can often enhance it. As Peter Brook said in a recent interview, ‘simplicity is not a style’ . You might check this deeply inspiring interview out on   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx2qHHFS5Yk  if you have not seen/heard it.