Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Article of Faith

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Just a short word to say that IF you are working in a school or college that takes this magazine, you might like to explore the excellent articles, including my own on working on Shakespeare with young people. It covers voice work, a little Chekhov Technique, and some of the issues my group and i encountered as we worked on Twelfth Night earlier this year! this exploration is going to be expanded soon! Here are Fiona and Patrick from the production and there are other pictures inside.

http://www.nationaldrama.org.uk/dramamagazine/

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“The fault,dear Brutus…” Julius Caesar BBC4

I am sorry, but I had to turn the JULIUS CAESAR [BBC 4}off last night. This is not because I am old school, nor is it that I don’t believe women can play mens’ roles. This prestigious production by Phyllida Lloyd and with Dame Harriet Walter playing Brutus was set in a women’s prison, something which we were tediously reminded of during the play itself with the odd expletive which undermined the play on several occasions. It presumably was meant to emphasise the relevance of the production.

Setting a play with ‘a concept’ like this often rides against the play and you have to be incredibly careful how you do it. Also could we not simply accept as adults that you can do this play with an all female cast and something integral will happen to it, without adding another layer which in the end merely obfuscated what the play was about? In other words, though one might say in the production’s defense, that the play is about patriarchal power and these women prisoners are victims of that power, I do not really see that resonating enough to make it work. and for me it failed almost totally. Only the performance of Jackie Clune as Julius Caesar really excited and challenged me.

Violence, we observe, is sadly more and more common in our society and presumably some of the prison ‘characters’ had witnessed it, been victim to it, or acted it out. They would also perhaps understand about lobbying for position in a gang situation. None of this – where the ‘concept’ may have actually really served the piece – was apparent to me in the production.

In the end though, whether it was the ‘concept’ that confused actors, the text, though incredibly clear, beautifully phrased etc had one blanket of emotional panicky pace which meant to me almost nothing . I neither cared about the prison ‘characters’ nor the characters in the play.

As someone who has been in a production of this play, I do think the second half is challenging for cast and director .The play does such a great job of building to the unleashing of violence that it is hard to know what happens next. i suppose it is simply that having committed the assassination the characters fall from their lofty heights with Brutus struggling for his honour in a sea of dishonour and bloodshed which ultimately overwhelms him.

 

Twelfth Night Polarities

IMG_3934As we put the production of Twelfth Night to bed here at CTPI and NUI Galway , I am thinking back to something I discovered about this play through the production, through my editing and through the process..

I had never before thought of Twelfth Night as a tragicomedy. Before we start to talk about the idea of polarities and how they exist in the play we should perhaps explore the unique form of tragi-comedy, because for me at least, that is certainly how 12th Night seems to work for a modern audience. Tragicomedy was made very popular through writers like Middleton and Rowley after Shakespeare, but it was clearly part of the collective psychology of the Elizabethan theatre goer way before then. Tragicomedy is not simply putting  comic scenes in with serious or tragic scenes in order to keep the wide social demographic of many Elizabethan audiences satisfied and connected to the performance. The tragicomic dynamic is a visceral engine, a cruelty which actually consciously rubs sadness and grief against laughter and joy. Tragicomedy is a genre which actively uses polarity to heighten the work. We ignore this at our peril or the play is constantly unsettling in the wrong sort of way. The scenes somehow do not sit together without embracing the full force of what tragicomedy unleashes. Indeed Shakespeare’s language constantly compares opposites, especially in soliloquy when a character is asking the audience what they should do about their particular dilemma. It’s built into the fabric.

Michael Chekhov focuses on polarity as part of discovering the score of the play. Often when I am working I like to take the actors as characters through the play considering one polarity only, to see where the character fits and travels along that theme through his/her story. I do this quite early on and whilst it may  be somewhat transformed once the scenes start to be played, it is amazing how the alchemy of imagery and instinct often reveal jewels of character we could never have imagined through discussion.

In Twelfth Night one of the polarities I see is Riot and Order. Feste represents the former and Malvolio the other. These two characters are diametrically opposed and it is their battle, culminating in the highly ambiguous prison scene, which for me is one of the big polarities of this play. The other is Love and Death, not exactly opposites, but in the Elizabethan world view, they are. In the beautiful Act 2 sc 4, the disguised Viola and Orsino speak intimately and lovingly, are then faced with the haunting song Come Away Death. Orsino’s mood is transformed and he becomes violent and desperate, whilst Viola refers to her brother [supposedly dead]. In that moment the two young people are forced to face the dark side of their souls.

IMG_3994The production has been a delight. Now back to working in my garden, writing, reviving The Sacrificial Wind and the first of three weekend workshops .The first – Chekhov and Ensemble will be held on March 9th-11th in Galway. Email chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com to book your place.

 

 

Follow your heart

IMG_3875Two moments from rehearsal for the college production of Twelfth night last week turned my thoughts away from any idea that Shakespeare was necessarily making a satire of his own lost twins drama of romantic love.

It is so easy to see Orsino as a superficial matinee idol who is merely a fool who is in love with love, and therefore to see Viola as a fool for loving him. I would have fully supported this from reading and the various productions I have seen over the years where the romantic characters are either uncomfortably unbelievable or sent up rotten.

IMG_3886But this week when Viola began to speak of her fictitious sister whilst thinking of her own dead brother , the young actor playing ORSINO came up behind her and held her tenderly . It was a really beautiful moment When I asked him how the character felt at that moment he said, ” he just wanted to be close to Cesario. For that moment whether she was a man or a woman was completely not the point. He just wanted to hold him.” The directness and clarity of this response was lovely.

IMG_3861A similar moment occurred when Sebastian and Antonio said their goodbyes . We discussed a lot about whether the two had had any kind of physical affair. It is of course a popular choice to say yes, but we decided against it. It does not stop the characters from being physically close to each other in a moment of grief, nor from Antonio wanting more than Sebastian is prepared to give him. In fact the very fact that they have not consummated the relationship makes it all the more touching and edgy.

It maðe me consider that perhaps the play is about what happens when you follow your heart; that there are winners and losers, but that not following your heart is closing your life off. It will all be over soon enough anyway, as Feste tells us, so you must travel with an open heart. I am particularly moved as an older person looking at these young actors perform this; that the fact they are young makes this interpretation, growing from our work , all the more poignant.

Put me into good fooling!

IMG_3885One of the things that has struck me again and again in this preparatory week with the exuberant and talented student actors at the Centre of Drama Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway is the joy of working with young people, their boundless energy, talent and enthusiasm, such as may elude them if they enter the world of ‘the profession’ . It also reminded me of the issues.

When working as a professional director you expect to develop a vision at a high and competent level because the actors have most of the skills you will need, well they are supposed to. Of course this sometimes falls short with certain individuals as clashes of style develop between performers and directors, and often between performers themselves. In actual fact, the collaborative element in directing, whilst important in both professional and student spheres, is much easier to achieve with young people and hence paradoxically  the work is often ultimately more interesting despite the youth of the group and the fact they have to work harder at skills.

Interestingly, and I find this more and more as I get older, it seems that any vision I have needs to be tempered by the young people. They are coming from a very different place to me and as the exploratory week of the production evolves so does my sense of direction, because it is not just mine but theirs. This does not mean that I just go along with their wishes because sometimes, from inexperience, they are not seeing the play in a deep way or perhaps in a way what seems like a good idea at the beginning is going to become derailed by the needs of the play itself (Actually many professional productions suffer from this problem too – what seemed like a good idea at the start goes wrong).

In addition what is important for me in that first week is assessing their individual strengths and challenges . It is nearly always true that in the beginning the student actors after being free as birds in the first week where the story is explored through sound and the body suddenly come up against the needs of the text and the expectation they feel is there. ie talking in an English accent. While I always do a lot of physical voice work based on Michael Chekhov Exercises which promotes variety and grounded truth, the old stalwarts of breathing and diction are frequently serious challenges. Whîlst on the one hand I wouldn’t want to over force the practice, on the other hand without decent clarity all the depth in the world will not be radiated through the text. Weeks 2 and 3 often have this constant feeling of a plane landing uncomfortably as adjustments of time and focus need to be made. Once the lines are understood and learned, we can really play again.

What keeps emerging from our work with this play is this deep sense of loss and loneliness in so many of the characters, that the search for love is a search to forget loneliness. Maybe the play says that no matter how hard we try we are always lonely; that in relationships we save ourselves from loneliness but to some extent sacrifice our identity. This is an interesting if rather sad thought –  and particularly because the play is a comedy.

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.

The Image Is The Action.

When I ran Commonweal  a classical theatre company in the UK with my partner Tony Hegarty many moons ago, we got a sponsorship to run an r&d workshop exploring Shakespeare. This was long before I had heard anything about Michael Chekhov. Tony and I were both aware that actors were not fully engaging with the language in a visceral way and wanted to explore why that direct contact with the language was missing and how to breathe life into Shakespeare’s verse. In productions it seemed the text was either meaninglessly mellifluous or drearily ‘realistic’ and flat.

We were working on Macbeth. I remember Tony was running the session and was trying to get us to engage with the language more, so he asked us to take a line or two from the text with images which demanded an action and perform that action when we were speaking it. That, had I but known it, was a psychological gesture which used the image from the text directly to create a psychological gesture, enliven the language and the psychology of the character.
I will always remember in that workshop a young actor speaking the lines

“I would while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out,”

while she acted as if she was performing this horrendous act. It blew me away. She was truly inhabiting the image, the language sounded brutal, desperate and full of loathing. Prior to this it had sounded like text. Voice is movement.

There was a famous, it feels almost forgotten, theatre academic and practitioner called G.Wilson Knight whose books The Imperial Theme(1951), The Crown of Life(1947) and The Wheel of Fire(1930), were once essentials on many an English syllabus. One of his principles with regard to Shakespearean text was the idea that ‘the Image is the action’ ; that poetic symbolism was not merely poetic for its own sake or to paint a picture but that its very formation gave us a key to the character and more particularly the psychology and inner energy of the character. In other words the images were the how and the what of the character. Of course this may not well have been conscious on the part of the playwright but was dictated by the very practicalities of the theatre at that time.Words, language and imagery were all powerful.  In a theatre with no scenery to speak of and no lighting, the words had to create scenery, time, weather and atmosphere.  But the words were also instruments of transformation. They were not something to hide behind; but to expose.

Some directors will tell you that in Shakespeare there is no subtext. This is not true. It is true that the characters nearly always ‘level’ with us, the audience, even when they are not being honest with the other characters – Iago or Macbeth for instance. But it is the imagery which gives us the key to subtext and psychological depth in a way that any actor’s psychological identification with the character could not, And like the young actor above, as soon as you inhabit that image with your whole being, body, voice and imagination, then the character is opened to you. I talk a lot about this work in my book Teaching Voice published by Nick Hern Books, when working with young people.

Michael Chekhov says in On The Technique of Acting that gesture can be used to enliven a word; but there is a subtle difference to finding a psychological gesture for the character first and deciding whether it feels right when you speak the text, rather than inhabiting the word and image, physicalising that, and through that finding the psychological state. There is no right or wrong here, but if you want to stay true to the language I would say the latter approach is more useful with Shakespeare.

May I say though that I am not talking about what to my mind are weeks of stultifying table work here, but a physical exploration- just in case anyone misunderstands what I am saying.

16797114_10210868896951296_608268461551876115_oSo for our workshop Giving Voice to the Imagination , May 23rd – 26th in Dublin which I am giving with Hugo Moss of Michael Chekhov Brasil, one of the things we we want to all explore is to find the voice of the character through images and psychological gesture . Places are limited and the course is filling up so if this aspect of the work is useful to you you might want to book up. info is on this blog on the Dublin Workshop page or on http://www.chekhovtrainingandperformanceireland.com You need to fill in the short application form and send it to chekhovtrainperformireland@gmail.com .