I have just come off an exciting Zoom call with colleague and guest Liz Shipman. We discussed and planned our course The Shakespeare Connection which begins online on April 15th. The discussion was very exciting , focussing as it did on the character of language and the relationship between the audience and characters in Shakespeare. In my preparations I decided to have a look at my second book, “What Country,Friends is this?” which explores directing Shakespeare with young people using (primarily) the Michael Chekhov technique.
Chekhov technique and Shakespeare’s plays seem to me to have a few things in common. They are both transformative in the way true artistic processes are. Like Chekhov, Shakespeare believed in atmosphere, in his case created by the amazing imagery of his text. Both believed in Theatre and the Power of the Actor. Although Chekhov was keen to edit and transpose speeches from Shakespeare when doing a production to make the work flow in a way more akin to what he believed were modern sensibilities, there is no doubting his respect for the work of Shakespeare.
A few years ago, I went to see a rather annoying production of Julius Caesar at the Globe Theatre in London and I remember only one excellent moment. After Caesar is killed the conspirators come around the body, all of them covered in blood. Suddenly, they are completely alone as all the Roman crowd have fled. Because I was sitting at the side of the Wooden O, I was seeing the backs of the actors and beyond them a sea of audience.
Brutus and Cassius are speaking:
Cassius: How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
Brutus: How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along,
Now worthier than the dust?
This for me created such a timeless moment and I realised the immense power of the theatrical metaphor, used so much in Shakespeare’s plays. It made me feel we were in the world of the play, the world of the modern theatre at that precise moment, as well as having a strong connection to a performance in the 16th Century. It gave an incredible sense of Time and History. I was very moved. We, the audience became more than observers; we were participants. In a darkened modern theatre when you do not feel at one with audience other than as an observer this collaborative feeling is much harder to bring forth. In Shakespeare’s Globe, in the seventeenth century, as was apparent to me here at this moment, it seemed much easier.
These dichotomies where an audience is actively involved in the play at the same time as being the observer is something which was absolutely imperative in the Elizabethan theatre and this dramatic shift in the audience’s role still has an emotional effect. Sadly and too often, characters addressing the audience for advice and counsel make a generalised ‘zoning out’ (often over compensated for by loud shouting!) When you commit as a performer to an involvement that the audience is there and their views actually matter, the atmosphere becomes charged.
The other key to this multi layered experience is the language and the imagery and the effect this has on the imagination without which the story and psychology of the characters is empty.
In my book, “What Country Friends is This?” (Nick Hern Books 2021) which gives help and guidance on working with young actors on Shakespeare, I emphasise working with the language through the body. I also talk a lot about this relationship with the audience. Is the audience actually a character in their own right? Usually not, or not exactly, because it’s important that their participation allows them to retain their identity as an audience. The key is the duality of this identity. If you make it too specific, let’s say the audience are the people of Rome, the chances are the audience are going to let you down. Like unsuspecting stooges plucked from the audience by a comedian they are never going to facilitate your performance. It is wrong to expect it. I saw one disastrous experiment of this whilst I was still living in England of Coriolanus directed by Sir Peter Hall with Ian McKellen as Coriolanus. The poor audience, some of them co-opted to be onstage as the incredibly important force of citizens, were expected to shout and yell on cue; it made for an embarrassing spectacle. The rage of the people on which this play actually rests was inevitably absent, leaving egg on the faces of all concerned!
The soliloquy especially is a bridge to the audience:
“You are both your character in his world and addressing the audience. You are doing both simultaneously, talking to yourself and talking to them”
(“What Country, Friends, is this?” 2021.p177.)
So what is this ‘character’ that we might give to the audience when we are speaking to them? Ask yourself, “What has the audience to offer me?” What is their role? In Macbeth for instance, I get the feeling that the audience are his judges, or accusers, maybe his conscience.
On April 15th I am beginning a set of online weekly workshops called The Shakespeare Connection which run till May 6th with guest tutor Liz Shipman who runs The Integrated Meisner and Chekhov Training in California. We will be looking at some opening and closing text from Richard III, a character who initially at least seems to have a real need of the audience. We will be using practical physical work, Chekhov exercises and doing examination of the text.
It costs 120€ for the four sessions. email firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to book a place or have any questions to ask.