Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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 .

‘Take this sad tale where you will….’

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Orla Tubridy,Michael Irwin and Catherine Denning

What a fascinating exploration and discovery is The Sacrificial Wind, this small hard diamond of a piece by Lorna Shaughnessy,  which I directed at the New Theatre Space at the National University of Ireland Galway, which is shortly to be revived for the Cuirt International Festival of literature 2017 and playing in the Town Hall Studio Galway from the 25th-28th April .Tickets available at http://www.cuirt.ie or http://www.tht.ie

It is an absolutely thrilling piece to revisit.

Like all Greek theatre, Lorna Shaughnessy’s examination of the characters around the story of Iphigenia in Aulis asks big questions; in this case about our sense of helplessness in the wake of war and cruelty, our collusion in those events and our sense of shame in that collusion. It asks what can artists do to affect these horrors? What have we to offer? It takes us through a panoply of heroes, soldiers and victims and all in fifty minutes and with three performers. Interestingly one of the rules of the Ancient Greek Tragic competitions was that there were only three actors who played all the speaking roles.

What’s interesting about working with a set of poems as opposed to a play, even when the poems are dramatic,  is that the structure is more subtle like music and we have to understand that. Each poem is like an aria , changing the energy and movement of the piece suddenly for two or three minutes before a new character twists the story, often violently, in another direction. This is incredibly challenging for both actors and director as each poem exudes its  own particular atmosphere. A number of the poems, like the final set where the family and the playwright Euripides are all devastated by the sacrifice of Iphigenia, work together as a distinct musical movement.

So unlike a conventional play where the structure of the story limits the choices to a certain extent, a body of poems has a much more serpentine structure with many more possibilities. It means you could go on and on and on exploring but we had a short time frame. The poems gradually revealed themselves . We had not only to consider character but, like a song, a style of delivery which depended on how each poem was written. this work was greatly enhanced by the soundscapes of Aranos, and lighting by Bryan Rabbitte.

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Catherine Denning as Clytemnestra

One thing I ditched very early on was the idea that any of the pieces would take place as ‘scenes’. The characters addressed only the audience. This did not mean that the other performers did not support the main actor but the principal acting partner was always the audience. This kept both a feel of Greek drama and a palpable collusion in the audience as to the Sacrifice and other decisions that the characters made. It was very direct.

This is not the same as doing a monologue to the audience, much beloved device of many modern playwrights, but a more Shakespearean take where the audience are asked to consider their role in the actions of the play . Shakespeare monologues are less reflective and more active. they are asking questions. Look at the ‘It must be by his death’ Brutus soliloquy  in Julius Caesar for one of many  examples . I was very aware of how our crisis – riven world is provoking the very kind of questions the characters ask.

Thanks also to Catherine Denning, Michael Irwin and Orla Tubridy , the actors, who made such an incredible job of the work.

Observe her.Stand Close. Supporting Characters in Shakespeare.

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Whilst working on the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth in class last week, I was reminded how the smaller characters crucially create the atmosphere for the running characters and the way in which they behave, creates the whole world of the play. We remember of course there was no set or lighting in Shakespeare’s theatre until they moved indoors later and the language, costumes and minor characters fulfilled this function of helping create atmosphere. But these supporting characters do so much more than this.

How are these characters normally treated?  Audiences, and even the actors and directors themselves frequently treat these small parts as just that – small. But the relationship between the Gentlewoman carrying this dreadful secret alone and the Doctor she calls in to see the Queen sleepwalking so he can share the burden of the knowledge of the Queen’s terrible crime, lead us to her tortuous guilt as sure as they are leading us to a cell in the underworld.

There is so much scope for these supporting characters, PROVIDED the basic goals of creating the atmosphere are fully achieved. There is a danger of overbalancing a whole scene with an actor over obsessed with character, like a kettle drum in a quiet movement of a symphony. What do I mean by this? Let’s look at the scene in Macbeth where Macbeth takes Macduff and young Lennox to the king’s door. The young lord waits outside the King’s chamber with Macbeth, who knows that any second his act of murder will be discovered. Lennox says, as they wait outside the King’s chamber:

“The night has been unruly: Where we lay
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say
Lamentings heard i’the’air; strange screams of death,
And, prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion, and confus’d events,
New-hatched to the woeful time, the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake.”

The only thing we actually know about Lennox from a character point of view is that he is young. I watched one particularly bad version of this scene where the actor played the character as if he was young and awkward in the presence of the great Macbeth, and in order to deal with this he was trying hard to find something to say. Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable character choice for the situation, it does not sit well with the language nor with the tension of the scene, as I watched the antics of a schoolboy lord, instead of the musical thrust of the scene which is leading to the explosion of catastrophe. When we examine the imagery of the storm Lennox describes ,we see it is recreating for us the bubbling turmoil in Macbeth’s head rather as occurs in King Lear, like a disturbing soundtrack . Lennox needs to give power to the speech , serve the language and not apologise for it with some awkward characterisation. When the actor serves the imagery and general atmosphere then the great tightening coil of that scene is observed. However this is not as restrictive for the actor as it sounds because within those perameters there is still a lot more scope than we first imagine for the supporting roles.

Let’s go back to the sleep walking scene and the class  .We worked at first with atmosphere , asking the actors to imagine the scene. With closed eyes, they saw Darkness, prison, fear, secrecy. Danger. Guilt, hell, a vast cellar… a few key words. We then worked with a couple of these images and qualities. Breathing them in. The scene instantly came to life. Suddenly the Woman and the Doctor became immersed in this thick dark desperate conspiracy , their voices whispered, irritated and uncomfortable as they waited to see if the Queen would appear.

When we added Psychological Gesture to our exploration, the actor playing the Gentlewoman realised how much she needed to share the knowledge she had, that she did not care so much for the Queen, but she simply needed to give someone else the responsibility to do something. The Gentlewoman was not a fool, she was someone who knew she was in danger, not only the physical danger of carrying this evidence of the queen’s perfidy, but also the spiritual danger of being complicitous to murder. It was as if her mistress was pulling her down with her. The Doctor, wanting to reject and push away the responsibility, was also mad with curiosity, in the way people who watch reality tv shows are, hungry and curious. Pauses were filled with dread and awful uncertainty as the Woman searched for support from the healing professional.

None of this was discussed at first. It came all from language, and the feelings and sensations from the gestures. This for me is the magic of Chekhov Technique, that so much can be discovered without discussion.

At the end of the scene the full complexity and satisfaction of these discoveries played themselves out. The Gentlewoman was overwhelmed with relief at being able to share. The doctor realising the position he was now in, tried to cover his fear with instructions of care towards the sleepwalking woman still trying to push away his involvement

There is then an extraordinary speech in verse by the doctor, when he addresses the wider impications of what they have heard, in which he cries ‘God, God Forgive us all .’  which unites the whole of humanity in this terrible pain. He concludes the scene feeling pity and confusion, having brought us the audience to a wider consideration of suffering , whilst she with her ‘Thank you good doctor’  grasps his hands in gratitude. This exploration of these two supporting characters with their beautifully created arcs created in embryo in two hours was incredibly moving. We never see that woman again [the doctor appears again] but this exploration showed how her character was beautifully formed with a beginning middle and end, and how both characters served the play. A feeling of form and wholeness.

 

 

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!

What comes first? Emphasis or Intuition ?

Sarah O'Toole, darragh O'Brien, Mary Monaghan

Sarah O’Toole, Darragh O’Brien, Mary Monaghan

“Even if a concept is necessary in speech, it is a tragically pathetic portion of the whole that speech can offer.” Peter Brook : Evoking Shakespeare [a short but wonderful book.] 

Despite the fact that Chekhov addresses all the hidden stuff that Brook might be alluding too here, nonetheless I took two groups working on Shakespeare back to very basic work this week. Technical , intellectual work. Sense, finding the words that carry the meaning and underlining them, making sure you have enough breath to follow your intention, and radiate the sensations and feelings they evoke. We did this work in tandem with the Chekhov work, but I felt it essential to spend some time intellectually exploring sense with pens and text.

When I trained I hardly ever underlined anything. It was not laziness, I almost could not bear to do it, as if underlining would somehow destroy my acting, that it would fix me in some trap that would restrict the way I played the character forever. I understood that acting was something personal and invisible. Of course I still believe this. I still believe, as Chekhov stated, that Actors Are Magicians. I still find the idea that working from logical sense as if it was the way to unlock the mysteries of art or the universe a deeply reductive path, as if logic could ever be a legitimate tool of exploration for an evocation of huge lives of complex characters and deep story. I now understand that it is important to explore intellectual meaning and emphasis without necessarily sticking to it, because the very act of doing it reminds you that on some level it is still very important.

As I write this I am reminded of the way I was taught ‘actioning’ , a gruelling and to my mind pointless process, where every single line is analysed for an action. It is mind and spirit numbing. A young director friend worked with me like this and we had to part company. For me this process totally denies spontaneity, response, the energy of other performers, and the audience. It is acting as cold science, and denies creativity. Like eating dry muesli .

Back to emphasis. I think it was Gielgud who talked about the need to emphasis the correct word so that the audience, whilst not understanding the whole meaning of a sentence or phrase , was able to follow. It is amazing how often even the most experienced actors emphasise inappropriate words, and how even the sense is lost.

I find when we work with Psychological Gesture that sometimes the power of the sensations and feelings a gesture provokes can overpower the sense of the text. We might think this doesn’t matter because what the gesture evokes in us is so unbelievably authentic that we are happy with it. The issue with poetic dialogue and especially Shakespeare is that the sensations and feelings are embedded in the language, so the rhythm of the gesture and the images need to somehow mesh. I am not trying to make a rule here, rather just express a line of enquiry.

I suppose the question we have to ask as teachers, directors and performers is what comes first here? Is it the intellectual logic , place to breathe , etc or is it the intuition and the emotional response to the work that we find through our Chekhov exploration? I believe that it is much better to use the Chekhov route first, better to explore the invisible than the logical as the base. The emphasis and place to breathe can come later and can change, provided the actor has had some training.

 

Psychological gesture and rhythm

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In the Chekhov sessions this week we have been working a lot on Gesture and its power to create not only intention and feeling in the character but also have offered us deep insights, particularly into characters normally seen as villains and fiends.

I am working with three different groups right now, There is a Shakespeare group, using Chekhov primarily working with THE DREAM, an Intro group working with THE CRUCIBLE, and my own theatre group working on pieces of Shakespeare for modern environments and shortly ANTIGONE by Anouilh.

For those not so familiar with the Chekhov Technique, I would define the psychological gesture primarily as a way to find the deepest intentions of the character in a scene, a moment, or even through a whole play through bodily expression, through gesture and movement. It can also be used to explore layers of language ( something we explored extensively in the Shakespeare class this week) and many other things too! Refining and practising the gesture evokes sensations and feelings in the body , which clarifies and further explores in a visceral and dynamic way what the character wants and feels.

What continually astounds me about the use of psychological gesture as an acting tool, is its amazing creation of nuances and layers, however simple the gesture is. In the Intro group, two of the students playing Abigail and Mary in THE CRUCIBLE were working on gesture. The two gestures they created were remarkably similar, with elements of a pulling embrace and a holding. Later we pondered on why this was, and I offered the idea that the two girls both needed love, respect and power in the community ( their pulling hungry embrace), and then came this tremendous opportunity for revenge on a society that totally disrespected and restricted them. But their need is to be loved and respected. The idea that Abigail and Mary both want this, despite being so incredibly different , and that somewhere in all the horrible things they do is a deep search for love and respect is an amazing thought, and offers the actors something one rarely sees in this play when it is performed.

Similarly when working on the Shakespeare Theatrecorp project, one of the actors is working on one of Goneril’s speeches , and she came up with a remarkably similar gesture to the student working on Abigail, and it suddenly provoked in me a whole raft of feelings when I was watching, that Goneril too was somewhere searching for love and acceptance even if it was buried deep inside her. Where else does her love for Edmund come from?

I remember once when I was doing my A levels long ago the class was asked to write our first essay entitled The Evil of Goneril and Regan. I went on an imaginative flight about what it must have been like living In Lear’s court, what a tyrant he was, how he really only seemed to care for Cordelia in the first place ( and what victory it must have been for the other two to have got rid of her in such a humiliating fashion). How suddenly the two ignored sisters got the chance to get their revenge. You get the idea.

I got an F. I was devastated. This was because apparently this was not the style or approach I needed to use to pass the exam at that time. I did back up my imaginative flight with some textual references, but my efforts were considered far too fanciful.

Back to Psychological gesture. Of course both Abigail and Goneril could be described as manipulative, masking their ‘evil’ with a smile . But there was something about their similar gestures which struck me, that for both of the characters there was a need there.

It then made me ask the philosophical question of other characters who do bad things, how many of their vile motives and actions come initially from some kind of human and needy desire which is not necessarily about cruelty and destruction, even when these things are the result. For some characters of course this vulnerability is very deeply buried, and I am not trying to exonerate evil acts here either in characters or real people. But this analysis of these gestures reminds me that things are not so simple. I will return to this theme when I start working on Antigone I am sure.

The other powerful thing given through Gesture is an inner rhythm, which is one of the most amazing things of all; that in working with the gesture through the speech, the actor gets a feel for the character’s rhythm, one that is often completely different to her own.

If we consider our own lives, there are many situations which provoke us, and we feel the push and pull of a possible response. If your boss says something you don’t approve of, for instance, a movement happens in your body, things stir, as you weigh up whether to wade in and say anything or not . Whilst these inner tussles appear to be intellectual, they are initially responses to your impulses, backwards and forwards, so we very often find ourselves, particularly in emotional situations, with a certain pattern or rhythm. The use of Psychological gesture works deeply on this level, and as one of the actors said last night, just because you have the same gesture for a speech or character, you can still vary the gesture in quality or pace to create different sensations and feelings for the character.

What an enriching and thought and feeling provoking week!

Chekhov, Ensemble and Theatrecorp

 

Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conoir Geoghegan

Muireann Ni Raghaillaigh, Conor Geoghegan

When I was at a Chekhov conference in Zurich in 2013, we were asked to put forward ideas about how Chekhov Technique might be used in the future, and someone said how he would like to see Chekhov being developed in devising and more experimental forms of theatre, as well as in text-based plays.

I have been using Chekhov in my ensemble/devising class for the MA Drama programme at NUI Galway for several years. The technique is an extremely successful way to unite a team of performers in a deep way, and is highly effective even though the performance is going to be in a different style and created in a different way. While the goal of some exercises  may be different when working towards a text, they are still the same exercises. The qualities of moulding , floating, flying radiating for instance which normally focus on finding psychological states/ sensations through movement and movement, in order to eventually address dialogue and conventional character, in this class excite a bodily awareness which come as much from the imagination as physical flexibility. Again, they are still the same exercises, with a slightly different focus.

When the students work on their non verbal folk tales in my class, we work through a lot of Chekhov’s atmosphere exercises which help the students with their feeling of ensemble as well as the creation of what they believe is the appropriate atmosphere for the moment or environment in which they are playing. It helps them create the score of the story and to return to it authentically and swiftly should it be needed. We also explore a lot of archetypes through the imagination and the body. Archetypes are so near the surface in myths and folklore that it gives ready access for the student and allows them to explore their own unconscious, safely, and often think and experience  outside the box of what an archetype actually might be. The lack of intellectual exploration suits devising, along with the desire to connect voice,feeling, body and imagination, which should I feel be at the heart of all live performance, devised or otherwise.

When students move on to their site specific work towards the end of the semester, which works to creat a non-narrative piece with the feel of a piece of music, Chekhov work helps thematically again through atmosphere and gesture in a very pure way. Chekhov inspires, often through abstracts, the most concrete and actable forms.

Darragh O'Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Darragh O’Brien , Reidin Ni Thuama

Right now I am building an idea for a series of sessions with the Theatrecorp group, using Shakespeare and modern locations. In addition to considering and feeling the atmosphere of the location , we need to consider the subtle interplay between the text and the location in a very literal way, which is more than just the character and the play from which the speech is taken, but responding also to the atmosphere of the location and what is happening in the world right now, what the words suggest now. It is not an intellectual exploration, though the way I am describing it might make it sound that way. For instance when an actress stands at the statue of Equality and looks across at Galway’s Cathedral, in almost the same spot where the Galway Magdalen laundry once stood and speaks a speech of defiance from Catherine of Aragon , which appears in Henry 8th, we are looking at many layers of meaning. These layers can be looked at in much detail using the technique with very little discussion. This is powerful and though text based, it is not a conventional approach to it. it is not based first and foremost on character and the situation in the play but on text through gesture, and the effect of the atmosphere and environment around it.

The photos are both from our first session on the Shakespeare work. Very exciting.

‘I , that please some, Try all…’

Some thoughts on a Winter’s Tale….

The key to the Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s apparently sprawling play , set like many others in both the city and the country, seems to be Time. Though Time has only one chorus which speaks of what has happened in the 16 year interim between Acts three and four it gives us a sense that things are turning from the bleak first three acts Into something more hopeful. Time is unstoppable, relentless, kills things off, but it also cauterises and soothes the pain of the past.  shakespeareConsidering Chekhov’s sense of the Whole, i wonder whether there isn’t something unifying in this sense of Time for a production.

Before Time’s Chorus, we have an extraordinary scene   The clown has seen the death of a man torn to pieces by a bear, and watched a ship sink in a terrible storm.  His Father, the Old Shepherd, has found an abandoned baby ….’Thou met’st with things dying, I with things newborn,’ he tells his son. This beautiful scene, indeed this very line, seems to be the pivot on which the play might balance.

When we examine the play we realise that both the first and the fourth act begin with a person wishing to leave where they are and go home to meet their greater responsibility and continue their lives. Their Time is up. They know this and are trying to leave but somehow they are prevented by the need of someone close to them, who is selfish or unwilling to let go and let Time move on. Ironically the person trying to leave in act one and return to his kingdom, Polixenes,  is the same man holding back Camillo from returning home in Act 4. Because the situation is not exactly parallel we tend to overlook it, but it is incredibly important. It suggests a skeleton on which to build.

The fourth act is very long indeed, and there is no way we can attempt to create the kind of impact it was meant to have ( whatever that might BE exactly) because we live in a different context, with a completely different understanding of the rural idyll such as is presented in the play. How much the pastoral world is presented as a pastiche is sometimes hard to gauge but idealised it most certainly is in all the plays in which it is explored. Perhaps it is my imagination, but in The Winter’s Tale the idyll seems satirised in some way. But what exact polarity does this world of shepherds and shepherdesses exude, with the other extreme of the polarity being the court of Leontes? Of course there are some obvious choices….. But what might that polarity be?

Interestingly , this play explores the feeling of guilt for terrible inappropriate action. Though this is not unique in Shakespeare’s plays, it seems to be a theme he seemed more concerned with in later years, and is something that I feel myself so human and worthy of exploration as i get older myself. The play gives a lot of stage time to the sense of regret  and how hard it is to accept what you have done, when Leontes is becalmed and left to deal with his pain.

Another key scene for me is the reconciliation between Perdita and Leontes, which we only hear about from the excited ( and to me quite hysterical ) trio of lords who observe what happens when the past is pieced together. It is interesting Shakespeare did not choose to present this scene, as if he was not interested in the immediate realistic response to this reconciliation, but the overall euphoric effect. This is borne out by the beautiful but strange ending. In the Footsbarn production of 1998 which came here to Galway, there was a wonderful moment when the family was left laughing with joy at the end of the play. It was incredibly moving.

Of course there is no Mamilius nor Antigonus to step into the light to laugh with them.They are dead.

Hmmmm

Conceal me what I am – changing gender in Shakespeare

Thinking.

Shakespeare is a master of cross-gendered roles. After all, every female role was originally played by the other gender. As a process which was embedded within the law until the Restoration, it was accomodated by all. Of course it was a one way street, women could not play men! Shakespeare explored worlds of sexual and gender ambivalence and manipulated this convention to amazing advantage. However, he was also very conventional when it came to marrying people and sending them off into the happy beyond, fulfilled and alchemically transformed, as if marriage was the answer to it all.

Interestingly when i google ‘actresses who played Shakesperean heroes’ i am confronted by women who played Hero in Much Ado, but I remember from my old theatre books that actresses took on roles like Hamlet in the early 20th century.   I wonder what response the audience had to this ? Was it considered an amusement , or was it one of those acting ‘tests’ given to great or successful performers to play something different from themselves?

Escalus running!

Escalus running!

p>As I sit with a number of Shakespeare plays and decide how feasible they might be with  characters not cross gendered, but with changed genders, I imagine people thinking that it is a little old hat to even be concerned. But for me, it is a question of gauging and asking yourself ‘does this work?’ And am I feeling comfortable with it?” And “how will audiences respond?”

The most interesting thing to consider is how it changes the world of the play. When we made Escalus a powerful woman politician/barrister and Pompey a drag queen ( I am sure that has been done, but then everything has probably been done in Shakespeare ) in our production of MEASURE, I felt it pushed the play more into the present, and created many modern resonances, hardly changing a single line. It gave the act of closing the brothels a much wider and more modern contact. Anyone who was outside the conventional world could be thrown into prison by the Duke’s repressive law. Furthermore, the overlooking of Escalus for a promising young upstart like Angelo has many resonances for underrepresented female politicians. These changes of gender expanded the play’s concerns without distubing something fundamental about it.

However, for me , changing the gender of a character can sometimes limit a play within the constraints of that decision.  In other words the play can become a curiosity. The change of gender ends up being the total focus of the production. I have seen a few productions where this has happened. This is not a criticism, because it may have been the reason for doing the production in the first place. It is a result but it can also be seen as a gimmick, something which cannot serve the play as it is.

For me, when you change the gender of a character, I think the strategy should be that  you really ask yourself, ‘ if this male character was a woman [or vice versa] and said these lines then what would she be like? What journey would she be on?” and really pursue that as far as you can go. I felt these questions were not asked in Julie Taymor’s movie of THE TEMPEST , with the usually fantastic Helen Mirren as Prospera, playing the role, I felt, as a man. I was awaiting this fabulous witch like being , and got a rather surprisingly conventional portrayal. I wanted to see an unleashing of fresh understanding in the power of this role and felt I got much of the same as I would have got with a reasonable male actor. Maybe some people would say, well isn’t that the point? But for me, it isn’t. For me, gender does matter, and like all innovations to an old piece, it has to be carried through.

Recently I have been considering characters in King Lear . Which characters, given the text and nature of the relationships could be changed from male to female? Lear himself would be a possibility. But what about Kent, for instance? I truly toyed with this for a while, but no matter what lines were cut , Kent felt like an intrinsically male character. His behaviour with Lear , particularly when in his disguise, was very macho and gruff. What was I thinking of? Gloucester on the other hand might be a candidate. Her reasoning for keeping Edmund away from court would have been understandable in order to preserve her reputation. Any guilt she might have felt for keeping him in the shadows might prove a powerful energy to her gullibility in the plot that Edmund hatches. This journey is attractive and feasible. there is a whole accessible logic there, with a minimum of script alteration.

Hmmmmmm.

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Never Merry when I hear sweet music….

shakespeare

JESSICA     I am never merry when I hear sweet music.

LORENZO  The reasons are your spirits are attentive.

Having just seen a production of MERCHANT OF VENICE, I have to ask whether this is an acceptable play for school students or for those of us living in a pluralist democracy, even though our society is every bit as materialist as the world in Shakespeare’s drama. I feel these days that there is absolutely no point in doing a play if it does not have something enlightening to share with us about the time and circumstances in which we live. So what can this play possibly be saying to us?

After a discussion with my co-conspirator Tony Hegarty this morning, he opined that the play is not about prejudice, but about the question of value; the value of money, of vows, of love, duty and faith. It’s an attractive argument. What the play is not about, primarily, is prejudice.  That fact however does not prevent the play being racist and anti semitic.

If indeed the play IS about values, then the final lines, and arguments about the test of the rings, have strong resonance. They have a ‘feeling of the whole’, to quote Chekhov, The final line is about the emotional value of the ring itself.

” Well, while I live, I’ll fear no other thing, so sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring.”

–  But the truth is, that for an audience in the present day , the focus is on the central conflict between Shylock and Antonio, and the racial conflict so all engulfing, that these other matters are inevitably diminished.

It seems to me that it does not matter how viciously a theatre company embodies the society around Shylock , it neither justifies his behaviour towards Antonio, nor prevents him from being seen as a black-hearted villain.  No sooner has the play begun than Shylock’s servant , the likeable clown, and Jessica , his daughter, are itching to escape him , and so we the audience, are encouraged to abandon Shylock too. He is clearly a bad and dangerous man. Even some of the more sympathetic speeches of Shylock, do not really get any sympathy because he appears more concerned about the loss of his jewels, than his daughter. Even worse, his obsession with his bond and his overwhelming desire for murderous revenge can make his choices understandable to an audience but not sympathetic. Shylock’s punishment is  harsh, considering he is not even being examined by a real lawyer, and most particularly the fact that he is made to convert. It is worth considering however that in the time it was written, most of the audience may well have seen this as a compassionate move to save Shylock from eternal damnation, instead of a stripping of his identity. They would also have a good understanding of this converting for the law’s sake as it was a part of the social fabric in the religious ferment that was the  Elizabethan period.

Ultimately though we have to consider what is the impression this play gives to us now in 2014? The message about Jews , along with the cheap laughs at the expense of  the Princes of Morocco and Aragon, can only be interpreted as incredibly negative against all those of different colours and faiths. The final picture is of the self-satisfied happiness of the quartet of Christian lovers who end the play reconciled, dancing off to their young privileged lives.

A big problem with the racist taste in this play rests in the structural fact that Shylock does not appear in Act V. Many of Shakespeare’s ‘outsider’ characters, most notably Lucio in MEASURE FOR MEASURE,  and Malvolio in 12th NIGHT, have their powerful moments in the fifth act of their respective dramas, which makes an audience question the apparently happy and resolved outcomes of the main plot. In Act V of THE MERCHANT , Shylock is gone. The bitter sweet issue of the rings is all that seems to be left to be resolved. The villain is gone and punished and we as the audience can relax into the comedy.

The key to making some kind of reconciliation for a modern audience I believe, lies in the playing not only of Shylock but of Lorenzo and Jessica.  Jessica is an absolutely pivotal character in the way issues of race and religious intolerance are explored in the play. She is very underwritten of course, but what strikes me is that Jessica may not be happy in her relationship, nor with her impulsive decision. The powerful moment where Tubal relates to Shylock how Jessica is selling the jewels she has taken, conjures up an image of a young couple on the run with no money ,visiting a pawnbroker, sitting in front of him, and bartering. Where is Lorenzo’s money? Is he penniless? So the couple ends up at Belmont, impoverished, seeking the patronage of Portia.

It is not original to make Jessica pivotal in the final act, and make us question her decision in the play and the punishment meted on her father, despite the fact she has not one line after Portia returns, but what I am saying is that this would probably be the only palatable choice for me were I directing this play. Rather like Isabella in MEASURE who does not answer the Duke when he asks to marry her, Jessica says little about her father’s plight.  In the opening of Act 5 during Jessica and Lorenzo’s scene, they name pairs of lovers, who all have met with tragedy. There is a deep dissatisfaction and sadness running through this opening scene, a section which culminates with the sublime speech about the music of the spheres, as  Lorenzo tries to comfort her with a universal concept of harmony.  People like Jessica who change their faith for expediency pay the price, because they are always outsiders in the world in which they seek to be a part. When Portia and the others return, that prejudiced world comes back on the stage and Lorenzo and Jessica slide back into the shadows. For me it is essential that we see her unease in some fundamental way, that her presence reminds us of the prejudice that she and her ‘tribe’ endure.