Tag Archives: The Old Law

Comedy cuts

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Hollarcut [Max Hafler] protects Mr Hatch [ David Haig]: Bond’s The Sea. Lamda 1976 dir: Helena Kaut Hausen. Me being VERY SERIOUS INDEED

As a young student actor I could never get the hang of comedy. For one thing, the kind of comedies we ended up exploring were so far from my experience (The Philanthropist by Christopher Hampton was one) that I simply could not take them seriously. Even before classmates I would get the giggles when performing. I simply could not help it. I comforted myself that Laurence Olivier had had a similar problem as a young actor and hoped for the best that this giggling would stop. It took a long time and I comforted myself further that I was really a dramatic actor and that comedy was not my thing. I remember hating the idea that in comedy you were really,  it seemed to me, out to get the audience’s approval; that the result needed to be laughter or at least, a smile, and you knew whether you had succeeded or failed almost immediately.

Looking back, there was a misunderstanding of what acting was which caused the problem. For me at that time, acting had to be ‘real’. I was good at being emotionally true to my inner life, as narrow as it was, given that it was completely defined by my version of my young self. I had difficulty understanding the relationship between character, play and audience clearly; to understand that, whilst you had to enjoy the game of the play and enjoy making people laugh, you had also to work from an inner truth; that it was actually possible to do this. But you had to work on all of these levels at the same time to be effective. I would explain this now as truly activating the Higher Ego, as Michael Chekhov explains it, and developing the ability to shift the attention from the audience, the character, a consciousness of the humour and back again. It’s needed for all theatre work but for comedy in particular.

At LAMDA I remember exploring the Idea of comedy with an extremely interesting but misguided teacher who asked us to create something comedic out of a real tragic incident of our lives. This was an extremely unwise basis for an exercise and left many of us angry and disturbed. We attempted to recreate a tragic incident in a fellow student’s life who as a boy had hit a cricket ball which had struck and killed one of the fielding team. He had felt that he had killed the boy. This must have been extremely stressful for the student and was in addition very unsuccessful. All the improvisations based around this exercise were a failure. However, despite the fact that I strongly disapprove of leading a student into such tricky emotional territory, comparing tragedy and comedy is often a good place to start in order to define comedy and get a sense of what comedic energy actually is. Chekhov explains this simply and effectively. There are lots of safe ways to do it.

Then, when working on a student production we took to Edinburgh I began to get a feel for comedy, whilst working on a Japanese play when I played a messenger. I knew I was being funny in a stylised, physical way which felt more comfortable because I was not trying to pretend this was ‘real’. It broke a boundary for me and I enjoyed it and began to gain confidence in comedy. I got even more safely into humour in several tv plays as a young professional because there was no audience to contend with and through that I became much more aware of my own sense of humour and started to feel safer with it. Also, on TV,  I was able to hang on more firmly to the sense of ‘truth’ because there was no immediate feedback from an audience.

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not subtle but sharp and funny . Malcolm James as Simonides and me as Gnotho in my version of Middleton and Rowley’s OLD LAW 1990 . Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. director Tony Hegarty photo Amrando Atkinson.

But it was only later when I truly experienced the full contact with the audience that I started to truly understand the game that is comedy.; the constant movement of energy; the playfulness… and I started to really enjoy it. It was as if comedy required a complete acceptance of the theatrical experience which I felt at the time could somehow be ignored in drama or tragedy. I now understand that even with the most ‘realistic’ work, a degree of ‘radiation’ is essential . In other words, ‘real’ never quite cuts it – whatever that actually is. One of the things I found so liberating about the Chekhov Technique, something, by the time I found it I already knew, was that theatrical artistic truth is a completely different animal to ‘real’

Very much looking forward to my course Chekhov Comedy Composition and Cucumber Sandwiches which starts on Tuesday in Galway

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.

Adapting and Distilling the Duchess of Malfi

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Condensing Malfi to a tighter text for 8 actors whilst at the same time maintaining what I believe is the thrust and shape of the play has been an interesting challenge. For me one of the most important factors is to maintain the atmosphere and dark philosophical Vision of a critical elitist world which crumbles and sinks into the mire of its own madness and violence, taking almost everyone with it.

It is delicate work . I have already returned some text I had sliced away.

I have done a lot of adaptations over the years, since I worked on Celestina, De Rojas extraordinary play/novel for the Actors Touring Company, and adaptations for Commonweal of Faustus and The Old Law, A Jacobean play by Middleton and Rowley. The latter involved me in writing a version of the play , with my own scenes and speeches, developing the female characters in particular. This incensed some of the national right wing critics who were annoyed I gave the play a definite left wing bias, that was only hinted at in the original, though the adaptation got many fine reviews, as did the production.

What was exciting was that because I wrote in the style of the original play, my own contributions were not discernible except to the few scholars who were familiar with the play. In 2008 the original play was performed in Stratford-on-Avon. Unfortunately despite some strong performances it remained for me a museum piece, and I think they would have been well served to have done an adaptation. My own, whilst overlong, was far more relevant to the world right now and far more likely to engage audiences. In fact when I did my version with students at MIT many years later I cut it drastically. It is an interesting play, essentially a black comedy about euthanasia and the effects of legislation on society.

Michael Chekhov, when discussing Shakespeare, thought a director and cast should feel free to shape and edit his plays, and at one time I would have thought this an anathema. But as I have come to understand Chekhov’s rules about composition ,( which are shared by other techniques too) and understood that the plays were frequently co-authored, which made for repetition and occasional lack of clarity, along with the fact that there are often pieces which are incomprehensible to a modern audience, I have become much more free about the subject. Also, the obvious practical issues about performing these large plays with a more modest cast  inevitably make editing essential. Chekhov’s idea of form and his suggestion to treat the play almost as if it was a music score is an exciting consideration, and can hone not only the direction but also the whole creative team contribution.

However, there are dangers when distilling the work, of the whole play evaporating. In his short but wonderful book, Evoking Shakespeare, Peter Brook discusses the dangers of modernising a text or setting it in a different time, reminding us that whilst, as directors, we can do what we want, that we are losing something, or at the very least, changing something fundamental, whenever we make these kinds of changes.

So what are the essences of the Duchess of Malfi? A corrupt fetishistic class ridden world, which devours itself , yet is nonetheless desired and admired by the people who work for it, until they realise all too late that when you are sucked into that world, you yourself are inevitably tainted. In this world, that means usually you pay with your life.

Here is a change I have made. For me the issue of class is strong in the play though never fully explored,, and I have accentuated this a little through the character of what was once Delio, Antonios friend. He is a courtier in the original and his rather rakish behaviour In certain scenes sits uncomfortably for me with his main role of confidante to Antonio, The accountant and personal assistant to the Duchess, who eventually becomes her husband. Of course a purist might say that this is what Webster was trying to say, that even the nicest people are corrupted, but his contribution is not coherent enough to really make sense to me.  In the original he seems as corrupt as the others, and I was anxious to seek an energy in the play of someone who was a good person but who was not  tainted by the actions of the court. It is interesting Delio begins and ends the play, and that must be our abiding impression of him as a good guy, the Horatio of Malfi.

In our production the character Delia is being played by an older woman , and I sense she might come from a lower class even than Antonio. This allows us to connect with a Character, an outsider, who has to deal with the horror of what transpires, someone whose fascination for the court is obvious right from the start, in the lines she/he is given. It gives Delia a strong pertinent resonance for the present Day to which we can all relate as we look on at ineffectual and corrupt government elites across the globe. Whilst this is not in the original , we are not not living in the 17th century either, and ultimatately the play has to communicate to us now. Having said all this I have been very careful not to increase the stage time of the character, which would have unbalanced the play . It is all a delicate balance.

The Duchess of Malfi plays in the Black Box Galway February 3rd – 7th