Tag Archives: Tony Hegarty

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 .


Never Merry when I hear sweet music….


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.