Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

My Kingdom For a Horse! -Opinion

After hearing great things about the Druid Shakespeare project which played in the tiny Mick Lally Theatre in 2015 where they tackled several of the History plays and which I sadly missed, I was looking forward to RICHARD 3 which played in the Town Hall Theatre Galway for a week before going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.  Everyone I asked who saw the play earlier in the week praised Aaron Monaghan’s performance but were less complimentary about other performances and other aspects of the production.

Aaron Monaghan is a very talented actor and made a cracking start as Richard but as the production progressed he seemed to get lost in what seemed to me a very unfocussed production in both style and direction. (With my voice teacher’s hat on, and on the evidence of last night’s show, he also needs to do some serious voice work on the later scenes). In the end though, a talented actor cannot stand alone even in a huge role and needs the full focus and guided support of the other performers. Too often I felt many of the smaller roles were not inhabited either vocally or physically and they looked lost. Consequently, there seemed no world created by the actors in which the play could live.

Many people might think that it is the set, lights, music and costume which provide this sense of a world, this atmosphere, but these elements only partly contribute to it. In any case we were not helped by the design in this respect and nor were the actors. In a forbidding industrial set, the actors inhabited the space in sparkly colourful ‘medievally’ costumes. This contrast between set and costume went completely over my head and did not seem to be embraced by the actors.

In truth though, it is the actors and director who create a strong sense of the world, by the atmosphere they create. (Michael Chekhov calls atmosphere, “the oxygen of the performance”). Too often the scenes at court particularly gave no sense of the viciousness, backstabbing  and jockeying for position which is there in the play from the start. Interestingly the play has the feel of a Jacobean play, sharply juxtaposing comedy with horror and tragedy, even though it is a fairly early work by Shakespeare. This Jacobean sense was well served by some good editing.

Without atmosphere the actors are like fish in a goldfish bowl with no water. And that was the overall feeling it gave me. Every so often, through many of Richard’s early soliloquies, in the scene where Clarence is murdered and at least the first of the subsequent executions, the atmosphere would pour in and I felt like I was watching something with some dynamism. The performance of Marty Rea was in large part responsible for this. His emotional power and sense of inhabiting the whole of his character is palpable.

The lack of atmosphere and passion in the later scenes with the struggling, angry and grieving women was extremely disappointing. Too often I was playing out the scene in my imagination in response to the text and thinking ‘wow’ rather than watching the performers perform. Why was this? There simply was not enough emotional and vocal energy in those scenes which should tear me apart as I watch them. Are we not seeing enough of horror on the news to get some sense of what women are going through right now, trying to ‘speak to power’? These scenes had enormous potential to make these connections but I did not feel they were there.

In general, the characters did not go on a sufficient journey within scenes nor through the whole play. It is very tempting to believe that the energy of this play is Richard’s villainy but it is also about the culpability of those who choose to serve him and those who abandon him – a situation mirrored particularly in Macbeth as all the lords, one by one, change sides and leave Macbeth to his fate.

In terms of a character ‘journey’ let’s consider act 4 sc 4; the scene where the three devastated women meet. Queen Margaret, when asked to teach them to curse, says:

“Compare dead happiness with living woe.

Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were,

And he that slew them fouler than he is.”

She leaves and the two wronged women then encounter Richard on his way to Bosworth. Richard has to deal with his mother’s curses. Indeed, her emotional journey seems to be that she learns to curse effectively, to channel her rage. When she leaves, he tries to get Queen Elizabeth to collude in getting her own daughter to marry him. The scene with Queen Elizabeth, who has had both of her other children murdered by Richard already, is very challenging as she tries to express her rage and save her child and herself. In my opinion, Richard is beginning to fail once his mother’s curses have been delivered, perhaps even earlier when he is abandoned by Buckingham. Without this real diminishing of his power, how can he then be visited by ghosts and delude himself into saying he was not a murderer?

Finally, I would have to say that, whilst I understand the acoustics of the Town Hall Theatre are tricky, having worked there myself, there were too many times when people did not root their breath sufficiently. Without breath, all the passion and intensity for the character will not radiate into the space. Without rooted breath you may also harm your voice. A voice coach would have been far more use than a movement director in my opinion. On that note, there was some very embarrassing “ensemble” work and ‘fighting’ which I would have been ashamed to see in a youth theatre, never mind a heavily funded project going to the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Ultimately, as a friend of mine remarked, the real star of the evening was the writer. Whilst I still enjoyed the evening I was only occasionally moved. I was baffled as the obligatory standing ovation took place, and I and my friends stared open-mouthed at a lot of backs.


Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson (and William Shakespeare)

Everyone has at least one important inspirational teacher. I am lucky to have had several. Mrs. Florence Robinson was the first. To say she was a front room drama teacher belittles her impact on me. She was inspiring, intelligent, funny, enthusiastic and joyous as a teacher. I hope I have taken that from her, because as a teacher, enthusiasm and joy are what makes you effective. They are the things you remember about someone.

She was about fifty when I met her. Her husband worked on the railways and she had two sons both of whom went into theatre administration. Like many women of the period, once married, she did not feel she could take her life into a theatrical career. She satisfied herself with youth and amateur work, doing lessons in her front room and helping people like me get to drama school. She spent many unpaid hours working with me and several other aspiring young actors.

Over the eight years I worked with her, she gave me a love of spontaneity and imagination at the same time as giving me a love of technique and precision. When I went to drama school nine years later, I found I had a lot of the building blocks already in place because she had encouraged them in me.

I was ten when I started taking class with her. She decided to give me the incredibly challenging Puck speech from act 3 sc 2 of Midsummer Night’s Dream, “My mistress with a monster is in love,” in only my second week. ” I am not sure you are ready for this yet, but if you want to be an actor, then you must give Shakespeare a try.” The idea that Shakespeare was not for the faint hearted or only for a privileged few is a myth which still exists today, Florence implied it was difficult but in some ways I noticed that actually it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Yes there were some tricky words but the rhythm and excitement of the piece which rattled through was what thrilled me. As a young man said who played Puck for me decades later in a production in Galway,  “I was scared of doing Shakespeare and now I am not”. In fact in many ways, Shakespeare is easier for young people because it is poetic and out of their immediate reality.

The day we began on that speech was the first time I heard about breathing. I realised that where you breathed in a line was important and gave you control which you needed, at the same time as having to radiate and fully inhabit Puck being boastful and wild. It was a big discovery, very early in my life. Like lots of my own students, who I am sure find the discipline of marking breath boring and counter-intuitive, it took me many years to realise that discipline and spontaneity needed to be symbiotic. She opened the door for me to the universality of Shakespeare, that poetic drama as great as this can encompass the world, at the same time as being intimate and personal.

Another thing Florence taught me quite quickly was emphasis and how emphasis could totally change meaning. It still astounds me how often actors speak text and emphasise words which make a line almost nonsensical or trite. This happened most annoyingly recently in the Andrew Scott Hamlet. This is so bad because it fails to acknowledge that language is the main thing in Shakespeare, the main conduit for everything; psychology, atmosphere, character, motivation. We can of course say, “well now we have visuals we don’t need to worry about painting a picture with words,” and “don’t people know the story anyway?” but really there is no escape; the language is everything.

And when I say that, I mean it. The story is important too of course, but Shakespeare used stories from Plutarch and other sources, like most of the Elizabethan playwrights. So the stories may well have been familiar to some. Part of the fun, for the nobles in the audience at least, might have been to see how the playwright had adapted the story. But some of the audience will not have known the story and that is a place from which we should always start if the play is to have an impact. Too often for me, professional actors carry the great weight of history on their backs, a kind of cynical exhaustion which says , “yes, I know you have seen and heard this a thousand times”.

Florence demanded enthusiasm and spontaneity. She could smell it if it wasn’t there! Though we did a whole variety of material, it is my work on Hamlet, the choruses of Henry V, Enobarbus, Puck and Romeo that I remember.

Florence and I got a little estranged during my later teenage years as I began going to youth theatre and thought devising far more cool, making theatre with my friends (something I recognise in some of my own students now!) I none the less went back to her to help me with my drama school entry audition.

Florence disappeared from my life after I started LAMDA . However, after my first term I went to visit her in her little house on a dangerous bend in the road. I looked at the stairs where I had sat as a little boy going through my poem  before i went in for my lesson . That day she arrived and hugged me and brought me into the room in which I had been given so much learning and encouragement. It was full now of her watercolours ,a hobby she had taken up over the last few years. She loved to show them. I particularly remember I loved the one of a puppy sleeping. She was lively as usual that day but I noticed that the oft repeated stories which had accompanied my later classes with her, had got more insistent. Later, I heard from others that she would go out and not be able to find her way home. This vibrant wonderful creative person was succumbing to Alzheimers.

One of the things she said to me at that visit after I had started drama school was that she wanted to know everything I had learned in my first term. She asked me, “do you think that the work we did here was….well…..was on the right track?”


‘The fault, dear Brutus…’ Caesar at the Bankside Globe

shakespeareI have just returned from seeing Julius Caesar at the fabulous Globe on the South Bank. I cannot believe I have never been there before but I left London before it was built. It was wonderful to see the audience watching the play in something like the kind of environment in which it would have been performed, and reminded me how important it is for young people to acknowledge where the plays were performed in order to understand and fully appreciate them. However I have to say that I was disappointed at the level of some of the actors, and more particularly, the direction.

Despite having some technically strong actors ( and some appallingly weak ones) , the production failed, for me at least. there was no real attempt to tell the story scene by scene, and speed and pace are a cheap substitute for real tension. Of course these are connected, and pace is vital, but tense moments of conflict and debate and some real character conflicts and transformations were what was required. The actors seemed to be encouraged by director Dominic Dromgoole to play the whole thing at lightning speed with no moments for pause, as if they were afraid that if they stopped speaking the whole edifice would crumble. When Brutus took a big pause during the oration it was quite clear that a few more pauses would have been completely acceptable and the actors and the story would not have vanished in a puff of smoke. I felt they needed to trust the play and the audience more .

A few sections sparkled, especially the group work which was strong and powerful around two rather too weak orations. Interestingly though, I felt that when the crowd actors came onto the stage to hear the will and see Caesar’s body more closely, they instantly forgot that the audience was part of them, and became rather less powerful . This made me feel that the actors and director had no real understanding of what that relationship might have been.

Another moment that worked for me was the moment after the murder when the conspirators collected themselves and spoke of how many times Caesar’s murder would be enacted. This had an amazing resonance in this space which actually moved me to tears for a moment. This had less to do with the acting than with the fact it was acted out in this theatre which gave its audience a strong role as co- conspirators in the tragedy. Our presence reminded us , both that Caesar’s murðer was being acted out as a play, but also that, as dictator after dictator is assassinated in the real world over the centuries, that this kind of assassination is a very hit and miss affair when it comes to creating a more just society. It felt like we were witnesses to a tragedy humanity enacts over and over again. Sublime.

Overall though ,the actors played fast and flatly with no real struggle or argument . Brutus , Tom McKay, played all on one level with no sense of the struggle of the role, despite giving ‘ it must be by his ðeath’ directly to The audience but without the real questioning of them and using the audience as an acting partner. This opportunity to explore the character’s dilemma was simply thrown away. The journey of Brutus it seems to me shows the audience how a good man can justify an assassination and put his name to something he finds questionable. If the actor does not do that, and there are many ways to do it, he has not fulfilled the role. Cassius, played by Anthony Howell, ranged around the stage with some focus to the text, but for me not enough passion. He I suspect would have made a much better Brutus. Caesar, George Irving, was not played as an egotist but as a victim just waiting to be murdered, with no sense of power or danger. The actor was so all over the place I wondered whether he was not actually feeling unwell. So the many springs of the play on which it depends, were not really in evidence.

It appeared that the actors worked on an intellectual level only, and seemed to ignore the imagery as an encumbrance rather than something that is giving real tangible multi layered psychology and atmosphere to the characters and themes. The characters talk of ‘the rheumy and unpurged air,’ when there was no feel or evidence this fetid air is filling the stage. And this dank atmosphere of sickness is a tangible and real thing which is either something created by the conspirators actions or by the tyranny of Caesar, and by the actual damp night.

When the language and acting have to do everything, the one thing the actors have to bring on to the stage is atmosphere, both realistic , a storm, a garden, a public place ( easy that) and palpable emotional ones….. Secrecy, suspicion, chaos, repression. It is as important as the scene itself, as Michael Chekhov wrote ‘ the general atmosphere is the oxygen of the performance .’ With no lighting, no sound other than music, no scenery, then bringing on this atmosphere is crucial. And ironically, it is not hard to do. It is not hard for actors to bring on an atmosphere of disease and dampness and secrecy if some attention has been put on this in the rehearsal.

It was to me somewhat ironic that a production that strived for ‘authenticity’ of costume and setting appeared to make no real attempt to connect with the language on anything other than an intellectual level, when one imagines it would have been experienced more deeply and emotionally as well.