3 March 2010

Returned late last night from the opening of King Lear at the RSC Stratford. David Farr's production is steeped in early-twentieth-century decay. A bleak internal landscape of industrial decline, like a First-World-War evocation of downtown Detroit meets Lancashire cotton mill. Strangely, this pseudo-topicality did not jar. I was intrigued by the alternative representation of Lear (played by Greg Hicks) who is certainly a bullish and decrepit old bombast, but who is all muscle and sinew underneath. Also, an armour-clad Cordelia adds to the quarto-inspired elements of the production.

What is obvious to me now is how much of the play remains visually etched on my memory, not least because of the amazing lighting design of Jon Clark. This is an electric play. The sound and sizzle of electricity charges through every scene. Only Edmund can physically control this electricity, although that is less by personality and more by design.

Really admired Kelly Hunter's Goneril. She would make a wonderful Queen Elizabeth I, her face hauntingly reminiscent of the darker portraits of the ageing monarch. Less convinced by Kathryn Hunter's Fool.

The ending. Lear enters carrying the limp lifeless body of Cordelia. Hicks's strength is obvious here. This is a remarkably young and virile Lear, his death caused by personal grief rather than old age. Not so much tragedy, more inevitable decline and death. Haunting, strangely unnerving and very thought-provoking, it will not please the purists. It will, however, please those who like their plays topically biased, especially against the politics of the age.

8 November 2009
The Future of Acting, or Simply the Past?

The last two weeks have been spent rehearsing and performing a one hour piece at the Trafalgar Studios. Calling upon professional actors and musicians, the Perfect Pitch production company staged what originally was billed as a staged showcase of a group of four 'shows', each written, directed and performed by different personnel. I was booked to rehearse and perform in From Up Here, created by a team of postgraduate students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

The significance of this exercise struck home the first day of rehearsals. Don't forget, that first day was only the Monday before last. Here, we were presented with a script and a score and, in the gentlest possible way, informed by the director, Pip Minnithorpe, that it would be best for us to be 'off the book' by the end of the week, thus presenting a fully-staged production in front of a paying audience the following Tuesday. Such a request really focuses the mind. We embarked on the rehearsals which, since this was an unpaid venture, needed to accommodate various work commitments elsewhere, and began to throw together a production.

Rehearsing in whatever venues were available and with whatever actors were equally available, we reached the point of a first full run-through on the Saturday prior to opening, after five-and-a-half days' rehearsal. We were then called in for an afternoon rehearsal in the downstairs studio space at RADA on the Monday, only seeing the stage at the Trafalgar Monday night at 8.00, a space we had until 10.30. Anyone who has played Studio 2 at Trafalgar Studios will appreciate the unique difficulties of sharing this theatre with the Studio 1 main house production. At present it is Lennie Henry's Othello which is pulling in the crowds. To get to the dressing rooms for Studio 2, you have to pass through the stage left wing-space, often during someone else's performance. Once downstairs all is relatively safe, until emerging in Studio 2 itself. The backstage corridor which links stage left to stage right also links, via a single draped curtain, with the downstage entrance to the Studio 1 stage. An American suicidal Yale professor regularly came face-to-face with a giant military Moor waiting to strangle that day's Desdemona. Noise and wandering punters are always an issue.

What became clear, however, was something which possibly relates back to early-modern performance technique. Here were we, forced by circumstance, to learn a play very quickly and to stage it professionally with the minimum of preparation or rehearsal. Gone were the luxury of weeks, or even days, to discover our characters. The issue was to learn the lines, learn the moves and deliver the goods. What skill does this require? Well, naturally, an ability to perform is a bonus. That taken, the next most important thing for such acting technique is one which is often commented upon by theatrical historians as a matter of shock and surprise but is seldom considered as of primary importance in the theatrical process. The ability to digest and store dialogue in an incredibly short time and to reproduce that dialogue in a coherent and artistic way.

Early modern actors, delivering a different play each day, six days a week, might have a massive repertory to call from. Philip Henslowe's diary from the Rose suggests that many plays were performed only once. What made the professional actor so special in those days was, it might appear, nothing more than the ability to consume and regurgitate vast quantities of dialogue. These days, actors are lauded for their multi-faceted (or uni-faceted) personalities. The 'character' actor, able to portray several parts, or the star actor whose charisma leads a stage or screen performance. Of course your Alleyns and your Burbages must have had charisma, but far more important to the theatrical impresario was the actor's ability simply to learn lines.

Perhaps that is the way the profession is itself going? Perhaps the financial constraints of putting productions on with the minimum of time and outlay will create a new breed of actor, returning the role to its mysterious past? It will be people with photographic memories who will get all the work and who will find that they alone are able to corner the acting marketplace. Those 'wannabes' who glide into acting, believing it to be the route to fame and fortune with the minimum effort, will be sidelined as producers call on a resource which has lain unrecognized since the playhouse glory-days of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. All of a sudden, the idea that actors received their 'parts' and took them away to learn them, or that plays would be staged with the minimum rehearsal or directorial input, seems decidedly acceptable.

Perhaps, also, young Mr Shakespeare, unable to learn the vast amount of dialogue that his fellow actors could assimilate in a short time, found writing that dialogue far less taxing and far more rewarding. Actors beware, the past might be catching up with us. That past might call on the most fundamental of acting skills -- the memory. Don't forget, you read (and hopefully digested) it here first!