All entries for Wednesday 22 November 2006

November 22, 2006

Practical Work

The start of this term witnessed a very visible wave of fear rippling through the Shakespeare students, as they were informed that they would be required to actively participate in (God forbid) a practical theatre workshop. The threat that had previously been dismissed as myth or filed away at the back of the brain with all those other repressed undesirables (like essay deadlines) was unavoidably real, and fast approaching. Having seen and heard this anxiety in so many others, I want to make what seems to be an unprecedented suggestion: that drama may not in fact be a source of extreme terror for all academics. Dare I admit that the opportunity to get out of the central campus bubble, into a rehearsal space, on my feet, moving and speaking, and playing with Shakespeare may have been something to get excited about? Perhaps I simply lack the proper sense of embarrassment that any decent individual ought to have, but there it is: I was rather looking forward…

And so to Hamlet. Not just any play. Not just any Shakespeare play. But the play. The bastion of English literature. Colossal in size, density and impact, and known to all of us, in one form or another, long before we’re capable of actually reading it for ourselves. You see a man holding a skull, as if in conversation with it, and you don’t need anyone to tell you it’s Hamlet. We all think we know something about this play (and hopefully, as literature students, some of us actually do). It was no coincidence, that when asked to “do Hamlet”, every one of us immediately became a broody and reflective introvert. In some sense, it is because we all think we know Shakespeare, because so many of the plays are so familiar, so integral to our understanding of “English Literature”, that we must, as it were, forget what we think we know and deal with what’s actually there. Through textual and physical games, this is precisely what workshops are designed to do: open up the options in a text that our intellectualist, argumentative and academically oriented brains might not have seen on paper.

I could sing the praises of “the practical approach” at obnoxious length – and probably have done and will do again, elsewhere. However, a large number of words on this page have already gone to serving that purpose, as well as articulating the benefits of this particular workshop (and rightly so). Having laid my credentials on the virtual table as being strongly in favour of getting up and engaging on one’s feet, I hope it will not be taken as unnecessarily negative to voice some criticisms. One of the major arguments for literature students doing drama workshops is to give non-actors an insight into “the actor’s process”. James took us through many of these and they are listed and explained in great detail (complete with pictures) on this page. Entertaining and interesting in themselves, as examples of how “the actor’s process” might begin, I nevertheless confess that I was left somewhat frustrated by them: having just begun to explore possibilities, there wasn’t time to follow through on any of them.

I appreciate that the nature of circumstances and unavoidable time constraints makes this a somewhat redundant, if not highly unhelpful point to make but it would have been interesting, having opened up possibilities, to consider what the choice of any particular option would mean for the rest of a speech, scene and production. No speech works in isolation – by which I mean that they are written and almost always performed as part of a much larger construction, and that construction informs how it can and/or should be performed; the inverse is also true, that the way any one speech is performed will affect the rest of the production. To take only one example, if you decide to internalise the Ghost and have his voice rise up through the actor playing Hamlet, it must then affect the decisions you can then make when it comes, for instance, to Hamlet’s scenes with Gertrude. The decision you make at any one juncture will dictate the decisions you can make later on. Had there been time, I would have included some discussion time to consider the implications of the different options we had uncovered through the practical work. Any speech can be performed any number of different ways but they are not all “right”, when you put it back in the context of the whole play. Questions almost inevitably beget more questions and perhaps it is the academic side of my brain that wants to construct arguments, but I was left wanting to grapple with those questions to think about what some of our answers might have meant for a whole production.

November 2006

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