September 16, 2006

Practising Theatre with John Barton @ The Swan Theatre

This morning’s special event was a two hour workshop with advisory director John Barton and about 15 members of the current RSC ensemble. A packed out ground floor of the Swan Theatre watched the co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company take the actors through two speeches from ‘Henry V’- the Chorus at the start of Act Four and the Epilogue.

Barton’s approach was a simple one- to have the cast reading out lines in turn and then raise questions about the delivery and sense, then getting them to read again with those things borne in mind.

John Barton

The result was a very interesting look at ways of delivering a text designed as a direct address to an audience. The group worked as both individuals- re-reading their particular lines over and over to create certain effects- and as an ensemble, following on their speeches from one another to keep a flow and coherent whole.

This was mostly done with the actors sitting in the front row of the audience. After a while, though, Barton got small groups up on stage, using movement and a feel of togetherness on the stage to enhance the text- one group huddling together and addressing the Chorus to each other as well as to the audience, the other moving around each other and taking turns to come forward.

Barton made many interesting points, too numerous to go into here, including distinctions between storytelling and acting and fine detail about changes in pace and direction within the speeches. He stressed the importance of getting ‘off-text’- of going with the feel of the thing and ignoring the niceties of the exact words, particularly when approaching a text cold as here.

The main entertainment came from the good-natured ribbing between the actors, though- Barton particularly coming to head with Tamsin Greig over a particular line which he made her read over and over, resulting in her eventually lapsing into comedy for an over-exaggerated reading of boredom into the text- which Barton retorted to by commending it!

The final part of the morning consisted of a few volunteers performing the epilogue, stepping forward to applause from the audience and delivering the text as a finale to ‘Henry V’. After some very good readings, Barton’s instructions were to imagine coming to it as an improvised speech at the end of a performance, and they redid them. To wild end-of-play applause (and heckling from the rest of the cast), the actors came forward and some gave very entertaining and funny readings, Rob Carroll deserving a special mention for an inexplicable Australian accent that complemented a wild delivery (to heckles of, “Good on yer, Bill”!).

An interesting, educational and- most importantly- very entertaining morning. At £10 a go, I can’t afford to come to all of these sessions, but I’m very glad I made it to this one, and hopefully it’ll shed some interesting light on Pippa del Bono’s ‘Henry V’ next year, with its locally-recruited Chorus. It was also an interesting insight into how RSC actors relate in a rehearsal/workshop setting, particularly as the actors were drawn from three different companies and thus some had never worked together.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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