I have reached a total point of confusion in this Shakespeare module. A lecture on the workings of a theatre as Shakespeare and companions would have known it followed by a practical workshop on how current day RSC actors treat the Bard’s plays; the two being a little different one might say.
With Jonathan Bates’ words on just how many parts each actor had to hold in his head at any one time still ringing loud and clear in my own, the workshop proved even more confounding. After spending two hours on a few soliloquies, I asked myself how the likes of Burbage managed? It is time once again to think back to Baz Luhrman’s aesthetically charged interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and realise that as a 21st Century audience we often just don’t have the same grasp of Shakespeare’s words, and why would we? There is little that is similar between Shakespeare’s lifetime and our own; we have learned that much from his plays.
So humility in tact, the workshop became thoroughly pleasurable and of great benefit. The activities followed the same stages that actors performing Shakespeare today might well go through. Firstly we were invited to explore the text as action and work out what on earth was actually going on and at the same time obtain a good psychological profile of Hamlet himself. A simple childhood game of Grandmother’s Footsteps with Hamlet as Granny told us everything we needed to know about the suspicious state of Hamlet’s mind upon his return to Elsinor. A subsequent exercise involved looking at Hamlet’s various motives that lead to the ultimate outcome of the play. This provided not only the strong sense that Hamlet is a character struggling to make sense of the different directions in which he is being pulled but also a very useful insight into the type of social constraints of the period.
In the second half we moved on to look at some of the text and this is when it gets exciting. Shakespeare is meant to be read aloud and doing so, following the punctuation closely, makes a resounding difference in comprehension of the text, for me in any case. When looking at text the most obvious thing to do is to ask oneself what purpose does it serve? Soliloquies were on the menu and reading the text as a piece of theatre one cannot pass over the fact that such speeches are a dialogue with the audience. Often long self confessions and important revelations that create a very intimate relationship with between the actor and audience. The only slight problem was however the lack of audience, everyone wanted to be Hamlet!
The previous workshop I attended was slightly different in that we dealt with scenes involving character interaction and with fewer egos and plenty of volunteers to play Horatio we were able to engage in another way that a play is transformed from page to stage. Otherwise the exercises were very similar and it would appear Cicely Berry played a large role in influencing both workshop leaders. As a voice coach to a number of politicians as well as actors Berry regrets that not everything said today is still an expression of true inner thoughts and feelings.
But as far as Shakespeare’s words are concerned, once you’ve got one play sorted out, the rest it would appear are much easier to handle as well. The recent complete works season put on by the RSC required cross-casting and several of the actors comment on their own experience in the article below.
If it’s Tuesday, I must be Hamlet
How does an actor juggle playing two very different roles at once? Patrick Stewart, Simon Russell Beale and Tamsin Greig tell Hilary Whitney how they pull it off When Tamsin Greig finished filming Green Wing last November, it marked the end of an exhausting year – the BBC series Love Soup, an episode of Doctor Who, trips to Birmingham to record her part as Debbie Aldridge in The Archers, and breastfeeding her third child. “I was so relieved when I stopped working,” says Greig. “Then I thought I might like to have a job in the evenings, so I told my agent, very tentatively, that I’d like to do some theatre, something nice and gentle. I never thought she’d start sniffing around the RSC.”
Weeks later she found herself cast not only as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing but also as Constance in the rarely performed King John, both part of the RSC’s current Complete Works season. “I only went to the audition because I wanted to meet Marianne [Elliott, director of Much Ado] and Josie [Rourke, director of King John],” she says ruefully. “I thought if we felt we would like to work with each other then maybe we could do something when I had a bit more time, like when I’m in my eighties. But the RSC are very canny. I mean, who’s going to turn down playing Beatrice for the RSC directed by Marianne Elliott, especially when it’s combined with another dynamite role directed by another good female director?”
In fact, Greig initially did say no, on the grounds that she didn’t want to live away from home for six months. It was her husband, and her agent, who persuaded her to change her mind. “Very early on, I did ask if I could just do one and was tactfully told, ‘Not really. Not unless you’re Maggie Smith.’ But I do think it was a very good decision to do it.”
The practice of cross-casting, whereby an actor is given two or more roles in plays performed in repertory, was introduced to Britain in the early 1900s in an attempt to make a wider range of theatre available to audiences. Originally, the idea was that a different play could be performed each night, but when building the various sets proved too expensive, many theatres switched to presenting different plays in alternate weeks. At one point more than 100 such companies existed, but after the second world war audiences declined and today few organisations function as repertory companies in the true sense of the word, with the notable exception of the Royal National Theatre, the RSC and Dundee Rep.
One of the great benefits of the old repertory system was that it provided an informal apprenticeship. Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Harold Pinter and Dirk Bogarde all began their careers in rep. As an actor, it gives you distinct creative advantages. “You have a diversity of experience, shooting from play to play,” says Patrick Stewart, who this year has juggled lead roles as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, and Prospero in The Tempest, again for the RSC. “They are massively contrasting plays, but they’re both late plays, so they’re very rich and profound. There are qualities that infiltrate from one play to the next, especially if you do the two plays on the same day.”
Playing two roles does, however, require a huge amount of stamina. “I’m very disciplined about looking after myself because that’s what everyone does in Hollywood. Going to the gym and working with a trainer was the norm and luckily I’ve kept that up. I don’t think I could have approached Antony and Cleopatra without the physical work I was doing as well.
“I deeply resent having to learn lines, though. I sometimes feel that an actor of my age and status shouldn’t have to learn lines any more. It’s like CEOs of companies don’t have to drive their own cars – they have chauffeurs. There should be some system whereby we simply absorb the lines. The good fortune for me was that I’d done these plays before – Antony and Cleopatra twice, and The Tempest five times, so the roles already existed under my skin. They just needed to be accessed and poked into life again.”
Simon Russell Beale believes that cross-casting changed the direction of his career. “I used to do lots of comedy parts, playing Restoration fops and Shakespearean clowns, which people seem to have forgotten now. But while I was at the RSC, Terry Hands cast me as Konstantin in The Seagull in repertory with Edward II. And although he never told me how he came to make that decision, I think it’s probably because the company system encourages directors to find new ways to use actors. Anyway, it changed my life. I would never have expected to play Hamlet because of the physicality of the part, but Konstantin is one of the three big mother-son parts, along with Hamlet and Oswald in Ibsen’s Ghosts, and it dawned on me that if I could do one, I could do the others.”
This year, Russell Beale alternated the role of Face in The Alchemist with the title role in Galileo at the National Theatre. “I like having two plays in my head,” he says. “Galileo’s a difficult bastard and it was emotionally tiring, but I loved playing him. But once we started rehearsing The Alchemist, we were performing Galileo in the evenings, so it was a struggle to find the time to learn my lines for The Alchemist. Some lines come to you through rehearsal, but The Alchemist isn’t the sort of play that creeps into your system. Besides, I feel much more secure if I know my lines early on – whatever else happens, I’ll know what to say. There’s always a ceremonial moment when I bin the script.
“There was a period of about two weeks when we were rehearsing the last, really heavy bits of The Alchemist during the day and performing Galileo in the evening when I did think I might have overstretched myself. All I did was get up, act and go to sleep. I felt physically exhausted and, creatively speaking, the cylinders weren’t all firing.But the benefit of rehearsing during the day is that at least you’re warmed up for the evening’s performance. You get your days back once rehearsals are over.”
Greig dismisses the idea that memorising Shakespeare is more difficult than learning a TV script. “We had 16 weeks to rehearse Much Ado and the more you rehearse, the less you have to remember the lines – they kind of osmosify into your body. It’s very peculiar, they become almost physical.” But she does admit she felt out of her depth when Much Ado first opened. “It was so long since I’d done any theatre, and our production is very dependent on the audience’s response. There’s no way you can prepare for that. I could have done with a bit of time for reflection, but by then we were into rehearsals for the next show [King John], which is a serious history piece about the tragedy of power.
“But you know what? It’s not coal mining. And although Beatrice and Constance are very different, they do actually feed off each other. There was one scene in Much Ado where Marianne was trying to push me to lose my temper and I couldn’t do it in rehearsal. It just looked a bit sham, and that carried on into the first few performances. Then we went into rehearsals for King John, and I was exploring Constance’s rage when the assistant director suggested I take a piece of Constance into the scene I was struggling with in Much Ado. It was amazing. It completely unlocked the scene for me when I realised there’s a sliver where Beatrice and Constance overlap.”
“People often ask if we mix up lines from plays,” says Russell Beale, “but it’s almost impossible because you’re anchored to the story, although once I very nearly said, “How now!” to Signora Sarti in Galileo, which is a bit Jacobean.”
“By the time you’ve opened, your character is so embedded that it would be very hard to muddle up your lines,” agrees Tim McMullan, who this year played Signor Priuli in The Life of Galileo and Pertinax Surly in The Alchemist. “Simon’s moustache fell off the other night, which was very funny. Sometimes you think you’re missing a prop when you’re not. You’ll walk across the stage and think, “Oh, shit, I’m not wearing my hat,” and then you realise you don’t wear a hat in that show. Mind you, once I left Caroline Quentin all alone on stage because I had to dash off to the props room for a vital prop I’d forgotten. She sort of saw the funny side.”
“There was one thing I did very early on in the preview week of King John,” recalls Greig. “Much Ado is set in 1950s Cuba and Beatrice is very sassy, with a beautiful 1950s figure, so she’s got an arse and fabulous pointed breasts which are nothing to do with me – it’s all padding. A lot of my stance is hands-on-hip and pelvis-driven. There was one moment during the previews where, as Constance, I turned on somebody and started to move one of my hands towards my hip and suddenly thought, ‘Whoa! Put that down!’ Constance would never use that kind of body language and anyway, I didn’t have any hips to put my hands on because I was in Constance’s costume.”
A few weeks ago, McMullan was asked to join the cast of Coram Boy; he is back to working 13-hour days, which means he gets to see little of his young family. “But it’s not forever,” he says, “and I feel fortunate to have been in such good plays with a company of this quality. I think if you were in two disastrous plays, it’d be soul-destroying. It doesn’t take many unfilled seats for the Olivier auditorium to look empty.” He also knows that regular audiences appreciate the balancing act. “I know many of them enjoy seeing the same actors turn up in different roles. I think they’re interested to see what we’ll pull out of the hat next”.
Wednesday November 22, 2006