All entries for Friday 14 January 2011

January 14, 2011

The erosion of Shakespeare and Beckett

In British theatre, Shakespeare and Beckett have cult hero status. Shakespeare is frequently seen as the source of all archetypal narratives in theatre, and arguably Beckett has done the same thing for the theatrical form. Jonny Heron’s script for Discords remains loyal to Shakespeare’s characters but slices lines from Macbeth and King Lear into a deliberate, poetical order, but without any clear narrative intention. I believe he does this very well; to the extent that a Shakespearean scholar could recognise each line and its source and still not be distracted from the performance in front of him. Lines are repeated, the sense is deliberately drained from them. New characters are created from these lines, ghosts of the old.

This has two results. The seemingly invincible stigma wrapped around Shakespeare’s characters – almost every modern day character can be seen as derivative – begins to leak. We also become very aware, as an audience, that the characters we have so aggrandized in our minds are derived by readers and actors from their text. They are not the characters of a novel; they are assumed and interpreted from what they say. Now, the interesting part of this is that it is almost exactly the same for the plot of Shakespeare’s plays. His stage directions are sparse, and we generally get all our inspiration for movement from the words of his characters. These words, the words that the ghosts in Discords speak, contain as much of Shakespeare’s plots as they do of the characters.

Discords detaches the language from these plots to create a new piece. By doing this, for me, Shakespeare’s characters are deconstructed; they become the sum of their parts, slaves to their own voices and words. Here, again, Beckett starts to re-appear. Instead of real people, Discords takes Shakespeare’s characters and shows them as slaves to their bodies; but this time, they are slaves to their embodiment in a theatrical space.

To turn Discords into a piece of meta-theatre, the machine we reside in is perhaps ‘language’, viewed from the 4th dimension, as an embodiment in space rather than just in time. Hopefully that bit of interpretation is too convoluted to allow Discords to be written off there. There certainly seems to be more in it for me.

Theatrical Scales

Brecht and Stanislavski have created a sort of theatrical spectrum for any director approaching contemporary theatre. Alienation, the erosion of character and transparency in the theatrical mechanics of a show are all Brechtian notions; if you don’t want this, then you make character central to the play and search for 'truth'. Popular theatre is seen as aiming for the latter, Stanislavski’s legacy. Experimental theatre tends to be seen as the progeny of Brecht.

Trying to avoid these stereotypes, to create a new theatre, has caused some stagnation in the minds of the theatre world. Every device experimented with is shunted into a category and reduced to a point on a Brecht-Stanislavski spectrum. Escaping this spectrum seems impossible. Though I don’t believe that this is true for many theatre practitioners active at the moment, theatre critics have been handed a helpful lens which has proved limiting in perspective for many.

Discords, the play I’m currently rehearsing in, seems to have one solution: it embraces limitation. Thanks to Nomi Wallace’s set, we are given only our neck and head movement, our entrances and exits, and the nine positions in the set to play with. Jonny Heron has been working with us using Laban for actors, a three dimensional spectrum developed to describe any movement using three modes – put simply, speed, force and directness. The form of the play, like the Beckett that influences it, is hugely reductive. I am constantly aware that I am acting, and being evaluated, using these scales. I cannot escape them if I want to be part of the performance.

It is a deliberately scientific approach to theatre. I become part of a machine, with certain limitations, designed to fulfil a function. The machine can be tweaked through Jonny’s direction – the Laban modes – and his re-structuring of his script. But I am also part of an experiment, in which the variables have been fixed, hoping to work out what a theatrical experience is fundamentally based upon. I am sure that the audience will go away confused, as I did. And perhaps that says that theatre cannot be confined to spectrums or scales. Or perhaps it says that theatre is confined to these spectrums, but meaning is not.

Discords; or an actor’s meta–experience

Though I had the privilege of seeing Discords, Fail Better’s re-interpretation of Shakespeare through a Beckettian lens, nothing has been explained to me. I entered the machine for its second incarnation at the Warwick Arts Centre Studio as part of a recasting, and feel as if some transcendental logic, now unspeakable, has passed between the original cast. I am currently trying to catch up; I am floundering. As an actor, I am currently only emulating the rest of the cast. I have started this blog to help myself try and find the logic behind the piece, and hopefully discuss some  ideas about contemporary theatre in the meantime.

Approaching a play having originally been in the audience, particularly a devised piece in which the entirety of the cast were present and active in its formation, has been a slightly surreal experience. Many of the actors I know on a personal level, and yet I enter rehearsals and see them comfortable and un-self-conscious in the most bizarre of exercises. Perhaps here I should explain the form of Discords. Two huge structures with 9 head-sized doors face each other. The audience enters and watches as the doors open to reveal the heads, which speak lines from Shakespeare’s plays. Various tones, speeds and meanings are drawn out from the lines by the actors. The heads go back behind their doors. Then the audience leaves.

When I saw Discords, I was constantly sensing the beginning of a narrative, a relationship between two characters or even an emotion. But each time, this was subverted, snatched away from me. I came away believing it to be a powerful piece of theatre, purely for its subversion of language; it’s drain of meaning. All of the theatrical commodities theatre-practitioners of the 20th Century defined and interpreted were explored almost scientifically – space, character, time, voice and so on. Yet I was completely removed from the creative process of how an audience gets these impressions, and aware that what I was interpreting was the tip of a creative iceberg.

On entering rehearsals, I see actors doing a variety of bizarre exercises that are treated as essential. My friends are making absurd faces, sounds and shapes, dragging lines into frankly hilarious voices and deliberately making their meanings stupid. Yet no one laughs. I wonder if they’ve all lost their sense of humour, or whether it’s a competition to see who can stay stony faced for longest. I corpse continually. And yet this seems to be part of the process – when I do, I am told to keep my head ‘on stage’ to see what it brings. Suddenly I am trapped in the machine, laughing unstoppably out of fear and unable to leave. This is for me, at this stage in the rehearsals, what the piece is about. It’s not a new idea; being trapped by bodily functions was an idea that Beckett revolutionised. But it’s one of many ideas that I think Discords is trying to shed new light on in relation to Shakespeare, language and the theatre itself.

Filling up this awful empty

So we were told to start a blog for our ICW module. The problem was, I'd just started an abortive blog somewhere else to document some things I'd been thinking about Discords, Fail Better's ensemble piece at the arts centre next week. Feeling bad about the waste of internet space (I hear the internet is almost full), I decided to copy them here. They really were only a few days old.

Following this, I'll start on some 'real' stuff.

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