It reeked of noxious stunt theatre from a far. Touted as ‘Guerilla Shakespeare’ it would inevitably be an act of pure hubris. Skyping with Andrew Hobbs, the impresario behind British Touring Shakespeare, he neatly parried my protests that I was hardly agéd enough to play his title character, and that his islands were full of brilliant actors who would jump at the chance to scale the pinnacle of English literature. His highly presumptive point was that when actors get the appropriate age, they cannot possibly learn all those lines in the three weeks that were left to disposition. “Indeed”, huffed this recent member of the older generation: “You have created the production website, engaged a ticket agency, cast the majority of parts, but you haven’t actually a candidate to play King Lear ?” “Yes, we do” countered Andy cheekily, “You.”
At least the neighbourhood was top class. Across the street, Sir Trevor was running Londoners through a season of box-office treats; next door Her Majesty’s had housed that old clunker Phantom of the Opera since forever. Lodged in between, at New Zealand House, a block from Trafalgar Square, people should certainly be able to find us.
In my cover letter accompanying bowing to my fate and accepting the inevitably, poisoned bait, I was less than diplomatic: flagging that I intended to be the most curmudgeonous, cranky Lear they’d ever met, I even suggested we move the location to Occupy St. Paul’s. Anticipating an at least partially tragic outcome, I posted this artistic airbag on the ol’ Facebook….
The postulate behind ‘Guerilla Shakespeare’ seems clearly an anathema to good theatre practice. Ensembles are to be nurtured. It cannot be best policy to banish rehearsal time, to forbid all group exploration, and to expose the most vulnerable moment of the rehearsal cycle as t’were a worthy spectacle.
Those who nevertheless wish to witness: a stripped down, elemental, rehearsal-free KING LEAR to help inaugurate the initial season of Truth & Beauty Evenings at Westminister HUB – New Zealand House, Haymarket, London UK, are of course welcome. Sunday 26th November, 1800 hrs.
Lear – me,
Duke of Burgundy – Anton Sh,
Kent – someone called Andy,
The rest of cast = a collection of great unknowns!
The organisers allow for a frightful mess; but that somehow small moments of inspired beauty might coalesce out of the quagmire.
Why such chaos should constructively illuminate the fate of tyrannical patriarchs in the latter days of the colonial project, escapes me. It smacks more of an ungrateful younger generation usurping time honoured tradition, and opting for yet another lark to serve as blog fodder. (The rationale for importing a decidedly balding, but not yet 80, actor into a land full of gifted Shakespearean veterans, also bodes utterly peculiar.)
And worse it may be yet…
The day when actors first leave their scripts to stumble empty-handed and zombie-like around the stage, is usually a disaster. At this point, finally making eye contact with ones fellow players remains more a horrific distraction, rather than the welcome life raft that it is meant to be. We are naked, abandoned and dispossessed. Within the inner tempest in our skulls, we will frantically strive to bridge the half-secure constructs worked upon in our several garrets with the merciless realities of a, for many, unvisited performance space. For this recipe to provide anything akin to a visionary evening is beyond presumptive.
To break this impasse, the traditional solution posits direction. However, this role too has been jettisoned as unessential, decadent paraphernalia. That said, as titular King, we can but instinctively grasp for our forlorn crown. The way forward is unforgiving; adulterating the alchemy of youthful hubris, by forcing into the distillate the secret ingredients of a theatrical lifetime…
We should not anticipate gratitude.
Actor Rhys Jennings, who came on board at the very last minute to play my noble colleague the King of France (and the one page part that I’d willingly put my name forward for), put it even more succinctly on his blog page: www.theactorbegins
Okay, hands up if you’ve ever been asked to learn your lines before you start rehearsals? Doesn’t it just put the fear of God into you? But as much as us actors enjoy a good bitch and moan about learning our lines in advance, from my own personal experience I find it does give you a great head start; able to put the book down and get on with it.
But what if that first day of rehearsals wasn’t a rehearsal at all, but a public performance. What if you had to just rock up and do it for the first time in front of an eager audience with no direction, no rehearsal, no practice whatsoever? Crikey O’Reilly, what have I got myself into. [gulp
So, this Saturday I will playing the King of France in the British Touring Shakespeare’s guerilla performance of King Lear in which we, the actors, do just that. Gulp indeed.
Apart from Josh, who is playing Albany, I have had no prior contact with any of the actors. I haven’t even seen the venue yet – the Hub Westminster a 12,000 sq. ft monolith opposite my old haunt, the Theatre Royal Haymarket. All I have are my lines (which, touch-wood, are pretty much in), an email telling me where to be at what time and a impending sense of doom.
I mean, who knows, it could be the best thing since sliced Brecht. Or it could just be a complete and utter car crash. Whatever happens, it’s certainly brave, and I applaud the team wot thunk it up. I’ve only got a handful of lines myself, so I should be okay, but God help whoever is playing Lear.
Wish us luck!
I am a man more sinned against than sinning
The production’s rules allowed no external direction. Any interpretive zing that was to make the evening of ‘Truth & Beauty’ worthwhile for the audience, would have to be negotiated from within; was Lear to be battered by a storm of ingratitude and thanklessness, he’d have to create one. The job description read as if made for a King…
If Moments of Beauty were to occur, they would surely not be crafted from how clever the cast were to hammer out solutions and line readings in our individual bedsits. Rather, our resplendent artistry would spring forth from how willing we were to abandon our individual exploration for the potential unearthed in our fellow actors. We would have to face the mess.
Having been given less than three weeks to absorb the Lear figure, it was among my material circumstances that I would have to pick and choose which scenes would constitute my safer territory. Not only does Lear have a goodly amount of text in the piece, Shakespeare, writing at the height of his powers, equips Lear with many of his most masterful internal transitions; often changing tacks to touch four themes within a single speech. It’s enough to make one mad. Better to get the core thoughts into the subconscious and approach the scenes as a journey into the available relationships — while trusting that the young and the clever could do their best to survive the whims of the forgetful old man who’d hopefully keep falling into something akin to real acting moments.
(The old actor’s trick of learning a play, or each scene, from the back, was put to work here – I’d concentrate on the heavy speeches that anchored each scene: ‘Poor naked wretches’ and ‘Reason not the need’ and the closing scenes; if floundering was inevitable, let us flounder onwards towards a place of near solid rock.)
That way, madness lies
If the performance at HUB Westminister was by definition an attack of HUBris. It was also a collision of two theatre cultures, and perhaps an illuminating case of life imitating art…
Like the horrible, manipulative tyrant of a patriarch that Lear is, my tactic was to prepare the scenes as I would as director. Throwing the actors almost impossible real time tasks, I would unilaterally treat the script as an optional guideline from which the best parts be retained and some of the repetitive and over-intricate ones be sacrificed in favour of a more followable forward moving emotional flow. This cut and paste approach was partially a logistics question; I had to exercise triage upon Shakespeare’s bons mots based upon what I could realistically set myself to knowing with sufficient reliability as to survive all scenic climes, the rest would have to be sloughed off with approximate grunting. I devised a tactic of a designated personal prompter — either my Kent in the disguise of my manservant, or my attendant Fool both of whom could follow at my shoulder and whisper without breaking with their character objectives. At the height of the tempest: I stuffed the text into the hands of Kent with instructions to speak my existential struggles as voice over – this I hoped would amplify the King’s psychic condition.
Such radical constructive reworking of the play’s elements is part of the director’s repertoire. (With Shakespeare one tends to be reverential; we all cut, not all paste.) The modern audience’s training at follow multitiered cinematic plot structures, renders a certain amount of Shakespeare’s narrative redundant. That these young people may never have been let loose at these aspects of the interpretative process, is in itself a tragedy. I suspect that British drama schools don’t do study tours to Poland or Germany. While more than capable of standing straight up and down emoting their texts in eruptions of unmotivated eager-to-pleaseness, the cost of zero rehearsal was that our skills of listening to one another became severely compromised by the fear of losing a line. Sadly, one suspects that many an impulse to explore the uncharted territory mapped out during weeks of self-directed actor’s research, succumbed to paralysis.
If you get it, you shall get it with running
Under the prohibition of no rehearsals, the first rule that I broke was to get me post haste to London. If I couldn’t meet the actors with whom I would be interacting, I could certainly meet the space. During my two weeks poking about the corridors, not a single participant snuck in for a similar reconnoiter; that the innovative space of the HUB invited to an equally innovative staging of Lear, hadn’t perhaps entered their heads: when the script said voices offstage, off they would loyally trot behind the nearest doorpost; that the 12,000 square foot space provided innumerable opportunities for really hiding, yelling and galloping, seemed for some an impediment to getting on with the job.
To refresh the plot for the rusty ( p.o.v. the King ): Lear, lacking a male heir, and sensing that all will not be well in his kingdom after his demise, seeks to defy fate by abdicating his throne while he can still control enough of the balance of power to influence future machinations. His efforts to do so are not appreciated by the younger generation. Eager as they are for independence and governed by their hormones, they turn upon him and then each other, bringing terror on the kingdom, before driving the Old King into a nervous breakdown. It is a tragedy.
The parallels with our staging of the above storyline, were many. Having had his natural rôle as director usurped, the King, seeking to influence his vision of the appropriate content of the impending theatre gathering, petulantly sets out alone onto the heath of his creative process. His efforts to do so are perhaps not appreciated by the eager younger hormones… etc. etc
Singe my White Head
For the old master, perhaps beating the last sparks from the dying embers of an embattled theatre career, this youthful conservatism was immediately heart breaking.
Of course, their tendency towards mimicking the straight and narrow, may have been a brilliant or even subconscious choice on behalf of the entire crew. Faced with the old fellow’s clearly anarchistic bent, it made good psycho-dramaturgic sense to underline his incorrigibility by emphasising their straightlacedness. I had after all, given them a rude awakening in Lear’s opening party scene…
In our warmup/indoctrination circle the cast had seen me in my Guantanamo Bay boiler suit chosen by the authorities to speed recapture should I, heaven forbid, ever escape to the heath. ( One of them recognised the garb from YouTube as the Moore costume recycled from my Othello in the garage rendition Last Car on Earth). What I didn’t reveal to them was that having been repulsed by the suggestion that I was grey enough to play a convincing octogenarian, I had inquired around for the recipe for full Butoh makeup. Olivier Jost of Le Caravan de Zoublistan in Brussels had the hand-mixed whiteface recipe, old friend Charles Michaelsen supplied me with a tub of the finest Kaolin porcelain powder from the his ceramic lab; ten minutes before the piece were due to start, I emerged with a decidedly white head.
My first choice as the evening’s host was to wrong foot my fellow players, to invade and subvert the expected. This, I felt, was well within the objectives of the King, concerned as he is with popping a big tactical surprise designed to unveil any and all flaws in the competency of the next generation while he still retains the presence of mind to exert his influence upon the outcome. Following strict courtly protocol would provide neither insight nor theatre; my directorial strategy became to invade the space and relocate the safety nets. Action had to be taken…
Gloucester was handed two conflicting commands at once; my daughters were approached so as to invite them to turn their prepared public proclamations into direct responses to my physical presence. According to my plan, Albany and Cornwall were to be jointly handed a seemingly indivisible coronet. Kent was silenced with half his retirement speech swallowed in frustration. Burgundy was rushed off his feet by unilateral jump cuts inserted to provoke emotional disorder and the urgency which I judged to appropriately flavour the disintegration of Lear’s great abdication ceremony.
If Cordelia was to sabotage my party; I’d seemingly sabotage her parting words of non contrition.
In return, my fellow actors would routinely ‘wrong foot’ me. It was impossible to predict which spatial constellation of relationships one would be met with upon ones entrance. Assumptions nurtured during hours of solo rehearsal, would instantly be turned upside down. Generally, by the time the King arrived on the scene, all the best spots had been taken and the axis of play was decidedly awack. To avoid standing in the deadly firing squad line of the reading circle, brave choices were required. But traditions die hard. Given our relatively small audience, instead of negotiating that they follow us into crowded quarters, we presented everything at a polite, respectful distance. Since pumping our lungs and sawing the air to boom to the back of the 2nd balcony was unnecessary, we were presented with the (very desirable) option of playing the scenes within a realistic vocal range. We could actually talk with one another – choosing our words carefully to place them at the heart of the matter. This option of acting in a cinematic range wasn’t picked up by many.
Prescribe not us our duties
Maybe the cultural clash between the crew of well-groomed British drama school graduates hell-bent on emoting every pithy syllable of significance, and the upstart colonial with several journeys muttering his way through classical reconstructions behind him, was an inspired fluke of life.
As the wizened underground theatre troll flayed his way though the forests of the stuffy stately home aspiring mainstream, the two sides hardened. In the face of their father’s flights of whimsy, one got the distinct impression that disdainful daughters haughtily stuck white-knuckled to their scripts. Lear could only shrink in horror at the disorder he had unleashed…
Beat at this gate that let thy folly in and thy dear judgement out
Perhaps I had said yes to the project because of the Guerilla brand name? In my youth, I had recruited myself as a reporter for Guerilla newspaper – a street rag covering the counter culture. During the ten issue timespan of my career as a ‘journalist’, the definitive highpoint was covering the groundbreaking FUT’70 Festival of Underground Theatre. My impressionable young head was never the same after two weeks of parades, performances and workshops by legendary theatre tribes including: Cirque de la Grand Panic, Bread & Puppet, Savage God, Swampfox, Théâtre de la Même Nom.
My naive cultural assumptions of a united effort took their first major thwack in the golden hours of the pre-performance preparation. This oldster arrived 4 1/2 hours before hand: to meditatively lay out his props, renegotiate some scenic possibilities, and hopefully wrestle some free space for his personal preparation: to loosen the stiffened vocal cords and stretch both the limbs and the imaginative organs. (Alas, this was not to be, as communicating production management considerations with yet to arrive co-workers could absorb many an hour.) When the local population finally showed, one wondered what is taught as an appropriate psycho-social warmup: apparently the multi-tasking younger generation have got it down to an hour on the tube and a bottle of ale. The last lad had yet to stroll in the door ten minutes before the scheduled curtain time.
You do me wrong to take me out of the grave
Of course, I was a theatre school drop-out. Winning the talent lottery to receive the best the theatre industry could cram into our pliant minds, just wasn’t a sustainable project when one was convinced that there was a real world out there. After 2.17 years of mindless dry runs of artificial exercises, I missed making theatre for real people in real communities. I have a clear recollection of finding myself sitting in a school stairway bemoaning: this isn’t a theatre school, this is an acting school.
In British usage, I was informed, one doesn’t play Lear, one does him. To my ears, the distinction is horrifying. How can one do a shamanistic voyage? Surely, the experience of ever actor is that, if anything, Lear does them?
In the next day’s HUB family post mortem, Dougald Hine offered this anecdote: as an eight year old schoolchild, he had unearthed a pressing concern. Studying the pioneers of space travel, one page was dedicated to Laika, the first cosmonaut. What caught young Dougald’s discerning sense of narrative was that there was no mention of the dog ever returning to earth. With his science teacher’s encouragement he drafted a letter to a professor of Astronomy to confirm his worse suspicions. No, indeed the desiccated remains of Laika may orbit the stratosphere to this very day.
An embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood
Had these young actors been brought up with a similar quasi scientific approach? Was there a pervasive false idea that projecting the words out into space is enough to make the story occur in the hearts and minds of the audience? That given enough propulsion the words themselves will then tell their own story? Had no one taught them that grounding the text in one’s own real time experience, and making all effort to assure that they land somewhere safely within your fellow actors, is the most vital part of a successful mission?
They cannot take me for coining, I am the King himself
The dogmatic framework of no prior rehearsal could always be open to interpretation. As title character, we chose to exercise our royal prerogative and whisper a few warnings about a selection of our plans to key cast members as they arrived. Perhaps, the ensemble itself could use collective tweaking? Still awaiting our Edgar, time was running out. And we still had quite a bit of furniture to move as a pressed ganged group warmup. I gathered the multitudes in a group circle for mutual preparation. Skipping over civilian names, I had them all introduce themselves by character; this seemed utterly useful information 20 minutes before we were due to start.
To get us all into the same frame of mind and share a general directorial philosophy without violating the no-rehearsal sound barrier, I coyly announced that before leading them on a guided tour of our playing space possibilities, I would like to lead the group in prayer.
The patient sigh was palpable, several pairs of eyes hastened to glaze over in the presence of yet another imported fundamentalist. Well, I may be an orthodox fanatic, but I’m not that orthodox; I launched a version of the following declaration of faith:
Dearly belovéd Gods of Theatre come down to us now in our time of acute need, as we acknowledge the sheer and utter sacrilege of this our enterprise. We stand before you painfully aware of our transgressions over the laws of creation, but we humbly beg you to grace us with at least small amounts of genius, invention and if possible, inspired coincidence — And, if you love us at all, we respectfully ask that you would bless us with, a generous supply of elegant transitions…
We pray also that you would also be so kind as to put in a good word for us with your colleagues, the Gods of Guerillas. We recognise that the guerilla movements of the world have been getting more than their fair share of bad PR of late; that in truth guerillas are the bravest of the brave: focussed and disciplined, ready to enter into close combat and lay down their lives for the cause, and for each other…
Above all, dear dear Gods of the Theatre, we humbly and apologetically have the audacity to ask if you, here tonight, might deliver unto us, here, tonight, the oh so very necessary – miracle?
Swampfox vs RADA
Actor training gives one three playable pathways: playing ones circumstances, playing ones actions or objectives, and playing ones relationships. All three of these are meant to supersede the playing of words. If you have these first three in place, the words will take care of themselves. Despite additional technical adjustments, this as true when working with Shakespeare as with anything else.
Stanislawski seems to have passed this crowd of young people by. The entire movement of European deconstruction seems to have passed them by. There were distinct signs of substantial classical training; and if so, it was eerie that forty years of post-television theatre development hasn’t penetrated the training academies. Duty bound to remember their lines, to my ears they stood forth as so many eager drama school auditionees; willing to spit out all manner of rhyming couplets, but without working up a sweat. My instinctive approach to wrestling the visceral truth out of Shakespeare, made this crowd of youngsters look positively geriatric. No wonder conventional wisdom has Lear going mad.
Of course, beyond being the products of drama academies, the cast were sweethearts. As the evening progressed they gently thawed and entered into the conspiracy of making theatre out of our (my?) obvious short comings. The one who suffered most gravely, was of course Lear’s Fool. Recognising this, I had delivered a letter to him just prior to the performance, apologising for my intransigence and explaining to him that I found it impossible to learn such intricate, organic dialogue without the playfulness of the other actor. Since his entire stage presence was bound to me as my alter ego, (in addition to his lines having some of the most impenetrable contemporary allusions in the Shakespearean canon,) he would perforce have a hard time of it.
Joe Law fared well. I managed to emerge from my inner tempest to catch some of his better jokes, and at one point he became positively infected with the bug of spontaneity: the scribe who’d been responsible for editing the folio script had tacked on four lines of doggrel at the end of our first scene together; these are presumably from a popular Fool song, as Feste sings a longer version the same ditty in Twelfth Night. Given this was a certified Golden Oldie, it was highly conceivable that the Lear of the day also knew the words. Getting such a good response out of me boisterously singing along, sparked a glow into him, and off he leapt for a solo riff and some unrehearsed audience interplay.
Take physic pomp – expose yourselves to feel what wretches feel
The location provided several enticing playing spaces. During the final storm scene, an urban sized greenhouse used as the Hub meeting room provided the farmhouse for Lear, Edgar, Kent and the Fool to explore madness in. Edgar’s isolated rants seem impenetrable on paper, the Fool’s wisecracks scarcely better. Kent vainly attempts to shush them down. The half naked Lear decides to perform a restorative psychotherapy session upon himself in the form of a mock up trial of Regan and Goneril (- In the text he may or may not capture two cats as stand ins; since our greenhouse was stocked with an installation of kitchen implements, a small puppet play enactment of the trial was much more stage-worthy.) Within the watertight confines of the plexiglass walls, the scene transformed into almost spontaneous performance art, with everyone attempting to contain the king while he played with canisters, a sugar dispenser, toy vegetables and a tea pot. – All at once, the Mad King’s story and Edgar’s stream of consciousness monologue really came into their own amid a cacophony of fools.
The parallel dynamics of plot and players may have pitted the still pure believers of the benign state and the hopeful future doggedly rooted in the values of the past, against the crumpled visionary defiantly scrambling his text snippets from a hundred scenes like so much wreckage from a hurricane… I still knew one of Edgar’s soliloquies; it was thematically spot-on enough to merit an instant royal replay.
The storm had to rock it and be monstrous. Instead of stumbling through progressively more and more sodden poetry, amplification could be employed: significant thunder would be generated through multiple voices. Our second act would erupt by mobilising the audience, I got them all up and howling for two rounds of the defining speech in the Act III Scene ii storm scene: ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks’. It was enough to strike flat the thick rotundity of the earth, and provided precisely the kind of sonic resistance necessary to carry the good king into a tornado of St. Vitis’ dance.
As general woe descended in the wake of the final battle scene , and the narrative deposited corpse after corpse upon the stage, our besuited sweet young warriors could still stick to the script. The only moment of consternation that could genuinely cause their brows to knit was the offstage blood curdling yelp as Lear stabbed the invisible henchman reportedly sent to strangle Cordelia. Our Lear then only barely breeched the playing area for his histrionic death wither, collapsing beneath the limp Cordelia.
When I do stare, see how the subject quakes
My, hopefully, not heartless diagnosis is that the theatre educations have failed these young actors terribly. Connecting the work to ones genuine emotional core is not an unknown part of the actor’s arsenal – and the UK is full of the world’s most brilliant actors, but as a theatre school voice teacher once heretically whispered to me – it takes seven years to train an actor. Is the UK then also full of good kids who never get a chance to get beyond the mechanics?
The result was them defining their theatrical responsibility in a pressing situation of getting the Shakespeare in the right place, and not being willing to leave the letter of the text for the theatre of the scene. One wonders if they ever have been encouraged to do so. The lingering concept that the scene begins with the first word, begets to my ear an avalanche of verbiage that seldom allows a droplet of silence between scenes, speeches, sentences, words, syllables or thoughts. Shakespeare isn’t Beckett; he or his scribe didn’t insert helpful stage directions requesting a pause/longer pause/a silence. But pauses are most certainly there; what pray tell is an actor to do with: “O you unnatural hags, I shall have such revenges on you both that all the world shall… What it shall be, yet I know not, but I will do such things that they shall be the terrors of the earth.”
Reason not the need
Playing the Lear rôle, provided an additional insight as to the psychic dramaturgy of the play. It is tailor-made for elder statesmen at the height of their spiritual powers who harbour a need to conserve their resources. This Lear-centric structure insures that countless diplomatic directors have failed to take the Old Darling to task. As written he appears a master manipulator and a big baby. Constructed to accommodate this Zeus of the theatrical pantheon it is (perhaps not coincidently) dramaturgically designed to pamper to his every whim: the casting committee’s lesser lights are sent in to silence the groundlings, enter the King; exit the King, a respectable portion of exposition; another regal tear jerker and blunderbusser; repeat the above; interval; enter the younguns to again quieten the groundlings – another rafter shaker complete with daring costume shift. With 90% of Lear’s stagetime having elapsed, his long absence during the sagging act four plot exposition, provides the actor concerned generous nap time to recuperate from the expenditures of the Storm Scenes. There remains but Act V’s crescendo of concise mad scenes that precipitate his elegant death and that require, the most likely by this time royally fortified, monarch to give short blasts of his finest between abandoning the stage to his underlings to fill in the plot lines, before he finally returns to die in the embrace of the ingenue. What more could one ask for?
As predicted in my pre-performance disclaimer: youthful ingratitude is not confined to Shakespeare’s day. The battle weary guerilla cast faded deftly into the hills for their guerilla party and neglected to invite the old master. Debriefed several weeks later, one of my daughters unconsciously captured the spirit of the piece:
“It was like seeing King Lear from the inside of Lear’s head.”
Monster Ingratitude, indeed.
The Lear Story doesn’t completely thrive on sneak attacks. Sustained meditation or 40 days fasting on the mountaintop seem a more appropriate recipe. I am immensely grateful of being granted an unexpected (undeserved) audience with him. The lessons of the text are many; I will not be letting go of him lightly, and have vowed to delve into the script and its storm every Saturday for the next six months. One awaits the DVD version of our collective journey. May the Gods of Theatre continue to provide guidance to us all.
Bergen, December 2011