Rehearsing Shakespeare: Performance
'Seeing soliloquy as an interior event in which a character is overheard talking to themselves constructs an unnecessary barrier between speaker and receiver.'
Everything that happens in a rehearsal room is focused on what the performance is going to look like, sound like, feel like to the audience. Performance is the ghost in the room. It is the presence that makes sense of everything you do. Whatever the rehearsal process consists of, performance is the only thing that gives it any meaning at all. By the time it comes to performing the cast should be at the point where what happens on stage will be for the purpose of explaining the play to the audience - telling them the point of the play. It may be a particular group's interpretation of Shakespeare's play, but it has to be an honestly held interpretation of what you have decided was in the author's mind at the time he wrote it. Whatever the design, whatever shape or size of performance space, on stage the actor has to be the conduit through which Shakespeare's intention flows towards the audience. Take 'The Merchant of Venice': If it helps to set the play in contemporary Las Vegas rather than Renaissance Venice, that's fine so long as his thoughts about love, money, class and race are made clearer as a result. In that play, where the characters are all a bizarre mixture of good and bad impulses, which holds up a mirror and invites us to examine ourselves and understand the reflection better, nothing should intrude between the watcher and the reflection. The danger is - the more vivid the carapace of the production the greater the chance of muzzling the meaning of the play. The heart of performance is the revelation of meaning, that's why theatre is the greatest of collaborative art forms and Shakespeare its greatest exponent; he used the form better than anyone else to speak truth to the world.
Performing Shakespeare, whatever the size and shape of the stage, an actor has two basic ways of communicating with their audience: soliloquy or dialogue. With soliloquy the communication is absolutely direct, like an arrow from speaker to listener, provided the actor is not just looking at the audience while, actually, talking to themselves. But a soliloquy is, in effect, an internal self enquiry isn't it! Hamlet is talking to himself surely? Well no - talking to yourself is a sign of madness and Hamlet is only pretending to be mad! Its a stylistic acting choice. In my view seeing soliloquy as an interior event in which a character is overheard talking to themselves is not only self indulgent but constructs an unnecessary barrier between speaker and receiver. However to see the speaker as an orator proclaiming truths about themselves to a roomful of strangers is equally distancing, if easier to hear! To get around this paradox I ask actors to think of the audience as a conference of clones of the speaker, there to listen to the very latest instant of being: as physically separate entities but all virtually identical to their original - the speaker. If you are Hamlet, Richard the Third or Othello everyone in front of you IS essentially YOU. They are outside of you, hence the need for speech, but simultaneously completely of your mind - thinking like you, feeling like you, desiring the same things, sharing your fears, hopes and, crucially, your range of choices. In this way the action of talking to yourself is amplified into conference, almost debate, and becomes an arrow of direct engagement one to one.
In dialogue the danger is abandoning the audience by losing yourself in the other actor (or actors) and failing to find that balance between subjectivity and objectivity that is fundamental to all acting. Here the image I use in rehearsals is not the arrow, but the boomerang, and basic staging technique is an essential component to make it work. A lot of rehearsal is centred on finding ways to bend the thoughts through interaction with other characters and send them into the auditorium. It is connected to why, in performance, the argument is more important than emotional display. The audience need to feel they they are being talked to, constantly being asked by the characters: "Do you know what I mean? Do you know who I am?" Then they will feel the emotion as well, by comparing the arguments of the characters with their own life experiences. That's how you engage an audience - how you make them care.
You may be wondering where simple entertainment is in all this? But that's like asking: "What is happiness?" We find peace in absorption, and theatre should have that effect. Successful Shakespeare performances are not about distraction, taking your mind off the fact you're listening to a 400 year old text by giving you other things to think about:"Don't worry about these old words, look at the genius of director and designer and Enjoy!" The Production should not be more important than the play; it should not stand between performer and listener.
Rehearsals will have structured the actor within a tight, meaningful framework that, ironically, also gives them the freedom to express themselves in performance. This self-expression derives from being a storyteller who is simultaneously the vehicle for a character. The director should have helped liberate the part of the actors self that is useful to the story, not trapped them within the suffocating confines of a "concept", along with a barrage of physically distracting visual "ideas". But neither should the director have allowed the actor to see the stage as a shop window for their own magnificence.
A theatre performance is one of the best examples of a co-operative enterprise. Theatre is the least individualistic activity imaginable: it is the essence of the art of working together for a common purpose. The mental setting of every actor should be focused on bringing the best out of their colleagues, on how to make each other better. Any hint of: "Look at me!" is deadly to live theatre. If, in performance, competition for attention ever manifests itself the entire point of drama as a collaborative art form is destroyed. After a full and satisfactory rehearsal period, playing together for an audience can be an experience of pure joy, and the very best theatre is usually made by ensembles of equal actors who stay together over an extended period learning as they go. But - we don't live in a co-operative culture, we live in a competitive one. Or, at least one that celebrates competition as an inherent good, where being better than others is seen as an admirable aim. An ambition to be a good actor and a desire to understand fully what that means is vital, but a desire to be a famous one is not. I know that many "stars" are brilliant actors, and I'm not suggesting directors and actors should live as monks and nuns working only in ensemble companies for minimal pay, but I do remember a time when it was considered uncool to seek fame. When acting becomes entwined with celebrity culture it its in danger of losing its soul.
Bill Alexander. ©