Friday, April 15, 2016

Actors, lines, stillness

We went to the Regional performances of the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival last night. And had forgotten how hard the seats are in the Otago Boys High School Auditorium, in spite of having spent Sunday after Sunday there for several years during services with Dunedin City Baptist, before it moved into its own home in Concord.  We've been to one of these regionals before, (as well as the National finals when they've been held in Dunedin) and enjoyed it. Last night seemed much more of a mixed bag than previously.

The first item of the evening, and one of the best, gave us Act 3 scene 1 from Henry IV, Part I. This was a fine fighting-talk piece with Hotspur pitting himself against the Mortimer family. It included music, and dialogue and singing in Welsh. A major achievement. I'd wondered if this was scripted, but I see from a copy of the play that all Shakespeare offers is: The lady speaks/sings in Welsh. So whatever she was saying was written for the performance. The only thing that undercut the value of the performance was that the young man playing Glendower made the mistake of assuming that because someone is old he has to be seen to be acting like someone who's nearly 100. Still he did better than the young man playing Lear in another scene. He was virtually bent over double, tottering along on his walking stick. Unlike most of the old people in the audience!

There were two King Lear pieces, both covering some of the same ground: the argument about how big a retinue Lear could bring with him when he stayed with his daughters. For some reason known only to the director (not a student - several of the pieces were student-directed) the first of these was done as a 'Mexican Day of the Dead' scene, presented in 'flashbacks' and thoroughly confusing the structure of the play. To anyone unfamiliar with the play it made no sense whatsoever; to anyone familiar with the play it took considerable effort to understand why on earth Mexico or the Day of the Dead had anything to do with it. Tacking an idea onto Shakespeare doesn't work unless the thing is integral to the text.

The other Lear, as I say, had a young man playing a Lear with considerable physical disabilities. It took several bits of scenes and ran them together. Again the result was confusion for the audience, I felt.

Probably the top performance of the evening was a small piece of Macbeth, with the speeches expanded out to fifteen minutes, even though in the play they'd probably only take about five. This involved three 'familiars' sinuously winding around a raised area in the middle of the stage, on which Hecate stood. (According to the programme she was also Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but I don't know where that was worked in; maybe she spoke some of their lines.) In contrast to these unpleasantly evil creatures there were three old biddies in relatively modern dress who spoke no lines at all, but provided a variety of chirps and buzzes and short sounds as they picnicked at the front of the stage. These were often very funny, and had the style of what they were doing down pat. Towards the end of the scene the three 'familiars' turned out to be the three biddies' pets (like cats) and that was disturbing. Hecate meanwhile had turned around (and proved to be a talented young girl we know) and all of them kept repeating Fair is foul and foul is fair. It was very well done, though it left a very nasty taste in the mouth - as was probably intended. The witches in Macbeth are nothing if they're not vile.

In one of the five minute pieces Mark Antony discovered his wife was dead. For some reason this was played for laughs, and the young man playing Enobarbus managed to speak all his lines in a totally incomprehensible manner. Quite an achievement!  Taieri College did the play scene from Midsummer Night's Dream, emphasizing the crudity of the humour, and getting some laughs, but overall seeming to be more knockabout than funny. That was disappointing given that Taieri has quite a reputation for good work.

In another five minute job, from Two Gentlemen of Verona, two girls did an excellent job of the scene where Julia is encouraged by her maid to read Proteus' love letter and keeps putting it off. This was a delight, as was (a female) Petruchio wooing a decidedly modern Katharina. The girl playing Petruchio also directed it, and did much better than many of the student directors. (One of the girls in the Gentleman piece may have directed it too, but the programme for some reason claimed they were presenting a scene from The Merchant of Venice, which was a little confusing.)

We had two versions of Romeo and Juliet. In the first only the Nurse and Juliet appeared, stranded on the entire width and depth of the stage, with three chairs forming a spaced-out triangle. This was student-directed too, and had some good points, but the Juliet raged her way through much of the dialogue (it's the scene where the Nurse tells her Romeo is banished and Tybalt is dead) and her words couldn't be heard. Still she brought huge energy to the role, unlike the stillness that you often see in Juliet. The Nurse however floated around the stage with a distinct lack of energy; it was hard to tell whether she cared about Tybalt or Romeo or Juliet. Or anything! An odd way to play the role. It was as if Juliet and the Nurse had swapped characters.

The other R&J was very curious, not helped by having the curtain come across when it was only two-thirds of the way through! The Juliet was played by a solid, tall boy doing a falsetto. When the audience realised he was meant to be Juliet there was a surge of embarrassed laughter. A strange piece of casting. Romeo was a little fellow, as was Tybalt, and they were left shouting at each other across the distance of the stage, for no good reason. These three were supposed to be flashback characters. The 'real' Romeo and Juliet were in the tomb scene with her lying still and him bewailing her being dead, and then each killing themselves in due course. These two were good, but the other three seemed at odds with them in age and everything else, pretty much. There was supposed to be another Tybalt, according to the programme, but he never eventuated. !!

The other piece was from Twelfth Night, and played out the scene where Olivia first meets Viola disguised as a young man. Olivia was in what appeared to be her short nightie. Malvolio was dressed in ordinary modern clothes, and showed no embarrassment at being in what must have been Olivia's bedroom. Maria spent most of her time dusting imaginary furniture and saying nothing, and the girl playing Viola spoke her lines with a strange weightedness, as though there was no rhythm or bounce to them. I couldn't tell whether she had a naturally gruff voice or whether she was trying to be a boy being a girl.

As in so many of the student productions (and even some of those directed by teachers) there was a great deal of unnecessary movement in this piece, much wandering around the stage by the two leads, without any great purpose. (In one of the King Lear pieces, two 'soldiers' marched across the stage and back again four times, for no apparent reason.) Other actors would shuffle about on the spot, as though they couldn't just stand still. Movement needs to have a reason on stage, otherwise it's nothing. And sometimes it's just annoying. Merely shifting people around without purpose achieves nothing. Sometimes the student directors got it right and did a good job. Other times it looked as though they had no idea what to do with the actors - and no one told them, it seems, that actors can stand still on a stage, say their lines effectively, and the audience will be enthralled.

In the most recent play I did, Verdict, I had less than ten minutes on stage. My entrance required me to show that I was an arrogant blusterer: initially I took control of the centre and forced the main character to stay at one side. And then it was a matter of each of us shifting from one position to another as we played out the scene, the two characters assessing each other, constantly changing the balance of power, even when both of us were sitting. Even small movements, such as a turn of the head, or my crossing my legs as I sat, or a refusal to shake hands, were slotted in for maximum effect. The third person in the scene, who had no lines except at the beginning and the end, stayed in one place all the time, only her face showing her reactions, or occasionally a slight shifting of her body.

I don't note this to say that we are better actors than these young people, but just to point out how movement is part and parcel of character and of what's going on in the scene. I'm reminded how in J B Priestly's play, When We Are Married, I played a photographer who became increasingly drunk as the play went on. In my first scene I was allowed to wander around the room inspecting things on the mantelpiece or a table and so on, even though other characters were speaking. It showed that as a character I had an underlying restlessness, probably because I was ready for my next drink. By the time the last scene came, I was able to literally burst through the door into the room where most of the other actors were assembled, and take over the scene as I lolled across the stage, drunk.

A more disciplined approach to movement gives the actors a much better sense of why they're on the stage, why they're saying what they're saying.

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