Comrade Shakespeare

It is the East study session, The Globe, 25 February 2012

The second of the Globe’s all-day study sessions looked at Shakespeare and Eastern Europe.

Professor Dennis Kennedy began by making us look for a £2 coin, a free gift from The Globe, under the seats in the lecture theatre. After much fruitless rummaging we were informed that there was no coin. The search was just the first part of a practical exercise, whose second part saw us try to act out what we had done when looking for the coin. The idea was to remember how we had behaved the first time, and repeat our actions.

This was a demonstration of a Stanislavski acting exercise. Such techniques can be used to solve the problem of how to play, for instance, the ghost scene in Hamlet, with the actor tapping into a relevant past experience.

Amy Kenny of Globe Education talked to us about Shakespeare in Eastern European translation. The plays were first introduced to the region by companies of travelling players performing on basic stages.

An interesting thought arises from this. The theatre companies participating in the Globe to Globe festival around which these study sessions have been arranged, will also be travelling light and not bringing their owns sets.

This means that Shakespeare is being brought back to the Globe from Eastern Europe in a fashion that mirrors the plays’ initial mode of entry into the region.

Amy also mentioned that the Globe is going to create a database of Shakespeare translations from around the world so that researchers will have a centralised resource on the subject.

Metaphysics

This was followed by a talk and practical exercise with director Jurij Alschitz entitled “Metaphisik (sic) of the Shakespeare and tradition of the Russian Theatre.”

Jurij sat astride a chair with its back facing towards us and talked for an hour about his approach to theatre and rehearsal.

Given that English is not his first language, to speak continuously for an hour without notes is a considerable achievement. There was something about the simple honesty of his explanations that was appealing, even if at times they appeared to lack an overriding structure.

One remark, however, was particularly striking. He considered himself to be an artist and enjoyed working in theatre with other artists. This led him to say that he was not particularly concerned about audiences.

Whether this was the result of working for so long within a totally subsidised system where theatre-makers did not have to worry about ticket sales, is difficult to ascertain.

But that attitude is totally contrary to what we know about the way Shakespeare worked. He engaged with audiences, writing jokes aimed at lawyers because of the popularity of the theatre with the Inns of Court, integrating comebacks to heckling into soliloquies (Am I a coward? [heckle] Who calls me villain?), and earning an unsubsidised living from those who paid their pennies to see a play.

Can anyone working with Shakespeare truly get to the heart of the plays without a feeling for the connection with the audience that runs right through them?

The second hour of the session was given over to a series of exercises designed to make actors aware of their physicality. This was more interesting for those who chose to volunteer than those who decided to sit it out.

Brecht

The final session of the day was a talk and practical exercise on Shakespeare and Brecht with Professor Dennis Kennedy.

He outlined Brecht’s borrowings from Shakespeare, or more accurately, from the Elizabethan theatre in general, including simplicity of staging, the fluid use of space, and an episodic flow of scenes.

The relevance of Shakespeare to post-war Berlin was discussed. Shakespeare was apparently used as a vehicle for the recovery of lost or threatened values in both east and west, with some in the US regarding Shakespeare as an element in a cultural Marshall Plan.

Then we looked at how Brecht, having learnt from Shakespeare, went on to exert a continuing influence of modern Shakespeare production. This was exemplified by the visit of the Berliner Ensemble to London in 1956. The impact of this shaped the company organisation and techniques of the RSC.

This example of Shakespeare’s influence extending beyond Britain’s shores and then being re-imported to invigorate UK practice, links in with the theme of Globe to Globe.

The practical exercises demonstrated how acting can be affected by looking at the text in new ways. This Brechtian defamiliarisation saw us putting first person references into the third person to create distance and turning serious scenes in comedy. One of Brecht’s self-penned rehearsal scenes was acted out. These were brief interludes dramatising offstage action to foreground social power structures within the plays.

Like any adventure, you end up doing things you did not expect. So my own personal highlight of the day was combining Macbeth’s “Bring forth men children only…” speech with a Groucho Marx impression.

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