‘It’s such a joyous play’: four leading actors on playing Shakespeare’s great roles

For his new book Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2, experienced actor Julian Curry – who himself has appeared in twenty-one of Shakespeare’s plays – spoke to twelve leading colleagues about their experience of participating in landmark Shakespearean productions, each recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. Here, read some extracts from the book including Chiwetel Ejiofor on Othello, Zoë Wanamaker on Beatrice, Ian McKellen on Lear, and Fiona Shaw on the Shrew.

Chiwetel Ejiofor on Othello’s feelings towards Desdemona

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Othello; Othello, Donmar Warehouse, 2007, directed by Michael Grandage
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

I saw it as absolutely that he fell in love with her. What he describes is exactly what happened. Brabantio invited him, they became friends, and Brabantio was thrilled to have this exotic guy in the house, and pleased for him to tell his stories and impress the children. And in the course of doing so, Othello notices that the girl is extraordinarily interested not only in his stories but in him. He realises that she is falling in love with him. He sees, I suppose, a softness in her gaze that he’s quite unused to. Her gentleness and her beauty are intoxicating to him, and because of this adoration he finds himself falling in love with her. And so there probably isn’t a deep knowledge of each other, as much as a powerful awareness of the emotion they’re both feeling. He is also attracted to her willingness to break through societal constraints. I don’t think there’s any evidence in the text that he considered her to be merely a trophy.

Othello’s never been in love before. He’s shell-shocked by the emotion. He had no idea that one could feel anything like that. He’s been through terrible trauma, including being in the Arab slave trade, and has largely shut down the emotional side of himself, and filtered it into conflict. That’s where he has always felt most alive, as he describes, in the ‘Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war’ [3.3]. He’s not looking for anything to replace that emotion, which is why she completely catches him off-guard by falling in love with him. It’s not something that he expected or even necessarily wanted. But it certainly is the first time he’s experienced it.


Zoë Wanamaker on Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship in Much Ado About Nothing

Zoë Wanamaker as Beatrice; Much Ado About Nothing, National Theatre, 2007, directed by Nicholas Hytner
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

At the start, her relationship with Benedick is based on misunderstandings, fear and insecurities. They’re both insecure, I think. Benedick pretending he had all these lovers, Beatrice thinking she could never get married. What’s more, Beatrice is in a very male-dominated society, which she resents and he is part of, so you’d assume they absolutely can’t get on. But the great thing about these characters is how they develop as the plot progresses. When you go into any play you’re looking for a character’s change or revelation, which makes them more true to life and is part of the audience’s satisfaction as well as the actor’s. These two people are changed for the better and the happier as a result of the gulling scenes.

Julian Curry: Do you think she was waiting for him all the time, that she always knew he was the one, if only it could come out right?

Wanamaker: It’s possible.

Or is that a bit soppy?

A little bit, yes, but it’s possible. Of all the people she might have a relationship with, it could only be him. And when it happens, a flower opens. Theirs is a marriage made in heaven because they’re so right, their spirits are so perfectly matched. That’s where Nick Hytner [the director] was so clever: the play is not about young people, it’s about mature people, people who have lived but are looking in the wrong directions. It’s the warmth and the wit of these two people, and the fact that they are misfits who thankfully find each other, that make it such a joyous play.


Ian McKellen on the storm scene in King Lear

Ian McKellen as Lear; King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2007, directed by Trevor Nunn
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

We had real rain. Trevor Nunn [the director] was very insistent on that. Then they weren’t able to light the scene, so the audience could hardly see that it was happening. But we were cold and wet, sometimes literally shaking with cold. Actually it was quite helpful to us to be extremely uncomfortable. I remember saying in rehearsal that we should go out into a storm and I’d take off my clothes to feel what it’s like, and then remember it. But in the end we didn’t need to do that, because we had to endure the real thing on stage.

Julian Curry: What do you think Lear’s doing? Why does he want the storm? Why is he welcoming it, asking for it?

McKellen: When it’s raining, and you’re outside in a real old storm with thunder and lightning, and there’s nowhere to go, you’re simply a victim. You can’t control the rain and tell it to stop. It’s just there. He’s trying to relate the reality of getting cold and wet, and being frightened, with what it felt like when his daughters broke all the conventions of his rule by hurting him, thwarting him. He should have been able to control them, but he couldn’t. And he can’t control the weather. The storm is introducing him to the idea that he is just a man, and an old man at that. He had never thought of himself as just a man: he’s King Lear.


Fiona Shaw on the difficulties of playing Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew

Fiona Shaw as Katherine; The Taming of the Shrew, RSC, 1987, directed by Jonathan Miller
(© Donald Cooper/Photostage)

Katherine’s journey is enormous. The difficulty of playing it is that the transitional beats that you would like to have are not there, so you have to make quantum leaps sometimes.

There are a million things between the beginning and the end of the play. You don’t have anything like Petruchio’s journey, which is dextrous and full of contradiction. She has no soliloquy, so you don’t get to the inside of her mind, which means she remains an object to the audience. Until the end, when she’s very much the subject. But that last speech has to be earned. And it’s a thin-ice fragment of a resolution, which is quite hard to do. You have to be very light of feet to get to it. The middle of the play is perhaps the most tricky part, where she doesn’t speak. That’s when you really need to speak, but she doesn’t. She’s silenced. There is a power in silence too, of course, and the audience can be moved and upset, but they’re not charmed by it in the way they’re charmed by his wit. So it’s a hard part to play, whereas Petruchio is a wonderful part to play. And Katherine is also a hard part to enjoy. Maybe that’s generational, but I don’t know of a Katherine who really enjoys playing it.


The above is taken from Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2 – Twelve Leading Actors on Twelve Key Roles by Julian Curry.

In the book, twelve leading actors take us behind the scenes of landmark Shakespearean productions, each recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. The result is a series of individual masterclasses that will be invaluable for other actors and directors, as well as students of Shakespeare – and fascinating for audiences of the plays.

To get your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required  – click here.

‘She has made us all raise our game’: Rufus Norris introduces All Change Please by Lucy Kerbel

Rufus NorrisTonic Theatre founder Lucy Kerbel’s new book, All Change Please: A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre, is an eye-opening look at why theatre continues to struggle to reflect the gender balance of the world it seeks to represent – and what can be done to fix that. Here, Rufus Norris, who as Director of the National Theatre has committed to making the organisation gender equal, pays tribute to Lucy, her new book and Tonic’s work, and ponders his own role as a gatekeeper and the responsibilities that brings…

Story has always been the lens through which the human race has understood itself, and the work of the storyteller – though transient – can be seismic in the moment and profound in its historical and political impact. Those storytellers, however, have almost entirely come from just one half of humanity.

‘Achieving gender equality in theatre is a no-brainer,’ says Lucy Kerbel – and in her illuminating new book All Change Please she lays out the ethical, creative, political, commercial, social and artistic arguments for why and how the historical imbalance of voice and practice must be addressed.

Her experience and knowledge as a show-maker from the factory floor roots her insight, guidance and encouragement, making it deeply practical and un-sensational. Consequently, her informed strength is twofold: it empowers action, converting weary frustration or unfocused anger into measurable and long-lasting practice. At the same time it disempowers the denial, driven by a throng of mere details, that has stunted what should be a leading example of brilliant diversity: the theatre.

As someone who railed against the gatekeepers for much of my early career, I now find myself in the privileged but often challenging position of being one. The endless deadlines, crises, triumphs and unexpected clattering obstacles are constant distractions from a simple truth: that the gatekeepers’ main responsibility is to look at why they are letting who they are letting through the gates. The work that the National Theatre have been doing with Tonic Theatre is enhancing our understanding of this with both nuance and vision.

Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic Theatre and author of All Change Please (photo by Helen Murray)

Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic and author of All Change Please
(photo by Helen Murray)

In fact, Lucy Kerbel’s work through Tonic has become increasingly pivotal in helping the entire industry, through organisations and individuals, raise its game. As she points out, we are the theatre industry; it is alive in us, and will develop or stagnate under our collective stewardship. So it is timely and invaluable that she has added to that well-researched insight with her book.

In it, she ranges across history, unconscious bias, the inevitable elitism of the freelance path, the multiple ways of taking action and responsibility, self-assessment, even the exit chat at the end of a project, and in doing so breaks down the insurmountable into a staircase of constructive progress.

For the open-minded, Lucy provides both tools and imperatives. For the sceptical – and here I include myself – she calmly and completely punctures the myths both of the theatre-maker as deep-thinking and reconstructed occupier of the moral high ground, and of the arts as the front line of all things visionary. And she reveals, step by step, the deep-rooted self-selection that has underpinned where we find ourselves today.

All Change Please will, I hope, have a breadth of readers – the cynic, the impartial, the supporter, the activist. She answers the cynic, informs the impartial, converts the supporter into an activist and equips them all; not in a rallying cry of anger-fuelled idealism, but in a calm, pragmatic and clear-eyed way. She talks about the ‘what’ coming before the ‘how’ – knowing exactly what you want before trying to illuminate how best to achieve it. What she herself wants is inspiringly clear, and the work of Tonic – and this excellent guide as an aspect of that – is a crucial part of how it will be achieved.

FormattedThe above is taken from the Foreword to All Change Please: A Practical Guide to A Practical Guide to Achieving Gender Equality in Theatre by Lucy Kerbel.

Eye-opening, empowering and inspiring, the book explores why change matters, its benefits – artistic, commercial, ethical and social – and how, with everyone’s help, we can actually achieve it. It also includes provocations to help you consider your current practices and their effects, challenge unconscious biases and identify opportunities for change, plus strategies and tools to help you decide where best to focus your efforts, to convince others why change matters, and to achieve meaningful, lasting success.

To get your copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99), visit the NHB website now.

Putting teenagers (and their miraculous brains) centre-stage: Ned Glasier and Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on making Brainstorm

After being inspired by a TED Talk about the workings of the teenage brain, Ned Glasier (Artistic Director of Company Three, previously Islington Community Theatre) and co-writer Emily Lim realised they had the germ of an idea for a play that could be shaped and performed by teenagers themselves. Here, Ned Glasier charts the development process, and explains how the resulting play, Brainstorm, has been designed to be adapted and performed by other youth drama groups. Below, neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who contributed to the play’s development, reports on the scientific angle.

Ned Glasier, Artistic Director of Company Three: Like so many devised plays, Brainstorm started out as a totally different idea.

In 2012, Emily Lim and I began work on a project exploring the coming of age of a fictional boy in the Egyptian revolution. When this didn’t quite work out, we realised that what we were both really interested in was the moment when people become ‘themselves’.  That led us to an inspiring TED Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Dr Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, about the workings of the teenage brain.

As with all Company Three work, what followed was an in-depth and long-term process, working with more than fifty young people through a series of projects, scratch plays, development processes and residencies.

During our early explorations of the subject, one of our young cast members was having an incredibly difficult relationship with her mum. After an early scratch performance, she told us that her mum had come to see the show, and had immediately gone home and called a family meeting to discuss it.  That was perhaps the first time we knew just how important it was to share what we’d learnt.

Brainstorm performed by Company Three (photo by Richard H. Smith)

Brainstorm performed by Company Three (photo by Richard H. Smith)

So we continued to develop the play. We went on residentials, played hide-and-seek, made limbic system dances and created art installations explaining the pre-frontal cortex. We wrote thousands of lists, recorded hundreds of conversations and spoke for hours with Sarah-Jayne and her then PhD student Dr Kate Mills.

Eventually we were lucky enough to take the play to the Park Theatre, the National Theatre and the BBC.

We discovered that not only had we made a play that helped others understand the teenage brain, but we had developed as a company too.  All our work making theatre with young people has been informed and improved by a better understanding of why teenagers are the way they are.

2_tyrelphan_creditrichardhsmithCompany Three’s work is based on a principle of sharing, and we are so happy to be able to share Brainstorm with schools and other young companies. We know from the parents, teachers and other adults who came to see the show how important it is that adults understand what’s going on in the changing teenage brain. And how empowering it can be for teenagers to be the ones to tell them.

The recently published playtext of Brainstorm is both a record of the show, and a blueprint for making your own production. It’s an invitation to take our work and make it your own – to play with it, adapt it and develop it in new and extraordinary ways.

Above all, it’s an invitation to do what the teenage brain does naturally – to respond, to question, to adapt and to experiment.

We can’t wait to hear what you do with it. Do tell us how you get on. There are lots of ways to get in touch, including Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.


845fdaed59d3cd91f98106165c9b07b610615c5b_1600x1200Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience: In 2013, I saw a scratch performance of Brainstorm given by twenty-five teenage members of Company Three (then Islington Community Theatre). The group, together with directors Ned Glasier and Emily Lim, had seen my TED Talk on the teenage brain and been inspired to create a play about what was happening inside their heads. Ned and Emily approached me and my former PhD student, Dr Kate Mills, to talk to them about the science of the adolescent brain.

When I went to see the scratch performance, I had no idea what to expect, but from the first scene onwards I was mesmerised by the imaginative interpretation of the science and the brilliant performances by the talented young people. The play was innovative and clever, and incredibly poignant, telling the stories of the complex relationships between the young people and their parents, set within the context of the science of how the adolescent brain develops.

I wanted to get more involved and was delighted that a grant from the Wellcome Trust enabled Kate and me to spend more time with the directors and young people to develop the play. Our first step on this journey was a twenty-minute performance and talk by the young people and myself in front of four thousand people at the Discovering the Future of Medicine event at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

3_michaeladewale_creditrichardhsmithIt is important that we find new ways to communicate our scientific discoveries to young people and the general public, and Brainstorm is a perfect example of this. The impact of the play on its audiences at the Royal Albert Hall, Park Theatre, National Theatre and on BBC iPlayer has been profound and long-lasting. The cast have told Kate and me stories of parents rethinking how they understand and interact with their children as a consequence of learning about brain development from the play. We have heard about headteachers who have seen the play and returned to their schools determined to do things differently.

And we have learned from the experience too. It’s fascinating and important to learn about how the science of the adolescent brain is interpreted by young people themselves. We learn about their experiences, what’s important to them and what they care about, and this gives us ideas for our next experiments.

It has always been important to me that science is accessible and that everyone has a role to play in communicating it, questioning it and sharing it. I hope the published version enables many other young people to have the same experience of self-discovery that the cast of Company Three’s Brainstorm did, and that many more audience members might start to understand the extraordinary potential of the teenage brain.


FormattedBrainstorm by Ned Glasier, Emily Lim and Company Three is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

This edition contains a series of exercises, resources and activities to help schools, youth-theatre groups and young companies create and perform their own Brainstorm. It also features the complete script of the original production which played at Park Theatre and the National Theatre, London, in 2015.

To buy a copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Production photographs by Richard H. Smith

Tackling taboo subjects in theatre for young people: Carly Wijs on her play Us/Them

After a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016 and winning a Fringe First Award, the extraordinary Us/Them opens at the National Theatre on 16 January. An international co-production between BRONKS,  the Brussels-based theatre company for young audiences, and Richard Jordan Productions
with Theatre Royal Plymouth and Big in Belgium, the play focuses on the 2004 Beslan School siege, which ended in the deaths of more than 380 people. But rather than giving a straightforward account of this terrible tragedy, Us/Them explores the entirely individual way children cope with traumatic situations. Here, director and writer Carly Wijs explains how she approached the subject matter, and why she’s convinced no subject should be taboo for children.

When BRONKS asked me if I was interested in creating a performance for them, in 2013, the terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, had just occurred. I had read about it in the newspapers and watched footage of it on television, but I had not discussed it with my then eight-year-old son.

But he had seen it for himself on the news and he came to tell me. The way he talked about the attack was very specific: objective, aloof, with the ability to overlook the emotional implications. He handled the news factually, as a sequence of events, and without having to connect it to a judgement. It was as if the horror for him as an eight-year-old child had a completely different meaning because it was not possible to relate it to his own life. A child, unlike an adult, does not think: ‘That could have been me.’

I started to think about another horrifying act of unspeakable violence – the Beslan school siege of September 2004 – and how this dark episode in history could combine with the thoughts and impressions of children about such acts, to make a piece of theatre for young people. I subsequently managed to persuade Oda Van Neygen, who was at the time artistic director of BRONKS, and to this day I thank her for her courage in allowing me do it.

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Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven in Us/Them, written and directed by Carly Wijs. Photo by Murdo MacLeod

If you type ‘Beslan’ into Google and look at the pictures, it is riveting. You cannot let go of the horror. The fact that it involves children makes that feeling even stronger. It is an abomination in the extreme. But how can we put such indescribable acts on stage? How can we make something that is totally incomprehensible, understandable? And isn’t it taboo to make a piece of theatre about terrorism, aimed at audiences of children? Ultimately, I do not believe it is taboo – in fact, no subject should be taboo for children. It is just important that you use the right words. Discussing the topic of terrorism with children is a challenge, but it can be done. And must be done.

Why Beslan? Well, the drama took place at a school, and the first day of school is something to which every child can relate. The fact that the terrorists chose that specific day and environment to stage their atrocity reflects a profound perversion – but I did not want to talk about the perversity of it all. That’s just an ongoing debate by adults: why is this happening? A child cannot answer and does not have to answer that question. That is the privilege of being a child.

Whilst doing research, I came across a gripping BBC documentary called Children of Beslan, in which the story of the siege is told by the children who were held hostage (it’s available to watch on YouTube here). These children gave the same factual account of those events as my son had given about the Nairobi attack. Aloof almost. Which, of course, does not mean that these children do not have an enormous trauma to process. Unfortunately, the horrifying implications of what happened to them will probably hit them when they grow up. But the only thing that seemed to count for the children in the documentary was that the story was told as accurately as possible.

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It was because of this documentary that I decided to tell the story entirely from the perspective of the children involved: one boy and one girl. There is a difference between their perspectives, but they both try to be as precise as possible in their accounts of what happened during the three-day siege. This precision sometimes takes the form of a ‘Show and Tell’ presentation, a scientific paper or a maths lesson, like you get in school…

But sometimes the children flee from the horror, straight into the comforting arms of the imagination. In the documentary, a boy fantasised that Harry Potter would arrive wearing his invisibility cloak and kill the terrorists one by one. Others fantasised that they were part of a film and none of this was really happening to them. In the play, the children devise their own endings to the siege that are either extremely happy or extremely sad.

Almost 1,200 people, including 777 children, were held hostage during the siege. Outside the school there must have been several thousand people. And yet, in the news footage, Google searches and documentaries, you keep seeing the same group of about fifty photogenic people. In all of the footage that has survived from those fateful days, it’s always the scenes of greatest desperation and devastation that play on a loop, that come back time and time again. Even though the story – and other stories like it – need no further dramatisation, the media keep pushing that sentimental ‘drama’ button. And we keep watching.

161006_wij-zij_fkph_300dpi__78_von_139_1

This manipulation of our feelings, and the fact we allow it to happen, is neither innocent, or inconsequential. If – or when – we are blinded and overwhelmed by emotions, we stop being able to think and reflect and analyse. Our only response becomes ‘Oh my god, this is terrible.’ And yet it is essential that we don’t stop thinking and reflecting and analysing. Only by doing so can we get to the origins of these atrocities – and then, we hope, start to think about preventing them.

As adults, we are conditioned by our overly dramatised perspective, by the media, by ourselves, into black and white thinking: ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. The refreshing thing about a child’s gaze is that it is not coloured by the need for ‘dramatic interpretation’, because that view of things does not connect to their own life. And if it does connect to their own life, it is tackled through imagination. That is what Us/Them is about.


FormattedUs/Them by Carly Wijs is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (RRP £9.99), visit our website here.

Us/Them is at the National Theatre, London, 16 January – 18 February 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Guido de Grefte, production photographs by Murdo MacLeod.

‘A well-kept secret’: the Feldenkrais Method and its powerful potential for actors, by Victoria Worsley

The Feldenkrais Method, named after the distinguished scientist and engineer Dr Moshe Feldenkrais, has been used by performers since being adopted by Peter Brook in the 1970s – but it is only now beginning to gain the recognition it deserves. Tapping into the deep relationship between bodily movement and our ways of thinking, feeling and learning, the Method can revolutionise the way actors think about and use their bodies. Here, acting coach and Feldenkrais practitioner Victoria Worsley – author of a new book on the subject, Feldenkrais for Actors – recalls how she first became aware of the Method, and how it ultimately changed her life…

It took a publisher to recognise that it is time for a book on the Feldenkrais Method – one that contextualises it specifically for actors. The Method has been used by physical theatre performers since director Peter Brook started working with Dr Moshe Feldenkrais in the early seventies. It came to the UK via Monika Pagneux’s teaching in Paris and Garet Newell’s classes at the International Workshop Festival. It found its way into physical theatre and dance, and is beginning to be used by mainstream drama schools, by the RSC and also by a select group of well known film actors. There are quite a number of books about the Method now, but as far as its specific use for actors goes, you can find some great academic writing and a few chapters in some popular books on movement – but, as far as I’m aware, there is not one book devoted to the subject.

And a book really is needed. Drama schools are increasingly curious about the Method, but unless they already have a teacher who knows it well, it’s not so easy for them to fully appreciate what it actually is, its possibilities, how it is different to what they already do and how it might fit with or support their work. Amongst professional actors it is also growing, but the wide-ranging possibilities of the Method are still a fairly well-kept secret. Theatre publisher Nick Hern saw this gap, and asked me to write a book about it. The result, Feldenkrais for Actors, has just been published – and I hope it does the job well enough to be genuinely useful. Of course one book cannot cover it all, and one practitioner’s version is not the whole story, but I hope it will be a good start.

monika-pagneux

Monika Pagneux, the influential movement teacher who introduced many UK performers to the Feldenkrais Method

I came across the Method aged seventeen, over thirty years ago. I went straight from school to study with the revered teacher Philippe Gaulier in Paris. I remember asking him in my broken French on the phone if I was too young to work with him, and I remember his inimitable reply: “How would I know? I am not a psychic”. Great teacher that he is, it was the one-and-a-half hours with movement teacher Monika Pagneux before his class that got me through the terror of getting up in front of him in those days. She often called me Gloria by mistake, and made up for it wonderfully: “Ah la gloire, la victoire, c’est toute la meme chose” (“Ah, glory, victory, it’s all the same thing!”). The strange little movements we did in her classes had surprising results. They plugged me in to myself, made me feel connected, able, different in ways I had not experienced before: little pieces of magic. A genius teacher in her own right, Monika said these sequences came from the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais, who had died that very year.

Moshe Feldenkrais in San Francisco (photograph from Bob Knighton's collection, International Feldenkrais Federation Archive)

Moshe Feldenkrais in San Francisco (photograph from Bob Knighton’s collection, International Feldenkrais Federation Archive)

It was the beginning of a long journey for me with the Method. I was in touch with it in a very on-and-off way while I was acting, but it was always with me. Once experienced, the Feldenkrais Method is not easily forgotten. It had been like waking up to myself and learning to explore in ways that never left me. It coloured how I approached all my acting work, my theatre making, my pieces of movement direction, as well as the way I could be present with myself and in the world. And it shaped my exploration of myself from an emotional point of view as I got older.

Later, in that funny place you find yourself in as a pregnant woman (re-evaluating everything!), I made a radical decision to join the Feldenkrais Professional Practitioner training in Lewes. I had a problematic knee injury, and anyway the Method had started tugging at me with increasing insistence. I wanted to delve more deeply into its secrets and see if I could learn its magic. I was doubly tempted by the discovery of the hands-on version of the Method, which seemed to work miracles with my knee and with all sorts of people, from children to the elderly. Being pregnant, I was tired of repertory theatre, of touring and of filming in odd locations. It was time to stay still. Finally, after four years of truly transformative training, I left acting for my Feldenkrais practice and never looked back.

4-2-10Because of my acting background, I naturally began to test what actors could do with the Method. I have been exploring and experimenting with it in the course of my work at some wonderful drama schools like Oxford, Rose Bruford and Mountview, as well as workshops at the Actors Centre in London, where I’ve worked alongside the theatre-maker, director and teacher John Wright (who has written the Foreword to my book). My adventures in related fields such as barefoot running and Goju Ryu karate, as well as in the domain of the physiology of emotion, have helped me clarify aspects of the work, and my varied practice with people from many different walks of life has thrown light on how the Method relates to performance. Feldenkrais trainer Dr Frank Wildman told me that Moshe thought his work would be most fully expressed through actors, precisely because they needed to address the use of themselves in every way.

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And so we come back to the book. Feldenkrais is far from the only movement-based method that is useful for actors, but it is very rich, still very cutting-edge and, in my experience, highly effective in the way it works. It encompasses a unique and profound understanding of human functioning and of how you are you – and the detail of it is like nothing I have come across elsewhere. It is high time for the Method’s usefulness to be laid out clearly so that actors can recognise its benefits and its immense potential for the work they do. I hope my book will be a good start.


FormattedFeldenkrais for Actors: How to Do Less and Discover More by Victoria Worsley is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

For details about Victoria Worsley’s Feldenkrais practice, visit her website www.feldenkraisworks.co.uk. She also runs Feldenkrais workshops at the Actors Centre in London; read her blog piece on the Actors Centre website here.

Illustrations by James Humphries.

‘One of the greatest ever collaborators’: Enda Walsh on working with David Bowie

Enda Walsh Now playing in London following its premiere in New York last year, new musical Lazarus marks a unique collaboration between the playwright Enda Walsh and legendary singer and songwriter David Bowie – featuring many of the latter’s most famous songs. Though nobody realised at the time, the production turned out to be one of Bowie’s final projects, opening just weeks before his death in January 2016. Here, Walsh recalls what it was like to work with Bowie, and pays tribute to the unending genius of this singularly visionary artist…

David Bowie had passed me a four-page document to read so we could begin our discussions on writing a new story with his songs – and based upon the character of Thomas Newton from the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth – which David had famously played in the Nicolas Roeg film. In the room was the theatre and film producer Robert Fox and David’s right hand, Coco Schwab. As I started to read those four pages, the room was very quiet.

Earlier, I had been feeling very calm and detached as I walked towards David’s building with Robert – as we stood in the elevator, as that ridiculously wide office door opened, and Mr David Bowie was standing there. He hugged me and the first thing he said to me was ‘You’ve been in my head for three weeks.’ We sat and we chatted about my work (he had read everything) and why I was writing the way I was – and what themes kept returning into my plays like a nasty itch. I spent that whole morning and now this first hour of our first meeting in a state of serene self-confidence.

David Bowie

‘David Fucking Bowie’
(Photo: Frank W Ockenfels 3)

It was only at the moment when he said, ‘This is where I’d like to start’, when he pushed those four pages towards me, that I was hit with the realisation that I was sitting opposite this cultural icon – this man who had created so much and influenced so many. This bloody genius. David Fucking Bowie. I felt like a child – and at that point of silently ‘reading’ – a child who had once the ability to read words but had forgotten how to read. I scanned the first page and all I heard was interference – my own insecurities screaming at me.

I stopped reading, took a deep breath and read from the first line again.

David had written three new characters around Thomas Newton (the stranded alien, seemingly immortal and definitely stuck). There was a Girl who may or may not be real; a ‘mass murderer’ called Valentine; and a character of a woman who thought she might be Emma Lazarus (the American poet whose poem ‘The New Colossus’ is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty) – a woman in this case who would help and fall in love with this most travelled of immigrants – Thomas Newton.

At the centre of these four pages was a simple, powerful image: Thomas Newton would build a rocket from debris. His mind, having further deteriorated, would torture and tease him with the dream of escape; and in his imprisonment – in his room in this big tower – Newton would try one last time to leave.

So this is where we started.

lazarus-michael-c-hall-newton-sophia-anne-caruso-girl-credit-johan-persson-07949

Michael C Hall (Newton), Sophia Anne Caruso (Girl) in Lazarus | Photo: Johan Persson

We talked around the characters and the themes of the book. On isolation and madness and drug abuse and alcoholism and the torment of immortality. And there was a lot of talk about the beauty of unconditional love and goodness. We talked about characters finding themselves out of control – about the story sliding into a murky sadness and quick violence – about characters having drab conversations about television snacks – the everyday bending quickly and becoming Greek tragedy. The celestial and the shitty pavement.

For the first few meetings Coco stayed silent and listened to us (until she couldn’t listen to us any more maybe!), and then she asked, ‘Yeah, but what happens?’ It was a fair question and one that we would return to – but we weren’t there yet. We needed to get a sense of the themes of it and its atmosphere and its world. The narrative trajectory of a man wanting to leave Earth and being helped by some and stopped by others – this was there in David’s four pages and would remain in our story, but the events of the story would emerge later.

And then there were the songs.

David handed me a folder of lyrics and CDs he had put together. ‘Some of these you’ll know.’ It was a bloody funny thing to say. We would hammer out the story together, but initially he wanted me to choose the songs we would use. I guess he had lived with some of them for years and there must have been unshakable associations – maybe it would be easier for me to listen to them coldly from a purely narrative perspective.

His lyrics often arrive cut-up and opaque – so it was rarely about listening to the words and sticking it into the story. It was about the emotion, rhythm and atmosphere of those songs – and having the characters riding that wave and accessing their souls, where they could lyrically go to those strange places.

Lazarus

Michael C Hall (Newton) in Lazarus | Photo: Jan Versweyveld

We talked about the form – the shape of the story arriving broken and a little shattered. We talked about a person dying and the moments before death and what might happen in their mind and how that would be constructed on stage. We started talking about escape, but we ended up talking about a person trying to find rest. About dying in an easier way.

Newton would spend his last moments trying to stop a bullying mind that kept him living. Physically it didn’t matter to us whether he was on Earth or in the stars at the very end. We wanted Newton – in his terms – to feel at rest.

No matter how plays come out, you always end up talking about yourself. David was certainly the most superb shapeshifter – one of the greatest ever collaborators too – someone who could walk his colleagues in directions they’d yet seen. But for me he remained personal in his work and spoke about where he was at that moment in really truthful terms.

Lazarus arrived at both of us with its own swagger and shape and emotion. It’s a strange, difficult and sometimes sad dream Newton must live through – but in its conclusion, he wins his peace.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-10-47-15This is taken from the Introduction to Lazarus: The Complete Book and Lyrics by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, out now.

The book contains the full script, including the lyrics to the seventeen songs featured in the musical – among them iconic Bowie numbers such as ‘Changes’, ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Heroes’, plus three new original compositions.

To get your copy for just £7.99, click here.

Lazarus is playing at Kings Cross Theatre, London, until 22 January. See more about the show here.

Harriet Walter on playing Shakespeare’s great roles

Harriet WalterIn her new book Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, acclaimed actor Harriet Walter looks back at her experiences of playing many of Shakespeare’s most famous roles – both female and male – across her varied and distinguished career. Her perceptive and intimate accounts illustrate each play as a whole, and provide invaluable insights for anyone looking to tackle the roles themselves. Here, in a series of extracts from the book, she explores five different roles spanning four decades…

OPHELIA – Hamlet, 1981

Ophelia

As Ophelia with Jonathan Pryce (Hamlet); Hamlet, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1980
(© John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Arts)

The most famous thing about Ophelia is that she goes mad. Richard Eyre, who’d asked me to play Ophelia to Jonathan Pryce’s Hamlet, had given me one major tip as to what he wanted, by telling me what he didn’t want. He did not want ‘mad acting’. I knew what he meant. For Ophelia, her mad scene is an ungoverned artless release; for the actress playing her it can be a chance to show off her repertoire of lolling tongues and rolling eyes, in a fey and affecting aria which is anything but artless. That is the paradox of acting mad. The actor is self-conscious in every sense, while the mad person has lost their hold on self.

Generalised mad acting, being unhinged from any centre, leaves the actor floundering in their own embarrassment. The remedy for me was to find a method in Ophelia’s madness, so that I could root her actions in her motivations (however insane and disordered), just as I would with any other character I was playing. Before playing her I had shared with many others the impression that Ophelia was a bit of a colourless part—that is, until she goes mad. I needed to find a unifying scheme that would contain both the ‘interesting’ mad Ophelia and the ‘boring’ sane Ophelia.

Suppose Ophelia is happily ‘normal’ until her lover rejects her and murders her father. Is that necessarily a cue to go mad? After all, Juliet suffered something of the kind when Romeo killed Tybalt, and although the idea tormented her she did not flip. I started to see that the seeds of Ophelia’s madness had been sown long before the play started, by the workings of a cold, repressive environment on an already susceptible mind. I preferred this theory to the sudden madness-through-grief idea which, together with broken hearts and walking spirits, seemed to belong in the theatre of Henry Irving or a Victorian poem.


VIOLA – Twelfth Night, 1987

Viola

As Viola with Donald Sumpter (Orsino); Twelfth Night, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987
(© Ivan Kyncl/Arena PAL)

I don’t think that Viola is a naturally comic role.  Consider her situation:

Viola is shipwrecked, an orphan in a foreign land where no one knows her, and she believes her twin brother and only relative has been drowned. She then falls in love with a man who thinks she’s a boy, and who is infatuated with another woman, and is sent to woo that rival on behalf of the man she loves. Olivia then falls in love with her boy disguise. The audience revels in these complications. Viola does not. Viola isn’t Rosalind, loved and in love, delighting in the freedom of her disguise and knowing she can drop it at any time (in the forest at least).

Viola triggers a lot of comedy but does not crack a lot of jokes. It seems to me that the comedy in Twelfth Night works along a spectrum of self-knowledge with the most self-deceived at one end (Malvolio, Aguecheek), whose idiocy we laugh at, and at the other, the most self-aware, Viola (the only character on stage aware of her real identity), whose wit we laugh with. We laugh at Orsino, who is blinded by love, and at Olivia, who is blind to her vanity in mourning, and at both of them, who are blind to the fact that Cesario is a girl. Sebastian, the ‘drowned’ brother, walks into a chaos he cannot make head or tail of, and we laugh at his confusion. We wryly laugh with Feste, the all-knowing fool, and with Maria, the traditional cunning maid, and we uncomfortably laugh with Belch, who thinks he knows it all and revels in exploiting other people’s weakness.

Although Viola is the most knowing in one way, she is on totally unfamiliar ground (physically and emotionally), and this is a source of comedy for the all-knowing audience.


LADY MACBETH – Macbeth, 1999

Lady Macbeth

As Lady Macbeth with Antony Sher (Macbeth); Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1999
(© Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale/RSC)

I suspect that if you were to ask the person-in-the-street what they knew of Lady Macbeth, most who knew anything would say something like ‘She’s the one who persuades her husband to kill the King…’ But I was finding indications in the text that Lady M does not put the idea of killing the King into her husband’s head, it is already there. There is a huge but subtle difference between coercing a totally upright person to commit a crime and working on the wavering will of someone who already wants to commit that crime but fears the consequences. I was not out to clear Lady Macbeth’s name, but I wanted to straighten a few facts.

Shakespeare repeatedly uses the image of planting, and it is an apt one. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are caught at a moment of ripeness and preparedness for evil. The witches are agents of this evil, and for that reason they do not seek out Banquo, who proves less fertile soil, but Macbeth. Lady Macbeth understands her husband as well as the witches do and builds on the work they have begun. She herself never kills, but if she had let well alone, Macbeth would not have acted. That is the considerable extent of her blame.

I had already scoured the text for any insights into Lady Macbeth as an individual, separate from her husband, but except for the odd ‘most kind hostess’ or ‘fair and noble hostess’ from the King, no one comments on her or throws any light on her character. Nobody seems to know her. She has no confidante. Her world is confined to the castle and its servants, but it was hard for my imagination to people the place or fill it with domestic goings-on. A Lady Macbeth busying herself with the housekeeping or taking tea with a circle of friends just did not ring true. It did not ring true because Shakespeare’s creation only exists within the time-frame of the play. It was as though she had visited Shakespeare’s imagination fully formed, giving away no secrets, and therein lies a lot of her power.


CLEOPATRA – Antony and Cleopatra, 2006

Cleopatra

As Cleopatra; Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (© Pascal Molliere/RSC)

How do you approach playing a woman who reputedly stops the heart and eclipses the reason of every man she meets? Who has Julius Caesar eating out of the palm of her hand? To me Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mata Hari, the erotic, black-eyed woman on Edwardian postcards, impossible for me to get near. However, once I did my research, I found that nowhere in the play or in any historical account is Cleopatra described as beautiful. In fact any existing images of her make her look rather heavy-browed and long-nosed. Hooray! Yes, but on second thoughts not hooray because that meant she managed to pull the men despite not being beautiful. That means she possessed some indefinable sexual ingredient, the X-factor which you either have or have not got and which is something beyond the art of acting.

What I did have were Shakespeare’s words, and they became my largest sexual attribute. They say the brain is the largest sex organ in the body, and her words were of infinite variety. Playful, grandiose, self-dramatising, switchback, heart-breaking, infuriating and unpredictable. I knew that my best chance of convincing an audience that men might fall at my Cleopatra’s feet would be to get behind those words, the switches of mood, the reach of her imagery, the energy and the emotion to be inferred from her rhythms. And if I could bring all that off the page and on to the stage, I wouldn’t need to fulfil every man’s fantasy with my physique or some ‘X’ ingredient. Getting behind those words would be a tough enough task, but at least it was one that could be worked at, whereas one’s physical attributes are more immutable.

What I also had was the real experience of a woman on the cusp of old age, with all the contradictions that presents. On the one hand still in touch with a youthful energy and physicality, and on the other the consciousness that, as I joked at the time, ‘this may be the last time I play the love interest’. Both Patrick Stewart, who played Antony, and I are fairly fit and athletic—which I am rarely required to demonstrate—so we both used that quality of physical energy and enjoyment wherever we could, and indeed I haven’t had and don’t expect to have another chance to run around the stage barefoot or ever again to leap into a stage lover’s arms.


HENRY IV – Henry IV, 2014

Henry IV

As King Henry IV; Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (© Helen Maybanks)

I have to confess to having rather enjoyed strutting and striding and puffing out my chest. I suspect that many men enjoy it too. I have watched those sorts of men all my life, never thinking I would need those observations for an acting job. Since I was very young I have been able to watch someone and imagine myself inside them, moving their limbs, striking their poses and by some strange mechanism, getting an inkling as to their feelings and thoughts. I’m sure everyone has something of this ability, but it is particularly developed in actors. It is hard to explain how it’s done because it is not a systematised process; it is just part of our equipment. It means that we can ‘channel’ someone from real life who matches the character we are playing.

As Henry, I channelled two or three different men (not the men themselves but their acting personae). For obvious reasons I had never had cause to channel Ray Winstone before, but I did now. Another model was Tom Bell; another was the guy from the film A Prophet, Niels Arestrup. If you know any of these actors, you will understand I was not striving to be a lookalike, but somehow, by keeping them in my mind’s eye, I could borrow some useful quality of theirs: the stillness that accompanies physical power, the prowling pace of a man keeping his violence in check, the spread-limbed arrogance of those men on the tube who occupy two seats and leave you squished up in the corner.

It is a bit of a cliché to say it, but in many ways we are all acting. We have all been trained up in our physicality and raised within gender conventions that restrict us. The experiment of being a woman playing a man produced in me a hybrid that surprised me and released me from myself. That is what a lot of actors love best about the whole game—the escape from the limits of the package we are wrapped in. I suspect many non-actors are looking for the same.


Brutus and Other HeroinesThese edited extracts are taken from Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women by Harriet Walter, out now. To buy your copy for just £10.39, visit the Nick Hern Books website.

Harriet Walter stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy – playing Brutus in Julius Caesar, Henry IV in Henry IV, and Prospero in The Tempest – at Kings Cross Theatre, London, until 17 December.