Wrestling with Brecht: author David Zoob on why Brecht still matters

Why are Brecht’s theories often so baffling? And are they any use to theatre makers today? David Zoob, author of the newly published Brecht: A Practical Handbook, explains how he was converted to Brecht, and why he still matters.

Sometime in the late 80s, when I was in my mid-twenties, my theatre company was touring a show about the first Palestinian Intifada to schools and colleges. We employed some of Brecht’s ideas without really knowing it. At one sixth form centre, the Head of Drama asked me if I would do a workshop on Brecht. She said that he was part of the A-level Theatre Studies syllabus and was almost impossible to teach. The students either didn’t get him, or they hated him. Maybe they hated him because they didn’t get him. ‘I see… and how much will you pay me?’ When she replied that it would be something like £30 for a couple of hours, I said yes of course I’d do it.

I then tried to remember what Brecht was all about. Two things came to mind: first, in his plays he would introduce a spoiler before each scene, telling the audience what would happen; secondly, in his essays he said that at any moment, an actor should show an audience that it would be equally possible for him or her to turn to the left as turn to the right. Or something like that. I had no idea what that meant.

When I got to the workshop I explored the spoiler idea. I asked a group of about six to improvise a doctor’s waiting-room scene. They loved representing sad, sickly people, but their classmates in the audience sat unimpressed. When I introduced a projection that read, ‘One of these people is about to be murdered’, the audience became slightly more interested. I waited a bit, noticing that I was now watching the audience much more than the improvisation. Then up went another projection, which read, ‘The murderer is on the right’. Now they really were interested. When one of the performers (who happened to be on the right) leaned over to take something from his bag, the audience started laughing nervously. The tension was palpable.

David Zoob leading a workshop on Brecht (source: YouTube)

We had stumbled across several of the ideas at the heart of Brecht’s theatre – ideas that have fascinated me ever since. The viewers knew the ‘ending’, and yet this made them more interested; they didn’t ask themselves ‘what will happen next?’ but ‘how and why?’ They didn’t identify with any particular character, and yet they were completely engaged; they studied individuals, making inferences about their actions and motives. One student commented, ‘We are told that Brecht is didactic, but this isn’t teaching anything.’ We agreed that in this example there was no ‘message’, but the spectators were nevertheless learning a lot about human beings, simply by observing them.

Theatre that encourages audiences to discover things actively without preaching to them? That seemed exciting, and it was quite different from what I vaguely remembered about Brecht from university. I read more, and realised why so many people didn’t like him. Translated by the esteemed John Willett, Brecht on Theatre was a tough read. And what was meant by that business about turning right or left? I realised it was about showing an audience that a decision was being made. Nothing was inevitable: humans could make the opposite choice at each pivotal moment. A bit like Sliding Doors, that film in which the central character’s life goes down two different paths depending on whether or not she catches a particular train ­– but with Brecht, the important thing was that the person would decide whether or not to get on the train. A moment of choice, not a whim of fate. A decision with a political, not a sentimental purpose.

Which leads us to the knotty question of Brecht’s alleged attitudes to emotion and empathy. In the workshops I gave, this was frequently the main issue. Brecht’s detractors complained that he was a killjoy: a severe Marxist insisting that theatre should be an ‘alienating’ experience, where a lack of feeling was supposed to be good for us. It certainly was true that his essays discouraged empathy, but I couldn’t square that with the frequent expressions of deeply felt emotion in his plays: Grusha’s flood of tears at the river in The Caucasian Chalk Circle; Shen Te’s anguish and weeping in The Good Person of Szechuan; Kattrin’s dumb rage and powerfully moving maternal impulses in Mother Courage. All this seemed to suggest that the theories were of limited use – or even a waste of time. It was as if the process of writing plays had made Brecht forget his key theories, as the business of writing and staging his work reminded him that audiences had to care about the characters for the plays to work, proving that emotion is the lifeblood of theatre.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Do I believe that? Partly. It’s the contradiction that sits at the centre of Brecht’s thoughts, his writing, and his practice. It’s a necessary and deliberate contradiction. I devote a whole chapter to emotion in my book Brecht: A Practical Handbook, and all I will say now is that the representation of emotion is a vital part of Brecht’s understanding of how humans live and behave. The conditions we live in mean that human impulses and emotions are frequently constrained, altered or even distorted, and performers can represent both the feelings and the things that hold them back. Emotion becomes an essential element in a dynamic tension (a dialectic, in fact). In Brecht’s view, emotion should never be portrayed as an end in itself. Never – as it so commonly is in Hollywood films – as a commodity.

When I started directing in the 1990s, I usually found myself concerned with the story and what it meant, rather than with the characters’ feelings. Some actors didn’t seem to mind; they just got on with the job of making personal connections themselves. Others sometimes complained that they weren’t ‘feeling it’, implying that I was supposed to do something about that. While I accept that on such occasions I was probably suffering from emotional illiteracy, I can now see why ‘the story and its meaning’ was so much more important to me. My work in the 1980s involved adapting the extraordinary and moving testimonies of people living in zones of conflict: a woman who had been shot in the eye with a plastic bullet in Northern Ireland; a former Israeli Paratrooper who, after becoming a journalist, had spent a year in Israel and the occupied territories disguised as an Palestinian Arab, daily risking his life in order to understand what life was like as his nation’s enemy; young Palestinian boys and girls who had risked arrest and savage beatings while protesting against the occupation. These people had trusted me with their stories, and when my theatre company performed them, our priority was to tell them accurately and make their meaning clear for our audiences. We wanted viewers to engage with the dilemmas of history. The young people who saw our shows certainly felt the scenes’ emotional power, but how we were feeling as actors wasn’t something we concerned ourselves with.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

So I was struck by Brecht’s insistence that the actor should be re-enacting something that has already happened, rather than pretending it’s actually happening in the moment. This rang true for me. The actor was showing an audience what was significant about a moment in history, and the most important thing was that the audience should grasp that significance, and be provoked by it. My colleagues who taught in drama schools didn’t have much time for this idea. Their view, and one with which I partly sympathise, was that if an actor plays their character’s psychology ‘truthfully’, then the significances will take care of themselves. If they play their characters’ actions within ‘given circumstances’, if they are alive to the way other characters react to them… well then, we don’t need Herr Brecht to explain it all.

This position deserves far more discussion than I can give it here. It poses interesting and difficult questions: what is meant by ‘truthfully’? Which particular ‘given circumstances’ should be privileged over others? Why should psychological ‘reality’ be more important than other realities, be they political, moral, poetic or speculative? I think that including all these perspectives in theatre making allows us to create memorable dramatic events that can address the urgent questions that face us as a species.

Mayday Mayday Tuesday by Carlos Murillo, performed by students of Rose Bruford College, directed by David Zoob (photo by Benkin Photography)

Brecht: A Practical Handbook emerged from debates I had with my friend and colleague Julian Jones, an apparently incurable Stanislavskian who became increasingly interested in Brecht the more we wrestled with him. In fact, I’ve been wrestling with these ideas ever since that first opportunistic workshop I gave. And then, a couple of years ago, I took the step of writing a book. I wanted to write something that would be of use not only to a colleague like Julian, and to the young directors we worked with, but also to actors in training and to A-Level or undergraduate students who might have felt the same bafflement as I had. I included lots of exercises, so that readers could join in the wrestling process too. I hope, if you read the book, you will try the exercises and make them work for yourself. No doubt, if you do, you’ll improve on my ideas. Please let me know.


Brecht: A Practical Handbook by David Zoob is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

To contact David Zoob, please use the Contact Us form here, and include ‘FAO author David Zoob’ at the top of your comments.

Author photo by Michael O’Reilly.

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‘Theatre in its purest form’: Cheryl Henson on the power of puppetry in an increasingly digital world

Puppetry is an artform with ancient roots, but contemporary applications – and the international success of shows like National Theatre hit War Horse proves that it has lost none of its magic.

Here, Cheryl Henson, President of the Jim Henson Foundation, reflects on how that ‘magic’ happens, and pays tribute to director and puppeteer Mervyn Millar, author of a new book, Puppetry: How to Do It

The magic of bringing a puppet to life fascinates me. The precision of gesture that conveys a puppet’s inner life can be breathtaking, immediately taking me out of everyday reality and into a world where anything is possible.

As the President of the Jim Henson Foundation, a grant-making organisation that supports puppetry, I have had the opportunity to meet a wide range of artists. In addition to supporting American puppeteers, our foundation produced an International Festival of Puppet Theater for a decade, presenting more than 120 shows from almost thirty countries in five festivals. We were the first in the United States to present Handspring Puppet Company, as well as many other extraordinary troupes.

A number of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting Mervyn Millar when he worked with Handspring on the National Theatre’s production of War Horse. The puppeteers in this show brought full-size horse puppets to life and interacted as real horses with human actors. The horses were extraordinarily lifelike. Although the puppeteers were in full view, the audience readily accepted the puppets as horses. With the success of War Horse, Mervyn travelled internationally to train new performers to do these roles. He worked with actors, dancers and movement performers to give them the skills they would need to be good puppeteers.

The cast of War Horse in rehearsals

‘The horses were extraordinarily lifelike’ – the cast of War Horse in rehearsals

Puppetry is an ancient theatre form rooted in various cultures throughout the globe. Yet, it is also a contemporary art form embraced by innovative theatre artists creating new styles and techniques. That combination of old and new brings a particular dynamism to puppetry.

A simple puppet can be surprisingly appealing in today’s technologically complex culture. The prevalence of digital media and the easy manipulation of perceived reality is commonplace these days. When what is real in our everyday world becomes questionable, ‘realism’ can feel untrustworthy. In contrast, puppetry can be very straightforward. The magic feels real because you can see exactly how it is done and still choose to believe in it.

Puppetry invites the audience to participate in the theatrical experience. The puppet is not alive. No matter how well it is manipulated, everyone knows that it is not alive. It is an object that appears to breathe, to see, to think, to react – to be an emotionally whole being with an unknowable inner life, just like us. But we understand that a puppet is doing none of these things. It is an illusion that the audience agrees to go along with. It is theatre in its purest form. The puppeteer cannot force the audience to believe. The puppeteer must cajole, convince and carry the audience into the shared illusion of believing in the life of the puppet. As Mervyn puts it in his new book, Puppetry: How to Do It:

‘Something is happening when the audience believes in the puppet, and invests in it emotionally, that they recognise as being close to religious or ritual action. But we should remember that it also has the opposite energy – of playfulness and irreverence. The puppet is like a little god, or a little miracle, but also “just” a toy. It reminds us of being a child – when we imagine our toys into vivid life. I hope that the emphasis in this book on the active part the audience play in imagining the character helps to reveal how it is they who are making this connection…’

Of course, this connection to the audience does not happen if the puppet is not believably performed. The manipulation of the puppet is everything. How one trains to manipulate a puppet can vary immensely, but the fundamental principles remain the same.

I had the pleasure of observing Mervyn Millar teach puppet manipulation using the techniques in the book when he came to the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, an annual gathering of international puppeteers that brings professionals and trainees together for an intense ten-day period of creative development. At this conference, I watched as Mervyn encouraged and inspired the participants to experiment with their choices, to pick up odd objects and combine them to create characters and give them movement: an old watering can and a wrench, a piece of hose and a bucket, a brass bell and some paper. All of them came to life before our eyes in new and unexpected ways. The atmosphere was calm and supportive, and the participants worked together to create unique characters.

Based on the workshops he developed for training performers for War Horse, as well as workshops like the one at the National Puppetry Conference, Mervyn has written his book to share his craft. With care and dexterity, he takes us through a basic training technique that uses simple materials like sticks and brown paper to focus attention on the movement that gives these objects the appearance of life. The exercises in the book are clear and easily reproducible for many different types of participants.

‘Giving these objects the appearance of life’ – one of Mervyn Millar’s workshops covered in his book
Puppetry: How to Do It (photo by Nick Arthur Daniel)

Although Mervyn’s book is aimed at training performers for live theatre, creating the illusion of life is a skill that can be used in the digital world as well. Digital media – video games, virtual reality, television, film, even social media – all contain manufactured reality in varying degrees. Creatures and characters within those realities can be brought to life by defined gesture and movement, just as puppets are. Whether through digital puppetry or motion capture, the human body and the human hand is still better at conveying movement that reads as life than any computer algorithm. Not only is the training outlined in this book beneficial for a range of performers, it could provide important skills for all sorts of jobs not yet invented in the creation of believable life in alternate realities.

By writing Puppetry: How to Do It and sharing the teaching techniques that he has mastered over many years, Mervyn has offered a wonderful gift to the field of puppetry. I hope that it will be used widely to introduce adventurous spirits to this dynamic art form.

The above is taken from the Foreword to Puppetry: How to Do It by Mervyn Millar.  Written by an experienced theatre and puppetry director, the book is a practical, accessible and inspiring guide to using puppetry in theatre – the perfect entry point for anyone looking to use puppets in their productions, to explore what puppets can do, or to develop their puppetry skills.

Get your copy of Puppetry: How to Do It for just £11.24 (that’s 25% off) – enter code PUPPETRYBLOG25 when ordering online here.

Cheryl Henson is the President of The Jim Henson Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors of The Jim Henson Company. The Jim Henson Foundation supports the creation of innovation contemporary puppet theater through grants to puppet artists and presenters. The foundation has given over 800 grants to over 350 artists.

Photograph of Cheryl Henson by Richard Termine.

Harriet Walter (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2018. To mark the occasion, we’ve commissioned interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights. First up, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Dame Harriet Walter…

Actor Harriet Walter has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, including playing almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines on the stage. As she ruefully points out in her latest book, Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, she has reached a point in her career where she has exhausted the supply of mature female roles in the Shakespeare canon. Where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death?

Then, as she recounts in the book, the director Phyllida Lloyd came to her with the idea of an all-female Shakespeare season at the Donmar Warehouse. Committing herself to this experiment, Harriet played Brutus in Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar in 2012, followed by the title role in Henry IV (a condensed version combining both parts, which opened at the Donmar in 2014), and then Prospero in The Tempest in 2016.

It was a journey into previously uncharted territory, but it clearly paid off when the three plays, performed together as the Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar’s temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016, was met with resounding critical acclaim, hailed by the Observer’s critic as ‘one of the most important theatrical events of the past twenty years’.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

Did such a positive response from the public and the profession surprise her? ‘Definitely,’ replies Harriet. ‘I initially expected a lot more hostility – even ridicule. But from the kick-off, we received wonderful reactions. If there were some dissenters back in 2012, by the time we moved on to the second and third play, we had built up a great following. And certainly among younger people, men and women, there was a feeling of “Women playing men? What’s the problem?”‘.

‘Most of the people I have heard from have said that they felt inspired and liberated by our productions,’ Harriet continues. ‘They told me that they had seen the plays in a completely fresh light and that there was a great significance to the work, beyond providing an evening’s entertainment. They also felt that the shows had marked a huge cultural shift in the world at large. I hope that doesn’t sound over-reaching.’

Naturally not everybody was sympathetic to what Harriet, Lloyd and the other members of the company were trying to achieve.

‘There are people, of course, who simply hate the idea of women playing men; but they mostly didn’t come to see the productions,’ reports Harriet. ‘Those that did come grudgingly at first often said that they were pleasantly surprised. I know that we usually only hear from people who have enjoyed the play. Those who haven’t liked it tend not to say anything, so I am well aware that we didn’t convert everybody. However, I’d argue that the strength of the reaction from young people outweighs the more negative reactions.’

Harriet Walter as King Henry IV in Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

It could be argued that such experiments in gender-blind casting work best in period plays with a historical setting, where the characters, the language and locations are already at one remove from our own. Can a non-naturalistic approach to gender in casting work just as well in the staging of contemporary plays as it has done in Shakespeare?

‘This I am not so sure about,’ replies Harriet. ‘I think that it is more important to get new writers to create 360-degree female characters in new plays. The nature of Shakespeare’s plays depends more on the actors’ ability to live through language and communicate some universal truths that have not changed since Shakespeare’s day and don’t depend on naturalistic casting. The modern classics – the plays of Pinter and Beckett – belong in very specific worlds, created in the imaginations of those playwrights, and there would be complex arguments about the pros and cons of altering the gender of any of the characters. Change one brick and a lot of the meaning comes tumbling down. People need to be very clear on the reasons for changing the gender of a role – or the gender of the actor playing it. The important thing is that each production has a coherent motive for its casting scheme and that things are not done just for the sake of being trendy or different. It is important not to confuse an audience. If the casting lacks coherence, audiences can sniff it out and become alienated very quickly.’

Given her long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a working life steeped in Shakespeare, Harriet must feel a certain kinship with the playwright. Does she sense that he liked women?

‘It’s hard to be sure. I think that in general he loved them and was fascinated by them. He gave them many of the best insights – the most witty and wise arguments. But he also had some of the main characters express the sexist prejudices of the age – that women were fickle, vengeful or feeble. Whether he himself agreed with those voices is hard to say. He was human and he lived at a particular time.’

Harriet Walter at Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (photo by Pascal Molliere, © RSC)

For the moment, Harriet has a busy schedule, meeting her various film and television commitments, and you get the feeling that it will take something special to tempt her back to the stage.

‘At the moment, I’m very happy being in the audience watching things that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do myself. I want to do work that will break boundaries, and I want to keep going and be permanently challenged in what I do.’

In her professional life, Harriet has a fear of becoming stuck, like a musical instrument that plays the same notes over and over again. In a sense, her ground-breaking work with Phyllida Lloyd enabled her to find a different tune. But she has also challenged herself repeatedly as an author: her book Other People’s Shoes is an elegant analysis of what an actor is and does, while Facing It is a series of reflections on images of older women whose faces and lives have inspired her.

Actors, self-evidently, have other people’s words with which to go to war, so it must be a daunting task to have to invent your own.

‘I’m not saying that acting is easy, compared with writing, but you do develop a skill that reminds you that you know how to do it. And after you have reached the age of fifty, you feel the need to challenge yourself. I think we can all get a bit complacent at that age.’

Has she any further writing plans?

‘I enjoy writing but I think I need a break from writing about work,’ she reveals. ‘Perhaps I should try fiction. I have less reason to think I could do that, but I’m tempted to try.’

You heard it here first!


Harriet Walter’s Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women is published by Nick Hern Books in paperback and ebook formats.

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

Look out for more Anniversary Interviews and promotions coming soon. Subscribe to our newsletter now to make sure you don’t miss out!

Author photograph by Georgia Oetker.

 

Understanding the Mad King: Antony Sher on rehearsing King Lear

Leading actor Antony Sher’s new book Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries provides an intimate, first-hand account of his process researching, rehearsing and performing arguably Shakespeare’s most challenging role, Lear, in the acclaimed 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

This extract, written during rehearsals only a few weeks before the production opened, takes us behind the scenes of the RSC, offering a window on director Gregory Doran and the cast’s sharp, insightful interrogation of the text – and how events occurring in the world outside fed into the production. Also included are a selection of Sher’s magnificent illustrations, which feature throughout the book.

Thursday 7 July 2016

When I walk into the rehearsal room this morning, I find one wall transformed. Covered with sheets of paper: some with images, some with text. It’s the research that Anna [Girvan, assistant director] has led, about the homeless in Shakespeare’s time. Much of it is from two books by Gamini Salgado: The Elizabethan Underworld and Cony-catchers and Bawdy Baskets.

Reading the extracts, I learn that the failure of harvests in the 1590s, and subsequent shortage of food, led to the Enclosure Acts, where people were thrown off common land and deprived of their livelihoods. Some turned to petty crime, while others took to roaming the countryside.

This is the population that Greg [Doran, director of King Lear and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company] wants to represent, as a kind of chorus, in the production.

Prince Philip’s Lear

I go over to my bag, find a picture, and stick it up among the others on the wall. It’s the one of Prince Philip which I sketched about a year ago – showing him in some kind of discomfort during an official ceremony.

Good. Now the display shows both sides of the world we’re trying to create. The poor naked wretches and the burden of monarchy.

Oddly, both sides represent the Dispossessed.

Odder still, Lear has brought it on himself.

In rehearsals of the storm scenes, I confessed that I didn’t know what to do with ‘Blow winds’. I said, ‘Let’s take the reality. A man is shouting in a storm. You wouldn’t be able to hear him. He probably wouldn’t be able to hear himself. We’ve solved how to do it in performance – we’ll be using mics – but how do we rehearse? I can’t just stand here, yelling. I’ll strain my voice.’

Derek Jacobi as Lear

I mentioned the brilliant solution which Michael Grandage and Derek Jacobi found in their 2010 Donmar production. When you first saw Lear in the storm, you heard the full cacophony of it. But as he lifted his head to speak, all the sound was abruptly cut, and he whispered the speech: ‘Blow winds…’ It was, as Lear describes in his next scene, ‘The tempest in my mind’.

‘Couldn’t we borrow that?’ I suggested tentatively.

‘Absolutely not,’ said Greg; ‘Much too recent. And anyway, that was a chamber-piece production and that was a chamber-piece solution, and we’re not doing a chamber-piece.’

He then came up with his own, striking scenario for the scene. He suggested that maybe the winds aren’t blowing – yet – and the speech is a desperate plea (‘Blow winds, I beg you!’), not simply a description of what’s already happening (‘Yeah, go on winds, blow!’)…

…And so we created a narrative to the speech:

  • A subsidence in the storm prompts, ‘Blow winds…’
  • A flash of lightning prompts, ‘You sulphurous and thought-executing fires…’
  • A crash of thunder prompts, ‘And thou, all-shaking thunder…’

We can put these cues into rehearsals, we can create the other character in the scene – the storm – for me to play against.

Stage management made precise notes: they’ll find some recordings from stock (for now) to play when we next rehearse the scene.

For me this was, potentially, a solution to the hardest part of the role.

Olly as Edgar as Poor Tom

Then we moved onto the first Poor Tom scene. Oliver Johnstone [playing Edgar] really went for the mad tumble of language in his speeches. (It’s not just Beckett who owes a debt to Shakespeare, it’s James Joyce too.) I was also intrigued to note that Olly had a new range of movements – some of them twisted and jerky, almost like cerebral palsy – and new sounds too: mumblings and stutters. This was all from his ‘secret’ rehearsals with Greg. Which is a technique Greg used with the witches in Macbeth. He’d work with them privately, so that we, the rest of the cast, never knew what they were thinking or what motivated them. It made them more mysterious, more powerful.

I think, in fact, it’s originally a Mike Leigh method. I experienced it when I did his stage play Goose-Pimples (1980, Hampstead and Garrick). Each of the characters was developed separately, in one-to-ones with Mike, so that when he started to bring us together and create a storyline, we encountered one another as strangers. After all, in real life you know little or nothing about people you meet for the first time.

The Minimalist (Richard Wilson directing)

I remember that the long Goose-Pimples improvisations, and later the equally long Auschwitz exercises that Richard Wilson devised to rehearse Primo (2004, National Theatre and Broadway) can make your head go to a very funny place. I was angry with both Mike and Richard after the sessions – because of where they’d taken me – yet my anger was totally unjustified: I could’ve stopped at any point, and walked away. Except I couldn’t, really – it becomes a kind of self-hypnosis.

Today, I wondered how much Edgar loses himself in the Poor Tom disguise? But, of course, I wasn’t allowed to ask.

Olly had a question for me though, in the mock-trial scene: had Lear been planning this cross-examination for a while, ever since his daughters turned against him after the abdication?

‘That’s an interesting thought,’ I said; ‘There must’ve been people yesterday…’ (when the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War was published) ‘…who’ve become obsessed with the idea that Tony Blair should be put on trial for… what’s it called?… humanity… what’s the phrase?’

Someone suggested, ‘Crimes against humanity?’

‘Exactly!’ I cried; ‘That’s what Lear has been obsessing about. Except in his case, it’s crimes against the king!’


This is an edited extract from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries by Antony Sher, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get your copy of the book for just £12.74 – that’s 25% off the RRP – by entering code SHER25 at checkout when you order via our website.

The RSC’s production of King Lear transfers to BAM, New York, from 7-29 April, before returning to Stratford-upon-Avon from 23 May – 9 June.

Illustrations by Antony Sher, photographed by Stewart Hemley. Author photo by Paul Stuart.

Playing the Mask: John Wright on acting without bullshit

For John Wright, award-winning theatre-maker and teacher, using masks can be liberating for an actor. His new book, Playing the Mask, explores what masks do, how they do it, and, above all, what they can teach us about acting. Here, he explains how he first became interested in masks, and some surprising discoveries he made along the way…

I first became interested in mask-work in the early seventies when I realised that there must be more to acting than watching people sitting around, talking to each other and behaving as if they were on television. I like theatre when it’s alive and kicking, like a football match, where the actors and the audience are unmistakably in the same room. Both these ideas immediately become a reality the moment I introduce masks.

I had no experience of mask-work when I started using them. All I had to go on was a story that the French actor and theatre director Jacques Copeau had once covered an embarrassed young actor’s face with a handkerchief, and that this had enabled her to overcome her self-consciousness.

I’d tried the handkerchief approach some weeks before with a group of novice actors, and it was a disaster.

In fact, as I later realised, I was being too formal in my approach. I asked the actor I was trying to help to turn away from the audience and put the handkerchief in place, before turning round to look at us when I told her to do so. This simply raised everyone’s expectations, and the resulting action was hopelessly inappropriate. When she turned round, one bright spark immediately put his hands up and cried ‘Don’t shoot!’, and everyone laughed. He’d decided she looked like a bank robber. Her reaction was to pull the handkerchief off her face and refuse to continue.

Some weeks later, I was passing a toy shop and saw that they had some plain white plastic masks in the window. They were being sold with coloured pencils for children to colour in the faces for themselves. I wasn’t interested in the coloured pencils. It was the blank white faces that interested me.

Naive Masks

Mindful of my previous disaster, I decided not to take charge and, rather than formally introducing the masks in any way, I simply put them out on a table and let the group try them out for themselves.

It worked. Once they’d played them and watched others play them, they soon became their own experts.

‘The faces are the same but everyone looks so different when they put them on,’ somebody said.

‘I don’t look at the face so much,’ someone else said, ‘I’m more interested in how they stand and how they look at me.’

I developed my approach to mask-work through watching the reactions of generations of students exploring masks for themselves. And the more I watched and listened, the clearer my own observations became.

I realised, for instance, that different types of mask inspire different ways of playing. Red noses are different from joke-shop noses, half-masks are different from full-masks, grotesque faces from idealised faces and realistic faces from distorted ones.

Man Trying to Be Nice; The Crone; The Fool; The Innocent

But using masks made other things happen as well. My son, who was only seven at the time, and couldn’t resist playing with some new masks that had just arrived, told me: ‘When your face is covered you get the feeling that you’re not there.’ In mask-work, this sense of absence empowers you to take risks, to play and to do things on stage purely for the effect it has on everyone watching you. Sometimes it takes a child to cut through the bullshit.

On the outside we want to watch you in a mask. In fact we can’t take our eyes off you. We’re astonished by the transformation. For you, behind the mask, it’s no more than a game. But in the audience we’ll have forgotten about you entirely. We’re preoccupied with trying to determine who we think this person is and what they’re like.

It’s this change of focus – from you and your feelings, to the reactions of the people watching you – that made me question what acting is all about.

The Child

‘This is all well and good,’ a theatre critic from the Sunday Times once told me, ‘but in our culture, theatre is more about writing than play, and mask traditions aren’t very literary in my experience. You can’t speak in mask, can you?’

This misses the point. Masks don’t have to be the end result: they can be a process, a way of getting you somewhere else, somewhere you couldn’t have imagined without them.

My new book, Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit, isn’t about mask traditions and making masked theatre. It’s an attempt to articulate the ways and means of using different types of mask to inspire playfulness; to use a mask to discover something, and then to remove the mask and play with what you’ve found.

It’s a book about acting: the compelling game of pretending to be someone else.


Playing the Mask: Acting Without Bullshit by John Wright is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Buy your copy for just £10.39 (20% discount) from the Nick Hern Books website.

The masks featured above are available to hire from http://www.thewrightschool.co.uk. Half-masks and Naïve masks can be purchased from Mike Chase,
http://www.mikechasemasks.com.

Author photograph by Jorge Lizalde Cano. Mask photographs by Toby Wright.

Releasing your authentic voice: top voice coach Jeannette Nelson on working with actors at the National Theatre

Actors working in the theatre today face many challenges: how do you keep your voice sounding fresh and vital, day after day? How do you manage to sound natural in performance while still being audible? How do you adapt to working with radio mics? Jeannette Nelson, Head of Voice at the National Theatre, explains how actors can meet the challenges facing them. Plus, read an extract from her book, The Voice Exercise Book.

Working with people’s voices is both a privilege and a responsibility. The voice is so personal: it expresses who you are and what you think; it tells your story; it responds to your emotional and physical life. For actors, all these things are true and more, because their livelihood, their ability to do the job, depends upon their voice. They need it to be flexible, healthy, strong and reliable.

I’ve been a theatre voice coach for about 30 years and yet I still feel I’m learning the job. As society changes and new technology emerges, my work with actors has to respond to different tastes and different environments. Imagine if theatre actors still sounded like those in the 1940s and 1950s. We wouldn’t find that acceptable at all. The greatest demand for actors today is that audiences, and the actors and directors themselves, want dialogue on stage to sound as natural as it does in film and television. By and large, I believe we do achieve that. But it takes an enormous amount of skill to be authentically modern and yet theatrically clear.

Some directors will decide to use radio microphones to achieve the sound they want. Actors and I have to respond to that and it isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. The actors have to get used to the feeling, the consciousness of wearing a microphone, and then to accept that they might not be entirely in control of the sound of their voices. My advice, unless a director wants something specific, is always that they should use their voice as if they don’t have a microphone. Then there will still be energy in the voice and the language, and the sound operator won’t have to push up the volume too much. If they do have to increase the volume through the mics, there is the danger of their voices coming from the amplifiers, not their mouths. More important for the actor is that by working as if they don’t have mics, they will feel in control of their vocal choices and can play the scenes as they would like.

Over the years working with theatre actors, I have been refining my work. I began by feeling there was so much think about, so many different ways we can work with the voice, but now I know that it can be pretty simple. I find that in the pressurised world of rehearsal room and stage, I need to offer the actors direct, easily accessed ways to help them to respond to the vocal needs of a role, to prepare the voice for performance (with and without radio mics), to keep it in shape, and sometimes to manage a vocal crisis.

This is the work that is in my book, The Voice Exercise Book. I wanted to write for the voice user not the voice teacher and I wanted to share the work that I do at the National Theatre.


The following is an extract from The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use by Jeannette Nelson.

What your voice says about you

There is no mystery about the mechanics of the human voice. It is a physical activity, and, like all physical activities, if you want to perform well you have to practise and develop your technique. However, the voice is an expression of self like no other, and as such is subject to inner feelings and outward pressures.

Who you are

Our voice is part of our identity and it carries our history. It tells where we are from through our accent or language, tying us to place and community. That might be very important to us, and we may take pride in the accent and dialect that identifies us with the history of a particular place and group of people.

Our voice is also one of the ways we choose to engage with the world. We may use volume, speaking loudly to show that we are confident and in control, or quietly, making people listen closely. We may use tone to project a particular image of ourselves: maybe caring or careless, firm or ironic. We may use our voice to protect ourselves and hide behind, perhaps by changing our native accent, or pushing or withholding its natural energy. We may also enhance the expression of our gender by using a rather high or low pitch.

Authenticity

If you are unhappy with the way you sound and have tried to change it on your own, you may be surprised to know that people usually realise that something is not quite right. We recognise authenticity when we hear it and mistrust those whose voices don’t quite fit them. I’m sure you have listened to people in public life who you feel are not using their voices honestly or authentically, and you don’t trust them.

The work in my book The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use is not about forcing the voice to sound different. It is about getting to know the voice you have and working with it. Actors need to know themselves well, and be comfortable and honest about who they are, before they can transform themselves into other people. They aim to reveal truths in the world, and to do so they have to work from a place of authenticity. Voice training is an essential part of this as it teaches them how to discover and release their true voice. Then they can get to know it well and fully own it.

This is what I hope the book offers. The exercises inside are designed to teach you how to feel the breath and the voice within your own body, and then how to maximise its potential for expression and communication. That doesn’t mean it won’t change. If you work with proper care, of course your voice will change but it will still sound like you. In fact, it may sound more like you than it did before, because you will have released it fully. It will be a sound with more resonance, more range, more flexibility and more honesty.

How you feel

The voice is also a means of expressing emotion, and it is often our first response to the things that life brings us: we laugh and cry, and we make spontaneous expressive noises – oh, ah, mm, argh. Our voice can also reveal how we feel even when we don’t mean it to. We know when a friend is not in their usual state of mind, not necessarily by what they say but by how they sound. Unhappiness and anxiety tend to take the music out of the voice, which in turn can make the speaker try to force energy into it in an attempt to disguise their feelings. Insecurity and fear can lead to physical tensions that create a thin, high, husky or quiet voice.

But when we are happy our bodies relax. We can breathe deeply and freely, so the voice can be comfortable and natural. A natural voice is what we are aiming for in this book: a voice that is clear, resonant, unstrained and easy to listen to. And most important of all, we are aiming for a voice that reflects who we truly are. When working at its best, it will respond to our thinking without effort and with a full range of expression.

How others respond to your voice

The voice can also be something that is judged by others. As children we were often told to be quiet or not to say things. As adults we recognise that some types of accent or speech are more valued than others. These criticisms, if excessive or inappropriate, can lead to vocal difficulties, especially when we need to use our voice in public or professional situations.

If you learn early on that you are supposed to keep quiet, you may come to believe that what you have to say is not important. This can lead to a habit of speaking too fast or too softly, or even to being reluctant to speak at all. If you think your accent or speaking style is unacceptable, it can stop you from breathing adequately for speech. Any criticism of how you speak can lead to holding tension in your jaw, throat or shoulders.

However, a little knowledge and technique can bring about a healthier and more satisfying relationship with your voice. Then the confidence that this creates helps to overcome the external pressures that can make speaking hard. This does not happen instantly: you do have to do the exercises and absorb the technique. But learning to control your voice, owning it and falling in love with it will help you to develop self-confidence. You will find that people will want to listen to you. Think of it as regaining what should be naturally yours.


The above is an extract from The Voice Exercise Book: A Guide to Healthy and Effective Voice Use by Jeannette Nelson, published by National Theatre Publications, and available now from Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for £12.99, click here.

Jeannette Nelson is running a one-day workshop at the Actors’ Centre, Fall In Love With Your Voice, on Wednesday 7 June. For more information, and to book a place, visit the Actors’ Centre website.

‘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.