Monday, June 24, 2013

A & C 2013 - section four Antony and Cleopatra

In this section I will write just a little about our "Antony" portrayed by Berynn Schwerdt and "Cleopatra" portrayed by Denby Weller.

Two important points to start with: 1) Berynn and Denby were arduous in the preparation and development and performance of their roles of which I will write more in a moment, and, 2) they were extraordinarily generous in performance/rehearsal with every single actor with whom they were onstage with. Oh if only every actor were so generous to other actors.

We had about three weeks to rehearse A & C, part-time!! Monday to Thursday 6pm to 10pm. And Saturdays 10am to 4pm. I asked the actors to cooperate by learning their lines prior to the first day of rehearsal. Naturally when we are all freelancers trying to get by and pay the rent etc it can be very challenging to learn ones lines by oneself. Even more so with Shakespeare in that there is such an intimacy between the shared text in every scene. So learning a Shakespeare monologue/soliloquy is one thing - learning a scene is a different intellectual challenge. The larger swathes of text belong to Antony, Cleopatra, Enobarbus, Caesar. Some of the actors played three or four characters so in some cases there was a significant amount of text for them.

Berynn and Denby were excellent to work with. My work with them can only be understood in the 'secret ways of theatre'. Amongst the most important thing was to understand that I was to support them. It was their project. I shared their project and they were generous to me, very generous in terms of trust and support for my artistic drive(s). I've had the opportunity to teach and work with perhaps 3000 actors. I was one of Berynn's teachers at NIDA. He was OUTSTANDING at 19 years of age (maybe he was 18 or 20??? when I taught him). I worked with him for a few days on a film on which I was the choreographer. We would see each other rarely, occasionally and have a coffee, or a meal. I saw him 'last' in Titus Andronicus at ATYP around 2011 when I was directing in Sydney and teaching a short workshop on Shakespeare. I really loved the Titus production. Everyone did a fine job - the actors, the director, the designer. It was the first time I saw Helmut Baktis (sp?) act. He was also the teacher of the director. Berynn was wonderful!!! His "Antony" was HIS!!!!!! Wonderful. Berynn is very knowledgeable with Shakespeare and many aspects of acting and theatre. For our play reading I deferred any questions of pronunciation to Berynn. He went far with the mercurial, emotional shifts of "Antony". As with any Shakespeare play or character one can see and benefit from cross-referencing other plays by Shakespeare and other of his characters. There were scenes and moments for Berynn/Antony when I thought of Macbeth, others when I saw Richard III, others Falstaff. With other actors in our A & C I would see other such cross-references. For "Lepidus", and I know this is stretching an already stretched tether but I did say to Branden regarding "Lepidus" that maybe, m-a-y-b-e we could view him as having a bit of "Polonius". Maybe. That was a director's creative suggestion, not a literal one. Likewise I said to Jonathon who portrayed "Caesar" perhaps p-e-r-h-a-p-s he is more like Paul Keating. For Berynn we didn't chit-chat much about his "Antony". It was a giant role and so complex an experience within my conceptualizing. So we did things on the floor. At times I played the taboo pesky nuisance crass director with no borders.  He was tolerant and playful. He also I hope and trust was able to use his rich knowledge of Shakespeare to help others in the production with their questions. I preferred that. I trust him. He is good and understanding and I am certain he helped folks. On the other hand we had wonderful young actors such as Robert and Jonathon who are also quite savvy with Shakespeare. None the less I think every single actor got a stretch in their beliefs and understanding not only of their roles in A & C but also in the play and in the breadth of possibilities with Shakespeare that rarely get challenged. Really I frame it thus - "I think mostly what is going on in Shakespeare in Australia is a year-ten sophomore in high school mentality. It is like 'the bible tells me so' or 'my father told me so it is must be'. I think many Shakespeare productions are anal retentive. Conservative, boring, much of the same or on the other extreme people being adolescent and doing what they will with it as if that is interesting." 

For Berynn, he's 45 now. When I taught him I was 33. He's lived and he should be able to grapple with this giant role and enjoy the 17 relationships with the other actors and myself and our glorious Stage Manager Ruth Horsfall!!!! Berynn, and Denby excelled in their creative and intellectual relationships with each of the other actors and their characters. In many ways it was this work that was 'unique' in our production as compared with the overwhelming majority of productions of Shakespeare that I have ever seen.

Another line in my theories about working with Shakespeare is that repeatedly in Australia and often in the USA and even too often in the UK even with the so-called 'top' companies (ugh!!) so much focus in the directing is about and around the protagonist. I find that approach so extremely limiting and even totally inaccurate to the richness of every single play by Shakespeare. To me, the greatest beauty is not Antony and Cleopatra per se but how the actors Berynn and Denby connected - REALLLY connected with EVERY single character and every single actor in the play.

Berynn was one of Denby and Brinley's teachers. He may have taught others too at the Actors Centre. Robert also is a graduate of ACA's Journey. So here was a rare three-generation production with me as one of Berynn's teachers and he a teacher of several of the others. Likewise with Natalie and Ms Lopes' Troupe - I was one of her teachers at CSU and she had four of her pupils in this production.

..... must stop writing for a while.... to be continued

I will write more about Berynn's "Antony" later when I look at some scenes individually.

Now a few thoughts about Denby's unique "Cleopatra". It is interesting - sort of - to hear theatre practitioners pontificate about their 'real knowledge' of particulars of plays and theatre practices such as staging, acting, voice, characterization - as if there weren't a vast, unlimited range of possible interpretations and breadth of aesthetics. Denby has the most beautiful combination of a vastly savvy young person of achievement in several fields (writing, producing, communication, articulation of ideas, mountain climbing, martial arts, and all things current be they politics or cinema or fashion or food), and, all that is combined with an open, honest, playful curiosity that borders on innocence and naivety.

Like most actors I deal with, we find ways together to encounter the training they have had before an experience with me. Inevitably I see benefits in any and every acting/theatre training. However, at the same time we discover together (without discussing any of the details) that in fact some aspect of their training may have involved a fallacy. In this case we were dealing with Shakespeare. I have a concept "Shakespeare as a Tool for the Theatre". I am not concerned with the normal sense of 'really do a good or even a great production of a Shakespeare play'. I hear the beat of a different drummer because that other idea of 'good' drummed into us at school, by professional directors, etc is out of tune - as far as I am concerned. In Yiddish we would say it is "drechk".

So with Denby we located a wild and wise yet vulnerable yet street wise "Cleopatra". Much more important than having a young Australian actress portray a long dead Egyptian queen is for a young Australian woman to learn to be more herself in all her glory. I have ZERO interest in a 'real good' portrayal of ANY of Shakespeare's incredible, vast, array of characters. I want to see that living breathing actor before me exude their own individual glory as a person and as an artist, an authentic artist of the stage. Through and via this truth the real glory of Shakespeare's wisdom breathes on a stage. Mostly we get very competent, professional actors acting like they are Shakespearean actors in a Shakespeare play. Generally it is awful work we see. We see it over and over not only via the Bell Shakespeare Company but mostly by their derivatives and so-called countr companies who imagine they are doing so much better than the BSC. I have recently seen Shakespeare productions from 3 European countries that were utterly and totally phenomenal on every level of acting, theatre, production.

We, and I say this as an Australian citizen and someone who started touring to Australia in 1981, we still need Australian voiced Shakespeare productions. Rex Cramphorn(e) apparently was ushering in such a voice and no doubt others have. None the less - when I am talking about the Australian voice I am referring to the actors own voice and all of its nuances that get shaved away be 'good voice' techniques. It is pompous malarkey to believe there is a standard for voice training. It is a fallacy. So ironically even though our 'voice' work in A & C was minimal (as was everything else) the actors all, each, had their own totally distinct Australian voices. A few who had 3 or 4 characters chose to put on an accent for some characters. Fine. That is them working as an artist to find, to discover their own ways and means vocally to differentiate their characters. For Denby she had one character with a multitude of voices and moods. She honoured the text and the text honoured her. That is the magic of Shakespeare. He was a bard. A real one and at the time when bards existed. He wrote at during the absolute peak of commedia dell'arte. Supposedly there were two actual Italian troupes that came to England during the time when Shakespeare would have been able to see them. There is at least one scholar that provides 'evidence' that Shakespeare was very likely in Italy for three years. This is yet to be proved beyond a doubt, yet, there is possible evidence. An unusual number of his plays located outside of England are placed in Italy, and they clearly and obviously have commedia elements. Although Antony & Cleopatra has scenes in Rome - I view that A & C has possible elements of commedia incorporated. In commedia the individual lustre of an actor create differences even in the stock characters. Denby showed an intellectual and creative and emotional acting range that any commedia actor should admire. What is important is not formal training and not an 'accurate' portrayal of our cliché image of an Egyptian queen. We can see in the antics of Prince William and Harry - children of Diane and Charles - they have noble and larrikin qualities. They are busy becoming themselves. Likely so was Cleopatra, so is Denby. It was her authentic drive and search for how to execute every single second of this topsy-turvy antics rich character that made her a queen, it made her glorious in her weaknesses which a second later shone to become a young master of the stage. Still for each actor every performance was a struggle - as in sport - they were all alive and yes, it did help to have a director with courage in their corner coaching them for the next round. So many directors are actually scared of actors thus they learn how to laud over them in subtle yet no uncertain terms. I enjoy meeting the actor head on in strange and unpredictable ways. Unpredictable even to myself. Denby is both a sweetheart of a person and a person with unlimited veracity in life - as her sports of tae kwan do (past) and mountaineering (current) reveal. There were hundreds of moments of shapeshifting that she mastered in this singular role. There were certain patterns as per the text that reveal an observable character.

But for me, the most important thing was, that a young Australian woman was genuinely allowed, guided, and cajoled to find her totally unique "Cleopatra". Was it Shakespeare's "Cleopatra"? Who gives a flying stuff about that? I don't. What counts is Denby.  She and Berynn were the people I made 'the three musketeers' pledge with. She's a young intellectual artist with guts galore who wanted to take a punt - and put her own money and time and energy into. Most actors are remarkably gutless. They've been primed to be useful tools for the industry, for directors, agents, and teachers to pay their pay their own mortgages.

Denby, like each of the actors had resistance training from me. Each had at one point or many a chance to stand up to and with me. Not against me nor I against them. The actor needs a director who can provide resistance not opposition. Why? In the end, at the beginning :) I coached the actors to know "you are the artists and I am just here to help facilitate your art work", and, "in the end it is your show, you will be on stage, it is you who have to own the project".

Denby and I worked together hard to resolve several artistically challenging scenes. For example the scene when the messenger can seemingly do no right and "Cleopatra" has to belt the "Messenger" who in this case was a youngster. The others in the scene had to patiently wait as layer after layer revealed itself in an organic mise-en-scene. I definitely directed but via ensemble participation.

One of our early breakthroughs was from my insistence that any sympathetic and romantic portrayal had to be removed before we could discover the romance of passion and conflict and needs. Each section and each scene when the light bulb appeared for Denby was remarkable and suddenly at every step she was leading the other actors. Yes, she was the queen - the leader of her people. Yet, Shakespeare has given us an immensely human portrait of what happens behind closed doors. At times according to the text as I sensed its unfolding - suddenly Charmian, then now Iras would leap ahead and 'manhandle' their mistress. And God does "Cleopatra" need manhandled! As she tells Caesar at one point "Wert thou a man" causing him to take action not towards her but for her. A very Lady Macbeth moment of demanding action from a man.

One of many beautiful experiences in rehearsal was when I asked Denby to please belt one of the young little sweet innocent blonde youngsters full on in the stomach for her insubordination as a guard. I asked young Brydey if that was okay with her. Her pupils dilated an expectant pleasure. Yet at the same time there was a hesitant air in the room generated by everyone's thought 'ok Ira's going too far this time'. So we gave it a go, and, importantly Denby gave it a very gentle go. We three began to work our way thru the mechanics of the punch. I wanted it active enough that Brydey would feel motivated to collapse on the floor. Then we integrated the text and moments leading to and after the punch. When we finished about 5 or 10 minutes later - "whatever it takes" - I asked Brydey if she felt this was okay for her. There was yet another young Aussie gal having a total ball. She jumped up and down a bit and exclaimed that this was now her most favourite scene she was in. Denby found exquisite ways of portraying every second around that, just as she sought every second in her portrait of "Cleopatra" to be fully alive, real, and integrated to each fellow actor's work.

1 comment: