RAISING THE CURTAIN – “You want me to play who??” by Si Lynch

You want me to play who??

Being a musing on acting, Shakespeare, trials, and tribulations.

(I have kept the other actors anonymous)

By Si Lynch

Distinctly I remember the message. Much Ado about Nothing was the play. Would I be interested? Of course! The only character that I really knew from Much Ado was Benedick. I remember the Branagh version and how as a young 13-year-old seeing the film I had found the character and acting mesmerising!

Moving back briefly in time: my audition for this had been firstly an extremely fun farce called Forget Me Knot by David Tristram.

Just because your balls ache, that’s no excuse for poor grammar!”

It was a fast paced, fun, and physical comedy. I played Inspector Jim Monroe. The second audition was a totally different matter! An extract from a forgettable play. It was a “you-had-to-be-there” play. Something about an egg, a dog, a weird sculpture, and a girl whose name no one (including the girl) is quite sure of…

The highlights were not the play or the script, but it marked my first performance with two folk (one actress (A) and one director (M)) who I would come to cherish and adore working with. They managed to put up with me too, which is no mean feat I am sure.

Anyway, having survived that ordeal, we move our scene to the message. The above director had been in touch:

“I’m casting Much Ado…would you play…”

“Benedick?”

“No, I’ve already cast that…”

Curses, were there any other characters that were any good? Not that I remembered. My heart sank.

“I see you as Don Pedro.”

A character with gravitas and authority and, as you may see by the end of this, a typecast may have started forming.

I reluctantly agreed. Rehearsals came along soon enough. I was immediately struck by the fact the first few rehearsals involved no acting at all! We met, we sat, we talked. The plot was dissected. The characters were pulled apart and motivations revealed. I have a marvellous memory of a delightful message strand between Dons Pedro, John and Signor Benedick discussing exactly what war had just been fought. Why was Don Pedro of Aragon in Messina? Most likely the Italian War of 1536-1538; recent news for Shakespeare. 

What effect would the war have had on these men? Certainly, they would have seen death. Survival at that time was tough, combat was face to face and brutal. The main trio (Pedro, Benedick, Claudio) would have been in the thick of it. We often forget this when we laugh at Benedick’s witty wars of words and at Claudio’s almost infantine attempts at wooing. Pedro, as a prince, would have been expected to be on the frontline. His men would have to rely on him and him on them. This captain/soldier relationship was vital for us to understand before any line could be read. Pedro was a man to whom order, and quick thinking were essential. He took things as he saw and reacted to them, this trait was perfect for a battlefield, maybe not so much for a love match. No time for asking whether there is a hidden motive. He is all about honour, pride and loyalty. Why would anyone lie to him?  More importantly, why was I reluctant? This character is a badass warrior! He is sharp and brave, yes, he has his foibles but then it would not be Shakespeare otherwise.

Claudio and Benedick are hard men, they are soldiers. They would have seen active combat, come out alive and would have killed many a foe. Now they are in Messina. Now they are at peace. Now they can fall in love.

Don Pedro turned out to be a wonderful character. Witty and kind but with his own flaws; too quick to trust and too quick to believe things at face value. The loyalty between him and his men is obvious.

Once we had gotten that important detail out of the way, we could start the secondary task of acting. This method of acting, of truly understanding the text and the characters worked so well for me. The director made it easy. It wasn’t method acting but we knew who we were. Any acting we did was as that character, it made the whole experience fluid and so fun. I still remember the director saying:

“You do what you think Don Pedro would do. If I do not like it, I’ll tell you afterwards.”

I was privileged to work with a wonderful cast. One of my first rehearsals was with Don John.

“Hmmm, that chap can act. I may need to up my game here.” I thought.  Turns out he had felt the same. It led to a fabulous Pedro/John dynamic which in turn created a real tension when the betrayal was discovered. Pedro is all about trust and forgiveness and he tends to take people on their word. Yet here it is. His own brother lying, cheating, and ruining the honour and dignity of more than one person which really shook Pedro to his core. His entire value system destroyed in one move.

The rehearsals were some of the highlights of my week. The camaraderie and sheer hilarity made for an easy work environment. This did not detract from the amazing acting (as the Director is often wont to say…the only difference between professional actors and you lot is that they get paid). I remember one tricky scene. It was the first wedding scene. Pedro and Claudio had set out to humiliate Hero…

The tension was palpable. Everyone was silent. I stormed towards Hero, my eyes full of as much rage and intensity as I could muster…

Hero: Is my lord well, that he doth speak so wide?

Leonato: Sweet Prince, why speak not you?

Don Pedro: What should I speak? I stand dishonoured, that have gone about to link my dear friend to a common stale! (I was proud of that last bit. I spat it out.)

I paused for effect; I could see the look of horror in Hero’s eyes when suddenly:

“Errrrrrrr Nerrrrrrrrrr!” The broadest Yorkshire twang broke the moment. Beatrice had dropped her loose-leaf script. I am afraid that the entire cast broke into fits of laughter.

The play was a success! Thoroughly well received and a most enjoyable experience. I was really pleased that the director had asked me to play Pedro and had had the trust in me. I learned to trust the director.

It was not long after curtain down that the next project was being discussed. The director had decided to “go big”. Midsummer Night’s Dream. Crikey. There is no way she would want me. I am too old for one of the Athenians, I do not fancy playing one of the Mechanicals. Oh well, I guess I could help with backstage.

“I’m putting on MSND.”

“Yes.”

“Would you like to be involved?”

“Yes, but I don’t know how I’d be any go…”

“Oberon.”

“I’m sorry, what now? You want me to play who???”

Well, this was a shock. (Also a character with authority and gravitas…see earlier comment) I asked if she had cast Titania yet as there was only really one actress that I would like to act with again…A. M thought it was a good idea so we were cast as the warring couple.

Again, the familiar approach was taken. Namely that the first few rehearsals were purely for understanding the plot and the characters. It was during these sessions that I met the actor who would play Puck. A truly charming gent and damn fine actor, C. As he and I would have a lot of scenes together, I hoped that we would get on. We did! He was a pleasure to work with. His acting style was reactive, as is mine. So, we bounced off each other perfectly. The Puck/Oberon relationship is a strange one. As fairies they are not bound by human standards of sexuality, I suppose, and watching versions and reading the script I think it is obvious that the two are in love in a matter of speaking. We certainly played it that way: Puck had a massive crush on Oberon who did nothing to rebuff it. It was nice that we both felt comfortable enough with each other. It led to some tense moments when corpseing was a genuine possibility. It is hard to keep a straight face when Puck is seemingly sulking and saying “I go, I go. Look how I go!” or when he calls out Oberon on his mistake:

“Did you not say I would know the man by the Athenian garments. Ah!”

“Yes, I did.”

From one couple to another…back to Oberon and Titania.

I had done lots of research into existing versions and it became clear that A, M, and I were looking to do something different. But what? We knew that we did not have to be funny; the mechanicals would take care of that. So, we started unpicking more about these quarrelsome fairies.

This is our thought process:

  1. They have been arguing on and off since the dawn of time.
  2. Their emotions are linked in with the natural world. If they are in harmony so is the world.
  3. They are strong, chaotic, and vengeful.
  4. Both are equal. They are black and white.
  5. Both think that they are correct.
  6. Neither is backing down.

We concluded that these are the original power couple. Other versions always did variations on a theme: gossamer, floaty and sparkly fairies. This, in our opinion, did not mesh with the words or actions of the pair. We decided to go for it. A full on, visceral and horrible fight. We wanted to shock the audience and to get across the sheer horrible nature of these two. There began two sets of rehearsals for us, the word learning and the fight learning.

A was a great actor to fight. Having some martial arts experience meant that she could fall properly. My size and volume of voice would create a threat as A was a clear foot and a half shorter. I have so much more respect for actors who do fight scenes. You need to have trust in your partner, and you need to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse. We made a couple of errors in the rehearsal process. Firstly, I was supposed to “grab” her by the throat and throw her. I would use my right hand and then she would know which way to fall. For some reason on this day I used my left hand, she fell the wrong way and was not prepared for it. She hurt herself. I was mortified.

Secondly, during a heated exchange, she is supposed to slap me, I would slap her back. We had rehearsed how close to stand so that the strike would look real, sound real and yet be painless. We stood too close. She belted me full pelt, which normally did not hurt, catching me square on the cheek bone. Ouch, I had a swelling and she bruised her thumb.

Rehearsals were ending and the performance was looming. The fight scene was brutal, sickening and we loved every minute of it. We were then approached by the director.

“So, I was thinking a dance.”

“A what and a what now?”

A dance?! Luckily, A was all over it. It was her idea to mirror the fight scene. Everything we did as a fight (throwing, swinging arms etc) would be mirrored as a dance move. Very clever. Cue more rehearsals. I am sure sales of deep heat muscle rub soared during this time as I was coming home every night covered in bruises and with screaming joints.

And so, the final dress rehearsal loomed. Thoughts now turned to the curtain call. A and I stood as one by one the cast were instructed to walk on stage.

“Of course, Oberon and Titania will be last.”

“Why?”

“Well because they are pretty much the main characters.”

“Are they?”

It had never occurred to me. I had a main part! Yikes!

The first night came all too quickly. We donned our costumes and were glittered up (we were fairies. Of course we needed glitter!)

How would the audience respond to our Titania and Oberon?

On walked Puck.

“The king doth keep his revels here tonight.”

I listened for my cue. The audience who were expecting floaty fairies were about to get a shock. Bellowing from the bottom of my lungs I let out a mighty roar that echoed off the castle walls. I saw some spectators jump. Whatever they were expecting they were not expecting that. Good. Out came one of the most famous Shakespearean lines:

“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.” It had venom, it had spit, it was brilliant.

“What, jealous Oberon? Fairies skip hence. I have foresworn his bed, and company.” A nailed it too! Blooming marvellous!

Then the fighting came. I grabbed her by the throat, she gut-punched me, I headbutted her. The audience were stunned. A’s husband (who works for the police) said afterwards that we would both have a case against the other for battery!

As an actor you want to get a reaction from an audience. We got that. A slapped me, I slapped her back. The audience groaned with aghast. They were appalled. Good. We had got the reaction we had sought.

This experience with Shakespeare has made me proud. If M asks me to be in a play, I will always consider it. The friends I have made in the casts I have been in mean the world to me. Lockdown came at a time when I was preparing a version of Hamlet. (This time I get to direct M).

It annoys me that people think Shakespeare is for posh and/or intellectual folk or that it is hard to understand. Rubbish. Shakespeare wrote for the everyman. At a time when adult literacy was low and for every 1 educated toff there were about 10,000 oiks, Shakespeare wrote for them all. A lot of this belief I feel lies in the interpretations that were offered up post Georgian times. The acting superstars of Olivier, Gielgud et al convinced people that Shakespeare was not accessible to the common man. (Do not get me wrong – they are acting royalty! True masters of their craft) That you needed a degree in English just to understand. Shakespeare was a Brummie (which if you try “to be or not to be” in an accent really changes it) and he wrote skilfully for his entire audience, the groundlings to the Lords. This is no mean feat. The lack of stage directions and the beautiful ambiguity of some of his speeches allows a director and cast flexibility if you put the work in.

Is a Shakespeare play incomprehensible and inaccessible? No, you just have not seen a decent version of it yet.

by

Si Lynch

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