School education introduces Shakespeare and his contemporaries as texts to be read, analysed and teased apart, and most university English programmes do little to move beyond this. So what happens when you are faced with performing the plays for the first time? There are many apparent obstacles: the trepidation of handling the language, the question of how to become the character, and, the biggest of all, the challenge of how to find something new and insightful in a play that has been performed so many times. And how do you even think about approaching ways of performing these plays when the possibilities seem as endless as the material itself? Perhaps it is these daunting questions which make the task ahead an enthralling one; with the many options and pathways available there is always something fresh to be explored.
Picking up two texts feels like a frightening task for me, as I was previously only a student analysing texts and performance pieces. This is akin to stepping into an ‘undiscovered country’: one is a collaborative work (Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling), and the other is Romeo and Juliet. One character a male counterfeit fool, the other a teenager in love, but both providing difficult challenges. Where do you begin when intending to bring these roles to life – to give real, full-bodied texture to complex characters so often full of antitheses on the page?
A number of pathways open up, from a religious adherence to the text through to a character-based approach, or even a physical theatre approach – all of which have many openings and possibilities in their own right. Listening to actors and directors speak and hearing the thoughts of more practiced student actors, it seems that the variation in approaches to Shakespeare and his contemporaries is vast and full of multiplicities. In fact, the very point that they seem to make is that the approach – as long as it is effective and breathes life to the character being portrayed – should be one which allows you to explore and shape the character to its greatest potential, and one which is specific and personal to you. An actor’s approach should not be fiercely governed by a set of rules.
The play-text is at the heart of all when we consider whether or not to seek the pauses suggested by punctuation, or to find the key words which hint at the character’s wants, desires and needs, or their physical actions. By searching for ways to embody the language, the text gains more life than it has on the page.
From the early days of my workshops, specifically for Juliet, I have found my own approach is one full of experimentation, drifting back and forth through an array of acting techniques. This Juliet is one who possesses a Mercutio-like restlessness, filled with pent-up frustration and sexual longing, and one who conveys this through her body and movement. But this will remain open to change according to deeper understanding of both performance practice, and Shakespeare’s language and shaping of character.
Referring back to those earlier questions on facing Shakespeare and his contemporaries for the first time, with such a vast range of ways to approach the plays and characters there is little room for being daunted by the obstacles of language, character and newness. The point is, perhaps, for any first-timer to be free and open, to experiment and to keep searching for a way to live and breathe the character, their world and their language. With the move towards ‘standing up for Shakespeare’ in educational contexts, and such texts as the RSC Toolkit for Teachers and The North Face of Shakespeare, there is indication that more young people will be playing Shakespeare and his contemporaries for their first time, in what will hopefully be an exhilarating experience.
Image by Tom Green.