No, my face has not been ravaged by harsh stage makeup, tears from bad reviews and constant rejection, Withnail-style fags and boozing, and drudging actor-poverty, into a withered, Miss-Havisham shell of crushed hopes and crow’s feet (how dare you); I’m actually wearing a mask. Yes, really!
I’m halfway through a run of Euripides’s classic wailing, flailing tragedy, Women of Troy, playing Queen Wailer-Flailer, Hecabe. The basic plot of the show is everything’s awful, oh God it’s all horrible, oh it just got more horrible, oh the humanity, death and slavery. Thankfully, I am saved the bother of having to exhaustively display all this misery and torment on my actual face (what am I, an actor?), because the entire show is done in mask, in the ancient tradition of Greek drama.
Working in mask during this rehearsal process has been a tough but valuable experience. Realising that mask work doesn’t just mean doing exactly what you would normally do as an actor but with a piece of cardboard strapped to your face, took a good few days’ rehearsal and a good few increasingly-exasperated notes from my director. But once you get the hang of working in the mask it’s amazing how free it can make you feel for something that restricts pretty much everything you rely on when performing.
For a start, breathing in a mask isn’t particularly easy, and a delightful wet area of condensation will form around the bit of the mask where your mouth is. You can’t touch your face, the knowledge of which makes every centimetre of it itch. You get faceache from unconsciously making huge, inexplicable, frowny facial expressions under your mask. Also, you can’t really see. You have little if any peripheral vision, and the glare from the stage lights reflecting off the surface of the mask may sometimes halve your already-pitiful visual field. Masked theatre is often quite physical, so despite not really being able to see anything, you’ll need to negotiate the space and the others actors in it like a very careful and conscientious half-blind bull in a china shop.
However, the benefit of not being able to see much is that you do quite a lot of craning around with your face, which is very important because every audience member needs some face-time with the mask. When you have to try harder to see the audience, it’s actually easier to really communicate with them, as opposed to simply saying your lines into space. Your body will also be shaken out of its cobwebby neglect from naturalistic performances in which it’s used simply as a vehicle for getting your face around the stage, and come to life in order to fill the deficit of expression left when your face is covered up. The small gap through which your voice must be heard by the entire auditorium is a real test of your vocal technique, and a good wake-up call if you find yourself really having to push in order to be heard. It’s a real workout; I reckon a few more weeks and my speech muscles would be bulging out of my face like Arnie’s biceps.
At first, the style of masked theatre jars horribly with the actor’s natural desire to make things look ‘real’, but eventually the great swooping gestures and roaring, Olivier-esque vocal thundering begin to help you feel the high emotion of the terrible circumstances. One final word of advice though: try not to burp in the mask. When you’re already facing the misery and torment of the Fall of Troy, the last thing you need is having your face bathed in an odorous cocoon of cheese and onion crisp.
The final performances of Women of Troy will be at 7.30pm on Monday 10 March, and 2.30pm on Tuesday 11 March and Wednesday 12 March at Theatro Technis. For more information and tickets, visit Theatro Technis’s website.