Saturday, July 26, 2008

Pericles and Poetry

So I'm currently at work on a (vest-less!) production of Shakespeare's Pericles.  I've divided the production into four episodes and we're performing it serially on Wednesdays until the middle of August.  One of the challenges of the play is its shifting tone--at one moment it's undeniably comic, the next it's profoundly sad or even desperate--and informing this its multiplicity of styles.  The narrator of the play is Gower (a 14th century author) who speaks in highly wrought archaisms, his narrations are punctuated by little mimed scenes that move the action through time and space, the beginning of the play is heavy with rhymed couplets and relentlessly perfect iambs, and the latter half moves briskly through verse and prose sometimes seemingly too lightly for its subject matter.

Peter Brook, in his concise and delightful Evoking and Forgetting Shakespeare speaks of the need to avoid dwelling on authorial concerns in the creation of characters in a Shakespearian production.  He writes of the necessity of believing that one has the precise transcript of a real person's thoughts and words, to believe that this poetry is an accurate depiction of the speech of a remarkable person.  Many authors have a notable style, perhaps the most evident modern example is David Mamet, and necessarily these styles bring to mind certain characteristics. As Mamets men are swift-speaking and ferocious eking out telegraphic retorts, Shakespeare's expound and waver, and take the time to see through their immediate concerns to universal complexities and themes.  It is a grand depiction of humanity but suppose I must agree that  we must shoulder this kind of honesty when doing these plays.  To allow actors to concern themselves with authorial intention and error is to insure a two-dimensional, if functional, portrayal.  Thus the difficulty for us has been in consistently and creatively motivating these dramatic changes in tone as the continued unmediated expression of real persons' state.

My favorite aspect of the challenge of honestly inhabiting poetry is that what we might indicate simply on film as a single glance, a tightened lip, or a wry smile is spelled out broadly and without apology over the course of an entire soliloquy.  Although we are more accustomed to the opposite (searching the text for clues to elaborate backstories and motivations not actually present), it is sometimes helpful for an actor to think about that simple human moment that this wealth of poetry describes--how to distill it to a second--before we dwell in it for minutes  

A more modern example is Auden's famous "Funeral Blues" which I think is perfect in the same way, in that it explicates with powerful precision what I know I could only say in an swallowed sigh:

"Funeral Blues" by W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling in the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

I have wondered if it's the more evident artificiality of the theater that lets us explore these emotions in a "non-naturalistic" way, but what Brook admonishes us to do is insist on the naturalism and exceptionalism of this manner of expression, to be in awe of the characters as characters, precisely not as the creations of a genius working in  art to express his themes.  It is a surprising challenge and I hope we can succeed at it.

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