Research Musings: Moving Forward

I know, I know…it’s been a long time since my last post, but I promise I have been writing every day nonetheless! In fact, I’m now knee-deep in my very first case study: a look at the Young Vic’s two productions of The Changeling in 2012. 

I say ‘two productions’ because, despite the fact that technically the second is a revival of the first, there are major differences of style between the two. Sure, both are modern dress productions that keep the script more-or-less intact, and yes, both come from the same director, designer, and overall concept, and yeah, both employ the same awesome device of food substituting for bodily fluids. But there was a difference of technique between them that makes me hesitate to count them as the same production. 

This difference, I believe, may come from the change in casting. The two Beatrice-Joannas for example, have very different training and backgrounds, and I could see this reflected in their acting styles. (Warning: what follows is in no way academic. Still working on how to make this work in an actual chapter of an actual dissertation.) Basically, Jessica Raine had a drama and cultural studies degree from the University of Western England in Bristol and taught English as a foreign language in Asia for several years before she went to RADA, and Sinead Matthews went straight on to RADA from her A-levels. Now. I have no wish to fall into the trap of categorising actors based solely on their training; I believe that professional experience shapes a performer’s style at least as much as training does. But I also believe that the distinct differences in approach between Raine and Matthews might be traced back to their training. Raine’s performance seemed to me to be driven by text, while Matthew’s was driven by motivation. In other words, the former took a more pre-Stanislavski approach, and the latter took a more post-Stanislavski approach. The pacing between the two could not have been more different: Raine clipped through her lines, rarely pausing and vibrating at a very high frequency throughout (to steal a favourite phrase of the wonderful Peter Van Wart). Matthews, on the other hand, took her time about things, showing the audience the character’s thought processes and motivations and, though no less intense, slowed the production’s pace in comparison to Raine. This difference is also reflected in the respective running times of the two productions: the first incarnation, opening in January 2012, ran at  110 minutes; the second, opening in November 2012, ran almost twenty minutes longer. Although the time difference is partly attributable to added ‘bits’ of action throughout, I believe that the leading ladies’ respective paces were also a contributing factor. 

But why the difference? As I said above, I suspect that it may come back to training. With a university drama and cultural studies degree, Raine would likely have studied Shakespeare from a literary perspective as well as from a practical perspective. In addition to practical experience acting Shakespeare, she would probably have spent considerable time working the text at table and considering ways to break it down on the page. Undoubtedly, these textual tips will translate into performance (see Abigail Rokison’s amazing book Shakespearean Verse Speaking), but that’s not quite the same thing as learning Shakespeare in drama school. A quick perusal through the first-year acting students’ blogs on the RADA website confirms my suspicions: the emphasis is on Stanislavski and his students. I clocked exercises from Stan himself, Sanford Meisner, and Uta Hagen being described in just a quick perusal. In fact, the intro page to the BA in Acting website cites ‘Stanislavski-based rehearsal exercises’ as the very first item on their list of training techniques you will learn as a RADA student. Certainly ‘classical text’ techniques will be taught, but that baseline of ‘Stanislavski-based rehearsal’ is always in the background. Now, this is all highly conjectural and perhaps unfair and certainly politically incorrect, but we might reasonably draw the following conclusion from this information: if you studied Shakespeare in a university drama programme, you are likely to approach the text in a very different way than someone who studied Shakespeare in a drama school acting programme. 

Why is this relevant to a production of a play by Middleton and Rowley? Because, as I’ve whined before, very often ‘Shakespeare’ stands in for ‘any play written between 1580 and 1642’. So hand any actor who studied drama anywhere in the English-speaking world a play by Middleton, and he or she will most likely approach it in the same way that he or she was taught to approach Shakespeare. 

This is not make a value judgement on either approach, but rather to call attention to the ways in a change in casting can have a massive impact on a production. it’s almost like a weird kind of performance experiment: take the same play, the same design, the same director, and the same concept, but switch out the cast and see what happens. In this case, the first production read as distinctly more ‘Jacobean’ and the second read as distinctly more ‘modern’ (loaded terms, I know!). 

This change wasn’t restricted to the two leading ladies. There were numerous moments throughout the second production which read having come from rehearsal exercises straight out of the Meisner or Hagen handbooks. For example, in the first production, the play just began. As in the script, the cast entered, the music cut, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Alsemero began speaking his first monologue. In the second production, much more was made of Alsemero’s internal struggle at the beginning, with Harry Hadden-Patton attempting various times to pray beside or near Matthew’s Beatrice-Joanna before finally giving up and launching into his speech. This is textbook ‘natural’ acting, in which motivation for speaking is of utmost importance. ‘Don’t speak unless it improves upon silence’ is a mantra often given to actors-in-training under this style. In this case, the audience watches Hadden-Patton’s Alsemero approach the object of his affection, turn back, decide to stay in the chapel near her, attempt to pray in several different ways, and then finally give in to the distraction of his lady fair’s presence and deliver his speech, which begins ‘Twas in the temple that I first beheld her, and now again the same. What omen yet follows of that?’. The speech expresses Alsemero’s uncertainty about falling for Beatrice: he spends most of it convincing himself that he should stay in Alicante. ‘Why should my hopes or fate be timorous?’, he asks. In the first production, Hodlbrook-Smith relied mostly upon the text and the ensuing exchange with Jasperino to communicate Alsemero’s internal battle between passion and reason. In the second, Hadden-Patton communicates that battle physically, via his attempts at prayer, before beginning the speech. 

This stylistic change could also be seen the two De Flores(es?). Here the relationship between the two productions becomes more interesting: in each case, the actor play De Flores seems to have adopted a style opposite to the actors playing Beatrice-Joanna. So in the first production, Raine’s high-frequency carriage was contrasted by the slower, more methodical approach of Daniel Cerqueira; in the second production, Matthew’s more contemplative Beatrice-Joanna was contrasted by the rather excitable De Flores of Zubin Varla. In other words, Raine and Varla seemed to be operating at roughly the same pitch, with Cerqueira and Matthews similarly matched up in terms of pacing. And now my theory about training falls apart a little bit; or, rather, has to be re-examined. In the first production, I was struck in particular by the scene in which De Flores kills Alonzo (Henry Lloyd-Hughes in this case). The script indicates that De Flores, having hid a rapier ‘in the act time’, stabs Alonzo in the back and kills him without much of a struggle from the victim. In the Young Vic production, however, Alonzo fought back, resulting in a food-filled battle of strength between the two characters. It ended with De Flores drowning Alonzo in the punch bowl and kicked off the food-as-blood visual metaphor that would run throughout the rest of the production (apropos, since this is the first time blood is shed in the play). I loved the active energy of this scene, as well as the clever use of wedding feast items–and the bit of black comedy that ensued when Vermandero (Howard Ward) entered a few scenes later to pour himself a drink from the murder weapon. It was as creative a fight scene as I have ever seen, and it also served as the perfect microcosm for the balance of reality and fantasy running throughout the production. In the second production, a version of this scene was repeated, with some significant changes. First, Alex Lowe’s Alonzo did not die of being drowned in the punch bowl–although Varla’s De Flores attempted this tactic. Instead, Lowe ran off stage, followed by Varla, and the audience heard a sick thud. Secondly, Varla employed some techniques in this scene that seemed to me to come from a Meisner training background. For example, in the course of the fight, Varla as De Flores managed to get Lowe as Alonzo pinned to the banqueting table. Searching for something to stop his shouts for help, Varla grabbed a banana and tried to shove it into his mouth (phallic, much?) whilst shouting ‘I must silence you! I must silence you!’. Anyone who has studied Meisner technique will recognise the exercise in which each actor speaks aloud the character’s motivation during the course of the scene, usually phrased as ‘I want…’ or ‘I need…’. I don’t know whether this kind of exercise was actually being employed here, but I was struck by the similarity. And this is why I say that my theory about training has to be revisited. I cannot find much about Daniel Cerqueira on Google (will have to do a broader search), so it’s difficult to comment on the effect his training may have had on his portrayal of De Flores; Zubin Varla, on the other hand, was trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and has a career that is balanced between musical theatre and drama. Having been trained to act Shakespeare by someone who attended Guildhall, I can say with reasonable certainty that Varla probably had training in that area which would resemble a hybrid of the typical university and drama school approaches: a balance between striaght text work and more modern technique. In fact, on the Guildhall’s website, it says that one of the goals of the Acting programme is to train actors who are ‘able to move with confidence between classical and modern theatre’. So there you have it. Research in drama is never as black-and-white as one thinks it’s going to be, is it? 

All of this is a long way of saying that I’m working toward ways of incorporating what I know about theatre as a practitioner into a highly academic piece of writing, and sometimes the balance eludes me. As with these two productions of The Changeling, I find that any given piece of writing might skew in one direction or another. I’m hoping that by working through this first case study, I’ll be able to test various ways of achieving that balance in my writing.