Bringing back the emotion

WWI may be the backdrop for this piece, but it's becoming clearer and clearer that what it is really about is love. Love in all its guises. Love at first sight, love that lasts, love that triumphs over betrayal, love that doesn't, love that is requited, and love that isn't, love that forgives, love that doesn't. Love that endures through all sorts of obstacles. Separation, war, uncertainty, ageing, death. 
With only a couple of weeks to go it's time to re-find the emotional heart of this piece. Hopefully the work we've done on the text will remain ingrained in the actors. We now have to forget about all of that and concentrate once more on the emotional lives of these people and the world they now find themselves in. We need to up the stakes for them. These are big emotions, not idle musings. 
The words need to be given to another person, not merely spoken well or recited as poetry.


This is one of the big payoffs for the actors - they love a good fight scene (as do I). We have a fabulous Fight Director, Tim Klotz. It takes several days to develop the fight that will last only a very few minutes on stage. And this needs to be repeated over and over again, "practiced and then rehearsed" in slow motion so that it becomes second nature and remains safe. Hopefully this sequence will help to ground the piece and keep it from becoming too lyrical and "pretty." Plus, it's fun. And a good break from all the brain work.



We continue to do vocal exercises at the start of rehearsal; exercises to help with breath control and relaxation. We're
discovering how emotion is carried on the breath, out and through the words. And in order to do that the actors need to allow the breath to work freely and they need to begin to learn how to control how the words are spoken. It seems obvious - but it's not so easy. We also do various exercises to keep the actors in the moment by re-discovering each word as it's spoken.
There's also the very real problem of performing outside. The actors' voices will have nothing to bounce off of - and there's lots of ambient noise to contend with. We've done a run outside in the centre of Oxford and it's extremely hard to make yourself heard.
Again, I worry that this vocal work isn't terribly exciting for the cast.It's not the give and take of the sort of scene work they're used to. It's much more mechanical and detailed and self focused and there isn't the big payoff of a scene well played with someone else. And it's summer! The weather is gorgeous....
We'll keep plugging away....

The words....

This is a long, painstaking, but very necessary process.Hours and hours are spent on this. Each sonnet has to be pulled apart word by word. It's not enough to have a general idea of what the sonnet means, you have to understand every word and exactly what Shakespeare is saying. Obviously there are many interpretations of the metaphorical meanings of an image and many of the words themselves carry different meanings. But it is our job to understand these and convey them to the audience so they can understand the language as well (and sometimes, as in the case of the many puns Shakespeare throws in, we need to play several meanings at once). Not an easy job! With a generalised performance there is the danger the audience will switch off. We don't want a wave of poetic language sweeping across the audience - we want them to have a much deeper experience.

I worry that the actors are bored by this - it's something that I love to do, but not everyone is such a word nerd! Interest can wane when working on a sonnet that isn't one of yours. Arguing over shades of meaning. Pulling apart the structure. We intersperse this with physical work and improv, but then it's back to the words.

I find the language of these sonnets and the thoughts behind them incredibly moving. It's so embarrassing, but the cast is used to me tearing up as we work through them. 

Would the soldiers at that time have had more exposure to poetry and to the Sonnets in the classroom? Probably. Did the horrors of the world around them make them look to poetry as a way of escape? There is, of course, the whole genre of the War Poets. Do the Sonnets fit with WWI better than with a contemporary war? No, of course not. I think they speak for - at the risk of sounding pretentious, and completely obvious - all humanity. Anywhere. Any time.

10 actors, 32, no - 35 Shakespearean Sonnets. How??

So, if each Sonnet takes approximately 1 minute to speak out loud, and we have 10 actors and need a piece that's just
under an hour...and we need time for transitions and maybe some physical work...and maybe a couple of group Sonnets - that's about 3 per actor. Give or take a few.
First - work out if this is going to have a narrative, a story line - or is it going to be a sort of Sonnet Concert.
Second - which Sonnets out of Shakespeare's 154 are we going to use??
Third - what the h*** is this thing going to look like??!
These are actors I am working with. Actors like to tell a story; they like relationships and situations to hang their words
onto. This will also help to ground the piece. And a narrative will hopefully keep the audience tuned in to the words.So a story line with a sense of movement and strong relationships needs to be developed.After selecting the Sonnets, I cut them out and spread them on the table, switching the order around again and again until a narrative appears and it seems to work. But I'm sure things will change again as we begin to work on the piece!
There will be no dialogue other than the Sonnets. How could anything other than Shakespeare's words stand alongside them? This piece then is going to have to be slightly impressionistic - or abstract.Abstract impressionism, I guess! The delicate, formal framework of language is going to be tricky to marry with the physicality. We're going to have to work hard to find the style that works.
There is a danger that the whole piece will float away in some airy, wispy, poetic cloud. We need to root it firmly in the hearts, blood, and tears of these people. But first we have to understand what it is we're saying.

10 actors, 32 Shakespearean Sonnets. Why?

We needed a piece to work on that would give the actors a chance to explore Shakespeare, to find themselves in his rich and complex language.But this had to be worked around a million other commitments.No time then to develop a complete play. No time to pull
apart a script, work on the language, the relationships, character and through-line when we only had such a short time to develop the piece. So the idea of the Sonnets was appealing.Very dense, beautiful, intricate language - distilled Shakespeare if you like - that came in bite size pieces that could be worked on individually or in pairs or smaller groups.

But what to do with them?Obviously, WW1 is around everywhere at the moment because of the Centenary. Several of the cast members traveled to
Belgium to visit the battlefields and cemeteries.It's an overwhelmingly emotional experience. The absolute horror of that event - the fear, the
loneliness, the desperation, and the unfathomable loss - provides the perfect backdrop for the Sonnets' intense language of love, passion, betrayal, and loss. Heightened circumstances, heightened emotions, heightened language.

There is also something about the British sense of reserve in that era; the strong sense of honour, of "stiff upper lip-ness," that suits the Sonnets.Or vice verse. Sonnets have to adhere to a strict structure:14 lines, iambic pentameter, quatrain, volta, couplet.All of that force of emotion, that richness of imagery, that breathtaking language - all distilled down into its essence and tied up with a button or a twist at the end.Very neat and tidy.Very disciplined and controlled.But not if you dig deeper.