August 22, 2013
There's an old joke about actors that maintains that we don't open the curtains during the morning so that we'll have something to do in the afternoon.
Whilst it's true that those of us not rehearsing for Candide have had a leisurely time of it recently, the RSC is often quite good at finding things to keep us occupied and out of trouble.
A couple of weeks ago, for example, we found ourselves joining some of the RST company in the Courtyard for a voice and text session with our artistic director, Gregory Doran.
During the course of this hugely enjoyable workshop, Greg identified that Sonnet 29 was his personal favourite of the sequence. For those who may not be familiar with it, here it is in full:
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
The central image of this sonnet, namely that of the lark ascending from its lowly nest (I think they're the only birds that build them on the ground, aren't they?) is one that is readily observable in Stratford-upon-Avon.
All you need to do, as Greg pointed out to us, is head over to Seven Meadows on the bank of the Avon at the right time of morning, and you will see them, soaring almost vertically up into the sky.
It's a sight worth seeking out, clearly – it inspired George Meredith's later poem, The Lark Ascending, and Ralph Vaughan Williams' musical piece with the same title.
And what's really brilliant about images of this sort, is that they can identify common experiences for the author and the reader. Here Shakespeare, Meredith, Vaughan Williams and we can find common ground, despite the fact that we are all separated by centuries.
We spend so much time puzzling over those aspects of Shakespeare's work that seem oblique and obscure to us, that I think we are, just occasionally, in danger of forgetting quite how much we share with him. You become particularly aware of this in Stratford-upon-Avon. That's why it's so informative, and so enjoyable, to perform his work here.
At one point in Titus, Tamora threatens to prove 'more dangerous' to Andronicus 'Than baits to fish, or honey-stalks to sheep'. Before I began working on the play, I had never even heard of 'honey-stalks'.
I could claim that this simply because they're now commonly referred to as 'clover flowers', except I'd never heard of them either. Anyway. These clover flowers contain a glycoside poison that is fatal to sheep. Guess what? These clover flowers grow up on the Greenway. Where you'll also find people fishing.
But is any of this of any use whatsoever to the actor? I could be wrong, but I can't help but feel that it is.
To see the very same sights that your author has seen, to lend ear to the very same sounds – in short, to share in the very sensations that inspired their work, must come in handy when it comes to performing it.
I don't mean to say that it's by any means essential - Paul Copley used to delight in relaying a story to the YPS King Lear cast about a man he met in Africa who maintained enthusiastically that 'you could perform Shakespeare on the moon'. I'm merely saying that it can help. At the very least, we could call it a kind of research.
Since it was a workshop of Greg's that got me thinking about all this in the first place, it seems only fair to allow him the last word, which comes in the form of this, taken from the introduction to his Shakepeare Almanac:
'Every play seems to have its own elemental characteristics, whether it be the sunny playful May-lit Love's Labours Lost or the light-thickening darkness of Macbeth, and with each play a sense of Shakespeare's profound relationship with his surroundings has been further impressed upon me.'
by Ben Deery
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