March 8, 2012 by Rhi
When we last spoke, I left you with a teaser for the 48 Hour Shakespeare Project I was involved with last month. The brainchild of two university friends of mine, it provided the finale of our recent Reunion back in Bangor.
The play was Henry V, announced by Tim at the Grand Unveiling in the Menai on Thursday afternoon. I found myself volunteering to direct, and with the distribution of scripts and the allocating of roles, we began our first read through. Beers in hand, of course.
The project had already had a few setbacks. Since Bangor University knocked down both the Students Union and Theatr Gwynedd to replace them with the Pontio Arts Centre, performance space in the town is hard to come by. Thanks to the generosity of BEDS (another Bangor performance society) we were able to secure space for Saturday afternoon. We knew we’d work something out eventually, but as a former theatre studies student at Bangor, I can only imagine the difficulty faced with securing not only performance space, but the required rehearsal time in the venue as well. Local gossip in Bangor suggests the Pontio project has stalled for the time being in terms of building the venue, though they are working hard with other local partners to ensure that the people of Bangor are able to access interesting theatre in the meantime.
When it came to directing, I found myself at a distinct disadvantage not knowing the play at all. I’m familiar with Shakespeare – I’ve directed productions of Hamlet and Macbeth in the past. The problem with Shakespeare, of course, is that everyone knows the ending. When it comes to raising the stakes, I like my heroes to come from the tragic mould, and the quiet assurance of Henry V as he prepared to lead the English into battle at Agincourt was something I fretted over for several hours. How to keep the audience interested in what was to become of him? But after a few readings, it became clear that the quiet lynchpin at the centre of the whole saga was Henry’s trust in the right side winning. Given more time, I may have been able to create more tension between the two sides, or between the English soldiers in placing their trust in Harry. But these are all thoughts after the event. The task at hand was to help the actors get to grips with their characters, inject the right level of light and shade into the characterisations and scenes, and to assist the main players with bringing the famous speeches to life.
The most interesting group to direct were the first time performers. Normally, working with new performers requires weeks of work, coaxing a performance out of them step by step, guiding them through techniques and scenes like a parent teaching their child to ride a bike. On this project, however, there was no time for such niceties. Scripts in their quivering hands, I threw them into a space and said “Just speak!” and they did. The stakes were raised higher by the fact that many of the younger performers were playing the roles which provided the light relief. I don’t think for a moment it was my direction that made them brilliant – I suspect it was more the atmosphere that we managed to create in rehearsals, and the support that the more experienced cast members offered. There was a definite sense of a Blitz spirit amongst the players, and those who were worried about lines reached almost superhuman heights when they saw those with bigger parts eating up the stage. It wasn’t competition which was driving them, but a sense of not wanting to let anyone down by not knowing what they were doing. The best thing for me, however, was that everyone had fun. When the house lights dimmed not everyone was word perfect. It was, naturally, still very rough around the edges. Before the audience entered, I gave the cast this advice: simply relax and enjoy it. The actors had to coax each other through, and everyone knew to have a get out clause just in case things went wrong. When the adrenalin is flowing, it’s amazing how resourceful the human brain can be in dredging up something – ANYTHING – that thrusts you past a sticky point. The final performance went without a hitch, the few stumbles covered so that no one watching could possibly have realised. I couldn’t have asked for any more from that happy few. Proud seems too weak a word to describe how I felt about what they achieved that weekend.
The adrenalin rush following the curtain call was immense – beaming faces all round. If there’s one thing that the younger cast members took away from the production, I hope it’s that a production doesn’t have to be fraught with stress, strain, misery and worry. Performing can be a mixed bag at times, and when things aren’t going well, the problems can easily filter down from the director to the cast, and make life difficult for everyone. Especially with amateur productions, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the actors are there for a good time too. For me, as a director, I learned some good lessons to take forward with me. I was forced to focus on the key elements of a story, rather than spending time getting bogged down trying to be too clever with staging and presentation. Working with the actors I had, rather than spending endless auditions searching for just the right person for each role, taught me that actors can become a part, even when you can’t see it first time. And, of course, I saw proof once again of Dustin Hoffman’s realisation (whilst playing Shylock at the RSC) that “You can’t improvise this shit!” There’s no substitute for hard work and learning the lines, and when you do, the sense of achievement is immense. Shakespeare is a real challenge to any actor, and no matter what else they go on to do in the future, I hope that every single cast member will always remember with pride the time they learned Shakespeare in 48 hours.
All pictures in this post are courtesy of Phil and Lou at Level Six Media.
The lovely Phil at Level Six has uploaded the documentary they filmed during the rehearsal process. So for a more indepth feel of what it’s like doing Shakespeare in 48 Hours, have a watch!