Friday, May 02, 2008

Forget Shakespeare!

Shakespeare never intended anyone to study Shakespeare. It is no accident that he made himself so anonymous.

Peter Brook

The second ‘piece’ Peter Brook provides in Evoking (and forgetting!) Shakespeare is on an actor’s need for amnesia. This is a short (2500 words approx) essay with some very sound advice to young actors taking on a role in Shakespeare.

Brook starts out by reminding us of the pendulum of acting styles – how it was all emotion and no meaning when he was young, and how it swung to all meaning and no emotion. The present extreme is one of reductionism (remember this was written in 1994) – cutting Shakespeare down to size:

“… young actors are once more drawn into the trap of believing that their own everyday experiences can give them what they need and that they can base their understanding on their personal set of references.” Pg 40

Interestingly, Brook suggests this is a cause of some of the politically clich├ęd and socially stereotypical productions that regularly pop up as ‘contemporary’ Shakespeare. He gives the example of colonial-Tempests and suggests that the adoption of ‘sexual-attitudes’ in current vogue for complex characters who have fascinated for centuries because they were unfamiliar is, at best, counter productive.

His suggestion for avoiding such pitfalls – forget Shakespeare.

I remind you he is talking to the actor who is to perform Shakespeare – he is not suggesting this is the path for anyone else (although I do wish most academics had taken the advice).

What follows sounds simplistic – but is very difficult to do, and rarely done successfully – imagine Hamlet really existed.

Treat the script not as ‘written’ but as a record of a tape-recording of what was ‘actually said’ by a real person.

Brook suggests that the first consequence of such an attitude is to sweep away the ‘like-me’ attitude: No amount of improvisation on the character will reproduce the complexity or intensity of Hamlet’s words – his uniqueness. He goes on to further suggest that bringing in ‘Shakespeare the author’ and any ‘intention’ he had, would not only fail to help understand Hamlet, but would also ‘muddy the waters’ – require the actor to double think:

The actor’s task is not to think of words as part of a text, but of words as part of a person whom we believe actually minted them in the heat of the moment (pg 43).

Brook moves on to use Lear as an example and suggests that, with this approach, the actor cannot fail to recognize the extra-ordinary in the character – the actor will take his/her interpretation beyond both the ‘psychological’ and ‘textual’ approach – both of which reduce Shakespeare.

If you think of Lear as the man who gave his Kingdom away – he becomes a doting fool: If you approach him from the point of view of the man who says,

And take upon’s the mystery of things

As if we were God’s spies.

He is no ‘common-place mind’, ‘there is no trace of dotage’.

Shakespeare’s words, Brook reminds us, are ‘necessary expressions of the inner patterns of exceptional human creatures.’

I don’t think there can be any doubt that the approach taken by Brook has produced anything but some of the greatest Shakespearean productions – certainly in the second half of the 20th Century, possibly since Shakespeare himself directed.

It is only when we forget Shakespeare that we can begin to find him.

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