So it was back to square one in terms of location. The Tower Dreamteam gathered at director David’s house, where we had initially met at the start of this project, to consider our approach to the first task which we had been set by the RSC (details in last post). On the face of it this seemed quite simple. Learn a Shakespeare speech, perform it and capture it on film. However, as with many aspects of A Play For The Nation the reality is somewhat different. This isn’t just any old speech learning process but key preparation for one of the biggest theatrical institutions in the UK/the world. So serious face well and truly on.
Actually we had great fun! Though I’ve never belonged to one, it was much how I imagine a book club would be. Like minded people in a dedicated group discussing something which floats their collective boat and drawing out meaning from pieces of written text. We ran through our individual pieces (or in Peta/Tom’s case their duologue) considering context, characterisation and interpretation. Most of my colleagues were a fair way down the line with the learning part already. Shamefully I’d yet to begin; my excuse is that I need to understand what I’m going do with a speech before I can properly commit it to memory. “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action” kind of thing. That said the evening gave me a much needed “gee up” in making a start on the learning on the Tube going home; I’ve never quite known why but for some reason words always seem to stick in my brain better when I’m travelling. Odd!
The following evening the team met again in the Foundry at the Bridewell – this time to participate in a text workshop led by the redoubtable Michael Corbidge. We had already met Michael in a workshop at our initial audition so we knew we were in for a fun but stimulating evening and he didn’t disappoint. While the workshop was designed to aid our work on Task 1, we kept well clear of the actual set speeches . Instead, concentrating largely on a piece from Richard II we proactively examined the text through a variety of group activities. We were being encouraged to form muscle memories which helps the text to be retained and makes our responses to it that much more immediate and real. The big revelation (to me anyway) came when Michael got Maria to tackle a lesser known speech from Two Gentlemen of Verona. A first run through resulted in a piece of prosaic recitation. Then with a simple piece of contextualising/direction the text sprang to life and kept me fully engaged from first word to last; essentially Maria went from reading to an almost fully realised performance in less than five minutes – amazing! Michael was as lively as ever and is a superb workshop facilitator. I can honestly say we learned a great deal in a very short space of time; we are so lucky, once again, to be benefitting from the RSC’s expertise. To add to the fun the BBC were filming the workshop and Tower photographer David Sprecher was also taking some great photos of us in action.
So armed from this session with a new battery of techniques it was on to the piece of set text and the analysing/learning/decision making. My piece came from Julius Caesar (a perhaps serendipitous clash of initials!) I have to say, however, that Julius Caesar has never been a favourite of mine and I think there’s probably a very particular reason for that..…. Confession time!
When I first went to secondary school the Prefects were allowed to administer a punishment to the junior pupils in the form of a written imposition known as “A Plotter Speaks”. This was a piece from Act I, Scene 3 of Julius Caesar beginning:
“You are dull, Casca, and those sparks of life
That should be in a Roman you do want”
It’s 22 lines long and the punishment was to write it out in full as many times (up to five copies) as the Prefect deemed fit against a somewhat arbitrary sliding scale of so called offences. Clearly in the days before computers, word processors and photo copiers this was tedious to say the least. One missing punctuation mark and the piece would be ripped up and it would have to be done again. Although some of my fellow students did a nice line in selling pre-written copies of the speech to miscreants I’m sure for many others it left them with an unfortunate hatred of Shakespeare’s work. Not true in my case, fortunately, but it did leave me with a less than appreciative view of this particular play. Anyway, enough of my childhood traumas…
Coincidentally also 22 lines long, the piece of text I had been given was from later in the same play (Act 3, Scene 1). It is the part where Mark Antony has been left alone with Caesar’s assassinated body for the first time so there are several things going on. He has just lost a dear friend and mentor; he realises that he may be next on the hit list and so is conscious of preserving his own safety; he has just been forging an uneasy truce with Brutus and Cassius, the main conspirators, and is racked with guilt about this; he can foresee a civil war breaking out and in a way wants this to happen; basically he’s hugely conflicted. Quite a lot to put over in less than two minutes which is where Michael’s active learning techniques came in really useful. Fortunately my learning coincided with a week’s stay in a very nice Portuguese pousada so it was great to be able to stride the grounds in the Mediterranean sunshine committing the speech to memory and contemplating meaning and interpretation at my leisure.
We had also been asked to consider how our given speech might possibly relate to our character in the Dream. Bottom, of course, is no Mark Antony but he does consider that it’s the sort of part he might play well on stage when he talks about being “a lover or a tyrant”. If we take the latter as meaning a man of action then clearly Mark Antony is both of these in the two Shakespeare plays in which he features. The particular speech is also of a type that Shakespeare parodies when Bottom treats his fellow actors to a short monologue (“The raging rocks/And shivering shocks”) and his grief over Caesar’s death has echoes of Pyramus lamenting Thisbe in the play within a play.
The final stage of the task was the filming. Having got back to home soil it was off to the Bridewell again to commit the piece to posterity. Clearing a space in the costume store we went through a number of takes before David and I were happy with it (well, happy that it wasn’t going to get any better, anyway). It’s definitely different when you know you have an Ipad lens trained on you and that your attempt is going to be analysed by experts at the RSC! Because I had another commitment I did my piece early thus avoiding the extra pressure when the BBC arrived to film the filming for their documentary film (following this?)
So by the time you read this our finished recordings will be on their way to Erica and the team at the RSC. We get feedback in a fortnight’s time and may possibly be requested to repeat the piece to the live audience of other Dreamteamers in the next live link up and/or when Erica pays the team a visit next month. Watch this space for the outcomes.