Kneehigh Theatre

When I said I’d do a Styletasters resource on Kneehigh Theatre, I’d no idea how hard it would be! I thought: I live in Cornwall, I’ve seen nearly all the shows in the last twenty years, absolutely love them, have met Mike Shepherd … what could be the problem? Well, the problem is that I am being blocked at every turn and query, attempt to interview anyone, etc. And the further problem is that I understand what Mike [the principal blocker, since Kneehigh is his baby] is saying. He does not want Kneehigh to be set in stone, to be reduced to a body of theories. AND I ABSOLUTELY UNDERSTAND AND SYMPATHISE. I won’t do this.

Wish I could show him my approach in my many other resources. My practice is always to show a company, an actor, practitioner, or whatever, as something/body that continues to change and evolve. I KNOW that nothing creative is static. I know that even whatever I end up with about Kneehigh, there will be many more evolutions and changes in the company. And so it should be. It MUST be, if Kneehigh is to continue to be the exciting company it is. I KNOW that anyone who takes risks [as all good companies and practitioners must] fails sometimes. In fact that is part of what being any kind of artist is about: being prepared to fail.

Peter Brook’s metaphor of the tightrope is pertinent. The artist/ actor/ company steps onto the tightrope with courage. The abyss is below him on every side; sometimes he falls. But when he succeeds, he creates something unforgettable.

The Kneehigh mix of outrageousness and beauty, slapstick comedy and tragedy is unforgettable when it succeeds – they can turn our emotions in the space of the flip of a coin from hilarity to anguish. And I will accord them the respect due to a company that will continue to develop. Hopefully, I’ll be able to update the resource every now and again. But whatever the obstructions, I will write it. Thanks to the Archives at Falmouth University, I now have some of those questions answered … After many stumbling blocks, progress is being made at last!!

Musings on THE TEMPEST

I’ve just finished the longest of my Plays Through Practice series, on The Tempest. It grew and grew, partly because there is some very difficult language in parts of it, which needed explanation if would-be student actors or directors are to work with it, but mostly because I have particular affection for this play. I suppose I love the scope it gives for design and for imaginative interpretation, and I’ve tried to build many creative possibilities into the body of the resource, without being proscriptive. I never want any of my resources to say: this is how something should be done. All of them have built-in choices to explore, and encouragement to follow their own ideas.

Why do I love this play so much? Partly it is the language. Some of Shakespeare’s most gorgeous speeches are there. They speak to the dreamer in us, the inner poet, if you like. ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’ after all and the play is full of musings on life: the brevity of it, its insubstantiality. It shows so triumphantly how it is never too late to change. We see Prospero, eaten up with anger and the desire for revenge, turning in a second – literally – into someone much more admirable, able to let go of all that base stuff which weighed him down and to forgive. And who is it who turns him? Ariel, who is pure spirit and not even human!

If Prospero just turned into a goody two shoes in his conversion the ending would cloy. But we see him having to struggle with his anger when he is faced with his treacherous brother. It is visibly hard for him to forgive. Yet he does, and it is a struggle. Nor has he lost his enjoyment of showing off, of teasing. Prospero at the end is entirely human, has not lost the traits which make up his character. He is not the god-like figure of forgiveness, endowed with magical super-powers which I have seen him played as.

The play is a hymn of delight to the beauties of nature too. Even Caliban is moved by the island he is heir to and accepts the magic that fills it as a normal thing. He hears music all around; the airs of the island generate their own music. Perhaps if we listen in a quiet place, surrounded by trees, we might hear that music too.

Music fills the play – another reason it is my favourite, since music – singing, playing it – I play a number of instruments – and listening to it – is one of my greatest passions. There is so much room for inventive music throughout the play. I have played the part of Ariel twice myself – long ago now! It was the part of my dreams, combining as it does acting, singing and playing of instruments. One of those times it was a kind piece of fate: I had been cast as Miranda, but the director wanted Miranda played nude to symbolise innocence. I didn’t want to do it! He ranged over other possibilities, each more hideous than the last: white leather, a flesh-coloured leotard with pubic hair stuck or painted on!! To cut a long story short – I played Ariel instead, and was exceedingly happy with that!

Am I pleased with the resource? I think it’s as full as it could be without being too over-whelming. It contains lots of background information, the sources and the like. But mainly it’s a working through of the text in as many ways as I can imagine – so as to inspire the imaginations of those studying it. Writing the Plays Through Practice resources is always an exercise in directing whatever play in as many different ways as I can conceive. It is truly an act of creativity, rather than an academic exercise. I hope that those using it will find it pleasurable to read, as well as helpful in the drama studio.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Last week I travelled to the Lost Gardens of Heligan to see Kneehigh Theatre’s latest offering, the Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. Perhaps it wasn’t  to everyone’s taste. I went alone and the people seated on either side of me didn’t return after the interval. Their loss, in my opinion.

I suppose many expect certain things of Kneehigh, particularly the Cornish audiences. They expect slapstick humour, music, audience involvement – at least by frequent direct address to them from the actors – comical dances, often from a chorus of characters and witty reversals from comedy to plucking at the heart-strings. But some of the shows have a different trajectory, and this was one.

I loved it! There is always something to engage you in Kneehigh and, personally, I like it even more when they explore the darker side. I’ve never forgotten the ending of the Bacchae, or Tristan and Yseult in both of which the comic coin flips upside down and reveals its tragic underside.

The Flying Lovers are the artist Marc Chagall and his wife Bella. The play, written by Daniel Jamieson under the different title Birthday, follows their life-story from their falling in love in their home-town, Vitebsk, through two wars, persecution of the Jews – they were both Jewish – brief success as an artist in Moscow, Paris, the USA… Chagall’s growing fame, to Bella’s death and Marc’s release of her spirit through acknowledgement of her own creativity.

The set [designed by Sophia Clist] was constructed of wooden poles, not straight or upright but crazily leaning and crossing over each other, suggesting the outlines of buildings, windows, doors, as in Chagall’s own paintings. To the poles were attached most of the props needed in the show [though some were thrown to them by the two musicians]. The floor of the set sloped wonkily, like the inside of an old attic. Like all Kneehigh sets, it was clever, idiosyncratic and useful – though one or two of the audience may have found they needed to peer round a crossed-over pole at times.

Far more than usual the show was largely danced and sung. Rather than musical interludes being strung together by dialogue, this was reversed. In a previous production, The Wild Bride, Kneehigh had moved towards this recipe; this production moved even further in the direction of music and dance. The two members of the cast – Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson [who also sung and played as the bride in The Wild Bride] had beautiful clear voices and moved with charm and restraint. They were wonderfully accompanied by Ian Ross and James Gow as musicians, who occasionally swelled out the scene as characters, such as marching soldiers. The music, witty and veering between a period jazz feel and the haunting melancholy of Yiddish music, underlined the entire show. It was a musical backdrop that helped with a sense of time and place as well as with mood.

I loved some of the more subtle touches: the placing of pairs of shoes around the stage, to mark the couple’s constant travelling, for instance. As an image, it also subtly suggested the piles of empty shoes found at the Nazi death camps, underlying both their Jewishness and the enduring archetype of the Wandering Jew. Nice!

The strong love that bound the pair was shown through dance movements and held positions that echoed Chagall’s own flying figures. I felt that the movement reflected the tension in the play between joyful creation, which liberates the artist, and the shackles of misunderstanding, poverty, the ties of father/motherhood. When all goes well with the characters: their early love, occasional successes, and happinesses, the artist flies. At times he flies in partnership with Bella. But it is not till her writing is discovered and liberated towards the end of the piece that Bella too ‘flies’ as an artist in her own right.

Not an easy piece to put over, it contained plenty of comedic touches in the first half, plus the charm and joy of the young lovers and the freedom of their movements. But life gets its teeth into them and the second half is less successful. Perhaps to encompass a whole life’s journey is too much. There was not much Kneehigh laughter after the interval, but it would have been out of place. I enjoyed the piece immensely, but I can understand how casual visitors might have found the experience unexpected and hard to grasp.

DRAMAWORKS & DIGITAL THEATRE PARTNERSHIP

I have very exciting news for all Drama teachers and for DramaWorks. For the last few months I have been in negotiation with a company called Digital Theatre Plus and the result is that for the next few years we are going into partnership together. They have a large catalogue of live theatre screenings which they are adding to all the time. I am writing resources, over time, to go with these as a package, though I have many of my back resources that already fit nicely in. There are so many other things they are doing too: live filmed interviews with actors, directors and designers, for example. Just imagine how useful that will be. It means that you can study the play in the usual way, using one of my teaching resources which leads you in a practical way through the entire script, AND have a live film version AND a variety of other resources aimed at rounding out the whole experience for your students. Over time we aim to have every play on all syllabuses covered.

Digital Theatre have made partnerships with a large number of theatre groups already, and the results of those links will be available too. The partnerships include; The Old Vic, The Young Vic, the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe, Frantic Assembly, Tricycle Theatre, Perfect Pitch and many more…

Educationally the partnership makes sense, which is why I have embraced it with enthusiasm. This way we will be able to reach teachers and students throughout the world who are studying drama at any exam-based level.

The launch of all the new stuff will take place later in the summer, in time for next year’s teaching. I will let you know when that happens. Meanwhile you can already check out Digital Theatre’s catalogue of live plays and films, and of course you can continue to buy resources from myself. In time, though, you will be able to buy my resources through their website as well as through my own.

Check out the article in The Stage, for news of the partnership!

Digital Theatre+ and DramaWorks form exclusive partnership

Digital education platform Digital Theatre+ and specialist drama education publisher DramaWorks have entered into a 9-year, exclusive partnership.

The deal will result in over 37 curriculum-mapped learning resources on key theatre practitioners and texts being made available to Digital Theatre+’s 3 million users from 1,000 schools, colleges and universities in over 55 countries. It also includes a commitment to commission another 40 resources over the period. The agreement sees DramaWorks Founder Jeni Whittaker, a renowned former drama teacher and Chief Examiner, join Digital Theatre+’s distinguished Creative Learning Advisory Panel.

“We are delighted to be able to to offer our audience the opportunity to access this world-class and highly sought-after educational content on our platform. Jeni has unrivalled insight and expertise into what teachers need. DramaWorks incorporates a practical approach to theatre into its educational content and we already excel in bringing world-class filmed productions to students around the globe. It’s a superb match.”

said Digital Theatre+ Chairman, Justin Cooke.

Jeni Whittaker understands that students at Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 need to translate visual and practical experience of drama into written form. The methods of each practitioner are made uniquely accessible and tested through practical application.

Most of these materials feed directly into the examination requirements. There are also lesson plans for years 7, 8 and 9, and general work on Devising and on Physical Theatre, which are suitable for use at many levels including the first-year of a BA degree.

Jeni Whittaker, Founder of DramaWorks commented:

“Educationally it makes complete sense to combine two forms of educational content. I’m delighted that this partnership will enable, reach and help teachers more than either of us on our own can do.”

Working with Digital Theatre+’s Publishing and Education teams led by Fiona Lindsay and Talia Rodgers, DramaWorks will collaborate to create more teaching resources. All DramaWorks’ learning resources will be available on www.digitaltheatreplus.com from September 2016 as well, of course, as still being available on Dramaworks’ own website.

Download The DramaWorks and Digital Theatre+ Announcement

Read more about this from Jeni on the Blog

King Lear

I visited a sadly empty theatre to see Michael Pennington as King Lear. Perhaps the tour had the mischance to be in Cornwall very close to its live screening on the local cinema – at of course cheaper prices. I hope it is not because people just didn’t want to come to see that particular play.

Of course, it’s not the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays in any sense: hard to stage and not a barrel of laughs either. I have seen many versions over the years, some [like Donald Sinden as Lear] were painful; Timothy West  starred in a very straight version, outstanding in its clarity. That was a success. I once said it was not a play for amateurs, but had to eat my words last year, when I saw the Winchester College Players perform it at the Minack Theatre. There, it was the female Fool who stole the show, bringing a poignancy to Lear’s ‘O, I have ta’en too little care of this’. But last night’s offering, for power, poignancy and horror was excellent, well night faultless. If you can’t see it live, please at least see the Live Screening [despite my opening paragraph!]

The most disgustingly realistic removal of Gloucester’s eyes, and Edmund’s savagely bleeding thigh, contributed to the horror. I was sitting three rows from the front and Cornwall’s ‘Out, vile jelly!’ after which he threw the offending gory lump onto the floor was genuinely dreadful.

The ensemble were all excellent. It is hard for actresses to build the evil sisters’ jealousy of each other and lust for Edmund out of not much in the script – but they managed it successfully, just as the turn from nice civilised people into the monsters their father accuses them of being was excellent.

The Fool [Joshua Elliott] too, was different – closer to a traditional coxcombed entertainer, but with an edge of vulnerability from the start. His transition from court jester to sick, dying dependent was well done. It  clearly conveyed the point of Lear’s gradual learning curve from foolish man to self-knowledge and more – knowledge of what he should have been as a King, a father and a human being. That journey begins with the fool’s trembling plight in the storm, which awakens a new tenderness in the ageing king.

Edgar’s random madness is where Lear’s awakening conscience and awareness of the world is taken to next. Gavin Fowler managed these mad speeches admirably. They are fiendishly difficult because almost completely nonsensical. Edgar is using the words as a disguise, a jumble of craziness, which muddies sense and throws people off the scent of who he may really be as effectively as the mud plastering his face and limbs. I particularly admired the way Edgar in this production reacted every time his father, Gloucester, came in, with frenzies and twitches, all designed to keep his face from being recognised.

The main plaudits must go to Michael Pennington, whose Lear was a towering performance throughout. His irascibility at the beginning already had the seeds of unreason surfacing through it; the whole arc of Lear’s life-on-stage was a masterly trajectory through dementia. Having recently lost my mother to Alzheimers, I recognised the fits of anger and aggression, the fear and the sad vacant-eyed portrait of lost wits in the scene where Lear is pushed in on a wheelchair. Tears pricked my eyes at moments where I had never felt sorrow in previous productions. This Lear took us, the audience, with him and we were all firmly on his side. Every thought process was clearly shown – the knitting together of disparate images or ideas popping into his head – so that we saw how his mind worked, how his obsessions surfaced in different random ways – to make perfect sense. Thank you Mr Pennington.

The themes of sight/blindness, folly/wisdom were pointed clearly too. And [not for the first time] I was again struck by the extraordinary archetypes the play offers us, Beckett-like in their unforgettability. The Fool, the Beggar, the Blind Man,thrown together in a surreal landscape,  stamp themselves on our consciousness and haunt our dreams.  I am so very glad to have seen a King Lear that feeds into that imagery and reminds me of it. I shall remember it for a long time.

Hangmen

Well it’s been over a week, but  a very busy one, so I haven’t had time to blog about Hangmen, which I wanted to do in the first flush of excitement after the screening. Strangely, I couldn’t persuade anyone to come with me, always a problem because bouncing thoughts off another person helps crystallise my own.

First impressions: the set. It so cleverly and exactly captured the colour schemes and style of the ’60s. The bleak institutional green and cream of the prison. Then after the shock of this opening the darkness through which the lights of the pub began, slowly, to pierce the dark, menacing like watching eyes. They brightened to a pinkish glow and I was there! Then! Back in one of those ghastly pubs of the time with their permanent proppers-up of the bar by the old men, the lonely and down-and-outs, for whom this is the closest thing they have of home and family.

This chorus of pub-goers is masterly. At times it is almost poetic in the Greek way, with the repetition of lines needed because of the deafness of the oldest [and most malicious] of them. A rhythm is established, a humorous near orchestral blend of voices with their different timbres and paces.

Often the play reminds us of Joe Orton. It shares a similar black humour, always hovering on the edge of the tasteless, the taboo. Sometimes the humour is so black as to make us feel guilty that we still laughed. I love that! That blend of nervous laughter, belly laughter and guilt.

As if it is an homage to the ’60s genres as well as atmosphere and setting, we have already doffed a cap at Orton and now we have the Pinteresque advent of the stranger, humorous, attractive, unsettling. Oh, and I loved his look – his rather greasy-looking tousled-blond hair, his maroon-pink shiny suit [I can’t define the colour and yet it is so reminiscent of that time]. He looked like a member of a band of that time, say Herman and the Hermits. He immediately comes over as slightly seedy – you wouldn’t want your daughter to go out with him – slightly untrustworthy, in a car-salesman-y kind of way. And what happens? The bar-owners’ daughter does appear to have run off with him – or not.

It is a comedy. It is a thriller. It swings our emotions. And it manages to be a serious debate about hanging, just in case any of us should want to bring it back. Starting with the hanging of a man who swears he is innocent, this is gradually cast more and more in doubt by our sleazy stranger, who appears to be hinting that he was the murderer and that maybe he has struck again – the innocent under-age over-weight but far from stupid daughter of the publicans. Strung up, to get the truth out of him, by the publican, who happens to be also the retired hangman [since hanging has recently been banned] of the original accused, our suspicion of the stranger is tested to the extreme. It is rare that there is real tension in a live theatre thriller but this is an exception. As we live through the delays and growing suspense, knowing that a young man is dangling behind a screen, his interrogation interrupted by a visitor to the pub, we start to question everything about death by hanging. This might actually be happening. The theatre is silent; the audience holds its breath. And when the visitor finally leaves, having drawn out the buttoning up of his coat to the nth degree, we are rooting for the young man’s life, even though he may indeed be a murderer. And then the daughter, safe and sound, walks in! But the stranger is dead.

The last lines of the play ask us to consider how often such miscarriages of justice may have occurred. We are left uncertain. The opening of the play is brought back to mind. That victim of the hangman had protested his innocence. This second hanging was also for a crime he did not commit. Had he been guilty of other crimes? We don’t know. The question is left open. The whole difficulty of proving guilt or innocence is called into question.

I’ve strayed into story-telling. How else has the play managed to be a debate about hanging? By having the main character [played excellently and at furious speed by David Morrissey] as one of the last hangmen, now turned publican. His great rival was Pierpoint, who became famous [in real life] for hanging many ex-Nazis after the Nuremberg trials. They have an ongoing competitiveness about their fame, the numbers they have dealt with, their style of hanging and efficiency. It is Pierpoint who, incensed by a boastful newspaper article in which his rival slates him, has come to the pub to have it out with him. It is he who castigates Morrissey-as-Harry, his rival, while the stranger behind the screen is hanging, probably dying. The rivalry between the two men causes the death by hanging of yet another innocent [of this latest crime at least], after hanging itself has become illegal! Masterly!

As You Like It and the screening phenomenon

Just saw the National Theatre’s As You Like It in the local cinema in Falmouth. What an extraordinary boon to us hicks who live out in the sticks. Of course, doing what I do, I try to see as much good live theatre as I can, but it’s often a long way. Even the wonderful theatres in Plymouth are a two hour journey. So this screening phenomenon is wonderful.

Of course, this isn’t the first one I’ve seen. There have been a variety of good things – the one that sticks out most in my mind being the excellent A View from the Bridge, with Nicola Walker and  Mark Long. The first production I have seen which makes sense of all the allusions to Greek theatre and presents the play in all its tragic inevitability, as effectively a Greek tragedy, complete with flawed tragic hero.

So – As You Like It. An exuberant production with a lot of very funny touches [such as the sheep] and an energetically scampering cast chasing each other around the set in pursuit of love.

The set! I can see what they were trying to do. They made a brightly coloured office-type setting for the opening which was ugly and which I found off-putting. It did not suggest a Duke’s court in any way but rather a corporate enterprise. Then the desks, tables and chairs rose up and became the Forest of Arden. That worked very well [though I’ve seen the idea before]. Not that that matters … there’s nothing new…etc.etc. It did suggest a forest, with clever pools of mysterious lighting, and the green notes attached to the trees which were partly Orlando’s love letters to Rosalind and partly leaves, The recurring idea of falling leaves/notes was nice, almost confetti-like and certainly joyful, I did find myself asking, however – was the office setting for the first scene simply there to justify the furniture used again for the forest? Hmm. A dubious reason. Though I did try to justify it in my mind: the unnaturalness of the Duke’s court against the natural Forest where lives the banished Duke. False against true, so that somehow everyone, even the bad Duke, now transfigured into hermit-guise, is dissolved in the natural setting of Arden. Everyone, even the brash office furniture is made anew and softened at the edges by a softer light?? Well, maybe that’s what they meant. But that opening was a shock and took a bit of getting used to. At one time I had a sinking feeling that the office would become the Forest less pleasantly, since all the desks had miniature tree plants on them – the wildness of Arden – which threatens the Duke’s reign, always lapping at the edges of his kingdom, shrunk and contained perhaps, imprisoned – and I feared that a more prosaic forest of these miniature trees held by the busy chorus of extras, would be the way Arden was done. Thank goodness no! The Forest did work, managed to retain threat and mystery as well as encouraging, as the spring fever of love enters it, a softening, a place where sheep and goats might frolic and love blossom unharmed by wolves. This softening of the forest under the magic of love was nicely done and I ended up carried along by the fun and the charm. And as always, food for thought. Vive live screening!

 

ISBNs

One examining board – and others will follow – has decided to exclude all plays without ISBN numbers from their AS/A level exams. I have argued at length that having an ISBN number is no guarantee of quality which is I presume why they have done it. The number is merely a tracking device. For my plays, which can only be ordered as hard copy or as downloads through this website, putting a tracking number on them would have been a waste of time and money. But I’ve had to bite the bullet, since this board won’t give in and others have indicated they will follow. To start with, I’ve picked plays that would be suitable at this level, 18 of them. That’s 36 numbers, since the download version of each play has a different number to the hard copy! Arrgh! Well, on the plus side – the number may mean that bookshops etc might order them now? Who knows!

Just to reassure you. The plays concerned, which you’ll find on the Playshare page and which will be obvious because the numbers are under them, conform to the other proscriptions in the specs. They are at least one hour long, have been published by a registered publisher – DramaWorks – and in addition, many of them were commissioned by youth theatres or theatre companies before coming to me. All have been tried and tested in front of paying audiences. Have a look!

ENCHANTING IBSEN

Working once again on Hedda Gabler to update page references and quotes so that they fit with the newest requirements, I’ve been enchanted once again by what a master Ibsen is. How in a few words from a character he’ll prepare you for the entry of another and give us a good idea of what makes that character tick too – he’s so succinct and subtle. Even just reading you don’t feel that there’s anything ham-fisted about what he’s doing. You are unaware of it – as unaware as a member of the audience would be. He never labours symbolism either [except maybe in The Wild Duck, which is a play I love, but where the symbol of the wild duck itself can be somewhat hammered home!] The symbol of Hedda and Loevborg both as loose cannons [no pun intended – well perhaps the smallest of intentions!] who might explode into violence at any time is wonderful, and her playing with the gun creates a physical tension as we realise how dangerously bored Hedda is. Oh I wish I could write like him!

As for Sophocles, well! I’ve nearly finished updating Antigone for the same reason and have been struck anew by the modernity of its themes now, in an age where religions and dictators impose their will on people, just as they did in Sophocles’ time. Antigone can be likened to so many courageous individuals who stand up for what they think is right without counting the cost to themselves and their own safety. Wow! It just goes to show that plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose. Sorry about lack of accents in the French – I haven’t mastered how to do that yet!

I’ll have finished Antigone in a couple of days and then Hedda and Antigone will be up on the website as updated downloads.

More soon…