Hedda Gabler and Our Country’s Good

I’m now half way through updating Hedda Gabler to comply with the edition specified by Edexcel – the translation by Richard Eyre, published Nick Hern Books. Since I’d already written a full resource on it using two other editions [Methuen and Penguin] this simply means adding page references from this latest edition and, where necessary – since it’s a translated play – new wording to the quotations I use. It does not mean that if you are using the script for AQA or another exam board you will have any difficulty; I have simply added the NHB version to what I already have. This and Our Country’s Good will be ready very soon as downloads or hard copy with these revisions. Keep an eye on the blog page. Our Country’s Good, though the new specification quotes the ISBN number for the Methuen Student edition, is using the same imprint text-wise. The page numbers of the play text are identical.

As soon as I’ve finished Hedda, it’ll be the turn of Antigone, again adding the wording and Page numbers from the Don Taylor translation specified by Edexcel to the resource I’ve already written. And as for Hedda, if you’re working from another edition for another board [e.g. OCR or AQA both of whom have the play on their lists] you will still be able to find your way around using the edition you have before. Yerma will be the last I have to trawl through in this way before starting on entirely new text resources. I shall be a very busy bunny for the foreseeable future!!

Working on Hedda again I am struck anew by Ibsen’s amazing craftmanship. How concise he is at preparing the way for a new character through just a few comments made by other characters. How he can hint at a wealth of subtext with so few words, or by a character floundering, or through punctuation. How the funeral parlour feel of the house, filled to the brim with too many flowers, acts as a symbol for Hedda’s feelings of being stifled, her death-in-life, her boredom. How potent a symbol the gun that Hedda plays with so dangerously is for her character, which is destructive to others and ultimately to herself. He is wonderful, lending himself to the Naturalism of Stanislavski, but equally to more symbolic interpretations. It’s a pleasure to be revisiting it.

New A level specs

I’ve been reading all the new specs with interest, and of course with a view to plugging some holes in my list of playtexts through practice. I’m pleased to see that some texts are the same [and in the right editions.] For Edexcel, Dr Faustus, Lysistrata and Woyzeck are already done using the proscribed editions and for AQA, Antigone, Hedda Gabler and A Servant to Two Masters are already in place. I have written resources for Yerma and Our Country’s Good already, but the editions differ. I have already ordered the right ones and will alter the page references etc accordingly. For Edexcel My Hedda will also be altered to match the edition required – [I suspect that’ll be the edition many AQA teachers will also be using.] All these changes will be in place very soon; I have bought the new editions and am working on them as we speak. For OCR there are also a number of playtexts through practice in place already: Oh What a Lovely War!, Antigone and The Crucible are available already.

I will try to get three more resources done before September [and of course more still after that, but I’m only human. Three is realistic!]  I shall start with Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Cloud Nine and Glass Menagerie. Next on the list [i.e. all being well by Christmas] will be Metamorphosis, followed by Equus and the Caucasian Chalk Circle in the following year. I’d like to be able to promise more by the end of the first year, but I suspect that would be superhuman. If you have any comments on these choices, please e-mail me: [email protected] or contact me through facebook or twitter under my name – Jeni Whittaker – rather than Dramaworks

I might be the worst person to accompany to the theatre

I think it might be so many years as an examiner – seventeen of them and then several more as a University external examiner and more still as a festival adjudicator – but what that taught me is to have eyes that constantly swivelled around the playing space noting everything: costumes, props, lighting, set, sound and, of course the acting. Going to the theatre is still a huge part of my life… HUGE. But I can’t help myself. Old habits die hard. The eyes swivel. The fingers twitch to manipulate the pen on the no-longer-existent notepad. Does it get in the way of enjoyment? Not a bit! With most productions it enhances the experience, allowing me to dwell lovingly on the attention to detail many of them bring to the design elements but just occasionally …!!

Let me digress a little. I was a latecomer to opera. With a Mozart fan for a father, I was familiar with the music of most of those, but somehow, every time I turned the radio on [we’re talking many years ago] it was always some fruity-voiced soprano with festoons of vibrato that I caught singing something from one of the heavier Wagner operas. From these small experiences, I got the idea that opera was not for me. Imagine my wonder, then, when a friend took me to Glyndebourne. We saw Janacek’s Jenufa and it was the most exciting experience in years. Seeing my face, my friend often leant in to ask was I enjoying this? Was I?! I wanted to tell him to stop bothering me! I wanted to be in a bubble and immerse myself totally in sight, sound and feeling! It was Total Theatre. How could I ever have thought I wouldn’t like opera? Done well, it’s the ultimate theatrical experience!

So whenever I could I started to go to operas and, of course, learned that they vary enormously. And sadly, far more than most theatre companies, it is the details, the design, and worse – too often the acting – that is below par. I get it that great singers are not always great actors and can make allowances for the conventions of opera, which are different from the conventions of theatre, BUT…. and this is the point of this blog – what I can’t forgive, what makes me grind my teeth in the audience, is when you pay vastly inflated ticket prices and hardly any of those important details of design and acting are attended to. I find it, frankly, insulting.

Don’t get me wrong – this has never been true of Glyndebourne productions, which I catch regularly on tour. Even if I haven’t liked the opera itself, the design and the direction has been stunning. But over the years I have sat through professional touring operas with wonderful singing but wobbly amateurish sets, poor use of staging space, dreadful dark lighting, in short no overall directorial vision for the piece. And it has spoiled my enjoyment. More than that, I have ranted all the way home in the car at my poor theatre companions!

Then last week I went to see Strauss’s Die Fledermaus done by Ellen Kent Productions. I didn’t expect it to be moving or uplifting, to speak to my soul; I knew it would be light, frothy. But I did expect glamour, spectacle and humour. Especially since I had paid a lot for my ticket – nearly as much as for Glyndebourne on tour. The sets were fine and gave some of the necessary glamour. In fact, the design elements were mostly good. In this production, it was the acting that had me cringeing in my seat.

No direction worth its salt had been given to the mainly very young chorus. They simply stood around the stage and pulled the occasional face at each other. Their dancing was of the sidestep and kick variety – in fact that was their principal dance step – and in a line. Think village hall pantomime. I have seen better work from many amateur companies. [And actually many good and fun village hall pantos.]

The cast could sing – no question. Most of the cast came from the Ukraine or Russia – and there’s nothing wrong with that. So why did they elect to perform in English? Opera goers are used to reading translations above the stage. In this case their English was, in many key cases, so bad – wrongly stressed, laboured and slow because they did not understand what they were saying – that, presumably for this reason, they had to put the English translation up anyway!  Reading the notes in the programme, it says that Kent worked from an old Russian translation of the text – 40% of which is spoken not sung – so why not sing in Russian, since the translation had to be there for the audience in any case!? One character in the final act was a non-singing comedy part. He mugged exaggeratedly to the audience, trying to achieve laughs with his face at least, struggled through the lines, often read them from a couple of carefully placed props, could not point the lines properly or put over any of the humour because he did not understand the English words! Poor man! And poor audience. I found myself wincing every time he came forward to speak. If I hadn’t been with others, I’d have walked out. I felt by this time so angry. There’s no excuse for this in today’s professional theatre surely!

Now you know why I might be the worst person to accompany to the theatre…

 

 

IN PRACTICE

It’s been a marathon, but I’ve now trawled through every resource and play on the website and put up more and clearer extracts. It should be easier to see, with the plays, the storyline, style and characters. For the resources. there should now be enough sample pages to have a genuine idea of the flavour of each one. There are examples of the theories of every practitioner and, more importantly, sample practical work to test them. That is the key to how I have worked for the last twenty years on EVERYTHING I do. Isn’t it true that students remember what they try out for themselves? Of course they need to know the facts; that goes without saying. But testing those facts through practical work means that they will remember it and more importantly, they will remember it in a personal way. This means that an exam question will be answered, drawing on their own experiences. They will not be churning out the dry old theories learned in the classroom behind the desk. They will have felt how it is to experiment with each theory and will come to their own opinion from the realisation of how it worked for them … THROUGH PRACTICE.

This is not just true for practitioners, of course. Everything is explored ‘through practice.’ Every text – and as you can see, there are many of them – whether it’s a classic like Shakespeare or Chekhov – or a more recent play – such as ‘Playhouse Creatures’ or ‘Our Country’s Good’ – are approached through the same spirit of practical experimentation. Practical work is suggested line by line, or speech by speech throughout the entire play – no skimping! And that practical work does not force a particular interpretation or physical approach. There are ALWAYS many possibilities of ‘seeing’ a play and translating it from page to stage, which is what we are expecting our A level exam students to do. I commonly suggest exercises which include a naturalistic approach, a political’epic’ one and a physical theatre one AT THE VERY MINIMUM – always at least three entirely different ways of approaching a character, a set design, the direction of the whole script, and often more than three.

I believe totally in this practical approach and I know it works! Try out some of the exercises in the sample pages and see for yourself…. Jeni

Playshare and Treepress

When I first started Dramaworks I already knew that I wanted to run a scheme which allowed teachers to reuse the plays they had written for their own students and share them with other teachers. Why did teachers have to write their own plays? Because there were so few out there that allowed for the particular quirks of different groups – 1 boy and four girls, for instance, with good parts for each person. Or large-cast plays that are all female or heavily-weighted that way. And many other permutations, of course. Few teachers had the time to write plays for their groups so there was a pressing need for more short suitable exam scripts and plays that give multiple meaty roles for the school play. The answer I came up with was the Playshare scheme. It started small but I quickly managed to add more, particularly exam scripts. It was hard turning some hopefuls down, but I knew I had to select the best plays for the task.

Ten years on not much has changed. The need is as great, if not greater. And now an enterprising couple of young women have come up with Treepress and have invited me to put the Playshare plays up there on a microsite, flatteringly because they recognise the quality of the Dramaworks stamp and want to add it to their own newer brand. Hopefully this will mean even more choice for the hard-working drama teacher. The Treepress site is already large, and growing,  and covers a large range of plays of different styles designed for differing uses. I am sure it will make a difference.

For those loyal followers of Dramaworks, this doesn’t mean Playshare has stopped – it just means that the plays are on two sites, the Dramaworks one and the microsite within the Treepress one. Do keep sending plays to me – you have two chances now of their being picked up by beleaguered teachers. Note that prices between the two sites are largely comparable. It is just that Treepress breaks down the prices into smaller components while I have always lumped the prices of script, production notes, technical cues, performance rights and photocopying rights into one figure.

If you visit the Dramaworks site, you will notice that the plays have been reorganised to make it easier to access them. I have been working hard on it for the last ten days. There are longer extracts and more of them, to give you more of a sense of the story within each play and the performing opportunities. This should make choosing easier. The plays will also soon be downloadable, as the teaching resources already are. And of course, you can still order hard copy from me, as many teachers prefer. Do have a look at the whole site and what it has to offer and tweet your comments if you belong to twitter.

 

Muses on Kneehigh

A couple of days ago I saw Kneehigh Theatre’s latest offering ‘Rebecca’. I’ve been a fan of theirs for years, enjoying the immediacy of their ‘rough’ approach to performance. There are certain constants: music, direct involvement with the audience, humour – often slapstick or deliberately silly – movement/dance, to name a few. And of course, they are Cornish, so that we Cornish are very proud of them and their growing success. It was with trepidation at first that I watched ‘Tristan and Iseult’ at the National Theatre, wondering how something that I’d last seen against a background of cliffs and sea would come off confined indoors. I needn’t have worried. It was wonderful – different, but just as moving. What Kneehigh excels in is what Peter Brook calls ‘Rough’ Theatre – but what it occasionally achieves is what Brook calls ‘Holy Theatre.’ At its best it combines the two- Brook’s idea of the perfect style of theatre. I have never forgotten ‘The Bacchae’ where after howling with laughter, we were suddenly chilled to the core as the God Dionysus, rising [on a trapeze] further and further out of reach of his clamouring fans, leaves the leader of them, the Queen Agarve, to gradually realise the horror of what she has done. Uncaring, the God moves on, sublimely indifferent, leaving the Queen to come out of her frenzy covered in the blood of the son she has ripped to shreds.

‘Rebecca’ does not have quite that impact, but at times it is close. What it does have is an extraordinary and versatile set, managing to combine the seashore with the grandeur of Mandeley’s interior and even under the sea. A wooden boat rises at the opening till we have the impression we are at the bottom of the sea looking up at the underside of the craft. In a scooped out section of the sea’s bottom lies the remains of the drowned Rebecca. It is an eerie and very effective opening. The whole thing is a masterly piece of story-telling, leaving nothing of the original story out but adding in Kneehigh’s own blend of humour through the characters of an over-the-top Beatrice [Maxim de Winter’s sister] and her husband Giles plus a particularly dopy but endearing serving-lad, Ben. We see an initially rather droopy new bride, the second wife – but she grows in strength until she is a fitting equal for the malevolent spirit of Rebecca.

All in all, this is a production that is a gift for all students who have to write reviews for plays or see a play for particular close study and comment. If you didn’t see it in its West End opening, or here in Cornwall, it is now on tour until mid-December. I can’t recommend it highly enough! For those studying Brook, Brecht or set-design, it is also a gift.

Though this, my first blog, appears to be a promotion advert for Kneehigh, don’t despair! To follow on soon will be all sorts of other theatre-based musings and recommendations, plus a few ideas for lessons. Keep following my blogs!