This week some views on the more technical aspects of writing in The Seagull, a thought about actor-process and the brilliance of London as the most multi-cultural city on the planet.
So, an actor talking to the audience. It’s a slippery device in theatre. When done well, dissolving the fourth wall instantly asks the question: who are the audience meant to be? Are they a specific person (a priest being confessed to), a collection of different people (a jury) or merely ghosts in a forest that the character is talking to?
From Greek tragedy through to melodrama, direct address is the standard way for characters to communicate their thoughts to the audience. It’s only with the invention of the fourth wall and psychological characters in the late nineteenth century that we start to think of direct address as unusual or odd. Looking back through the annals of theatre history, Shakespeare obviously did some brilliant things with direct address. He asks us to come on journeys with him, gives us insights into the psychology of his characters and explains the action that has just happened. So, fast forwarding a few hundred years from Shakespeare, it’s interesting to consider what the function is of direct address is in Chekhov’s plays? It seems hard now to think of the naturalistic style of theatre that has dominated our stages since Ibsen and Chekhov as a new form, but when Chekhov was writing it was at the cutting edge of the avant garde. So why is it that in The Seagull, a play about new forms, Chekhov continues to use direct address, as in his earlier plays? He was writing direct address way before he wrote The Seagull. After The Seagull, Chekhov drops it as a technique in Uncle Vanya and the other Moscow Arts Theatre plays. The Seagull, it seems, is an interesting fusion of both the old forms and the new.
We’re excited by this question. In The Seagull there is a mixture of direct address and naturalistic characterisation which requires the characters to be aware of the audience. This is standard for a non-naturalistic writer like Shakespeare but ground-breaking in the context of fourth-wall playwrights like Ibsen and Strindberg. So John Donnelly has done something really interesting in his version in 2013. He hasn’t edited the direct address out like adaptations tend to do. He has tussled with it and in his version, the audience are there in the theatre. The characters know they are there too. It is set in a theatre. So each moment of direct address is a moment of direct connection with the audience. It is a moment in which the character needs to off-load a worry or give an opinion, and check where the audience are with their thoughts on what is happening. The direct address is therefore perhaps a manifestation of a conscious awareness that the audience are there in the room too. We’re in a theatre and the theatre is the playground in which the action is taking place and the drive of the action is unstoppable. The audience have to sit there and watch these people destroy each other. They are complicit in their destruction. That’s a jolly thought.
The actors in the room have been grappling with this strange but potent way of making the audience complicit. Our design is helping too, but that would be giving too much away. We’d love to hear what you think, and anyone reading this I’m sure would have an opinion, when and if you make it to see the show.
Push open the door into the rehearsal room to take a peek at what is happening. The stage has two or three actors on it. Actor X is mid-way through a line before he/she calls out…
Actor X Line
SM gives the line
Actor X S**t in my boots. I knew that.
I’ve observed something incredibly fragile this week amongst the cast. All of them have left the script at the side of the rehearsal room and are launching into runs of acts without the life raft of the text in their hands. This is a moment which reveals the myriad of individual actor processes going on in the room. It’s a strange and curious moment because the safety is gone, the guiding sketches at the side of the script are figments in the memory and now the actor is stepping up into the next gear. When running sections of the play, it’s really interesting seeing how some actors find their way back into the moment after having called “line”. Some plough through, others adapt what came before (perhaps unconsciously) and others have an ability to hit the pause button and continue. Some even rewind and go back, before hitting the same mark and continuing. This may seem like a dull thing to bring up because it is, of course, part of every rehearsal process, no matter what the show. It’s fascinating to me because it does in fact act as a really good indicator as to what makes sense in the brain of the actor and what doesn’t. By very definition, if something feels right, the line is more likely to be clear because they should be connected up. Calling for “line” is also an appeal for safety. It’s the outer voice of our brilliant stage manager and an acknowledgement that there is much more happening on stage than the text. (otherwise it would be lovely, but really just a radio play). So the gradual reduction in the calling of “line” is an integral part of what we’re doing.
The legendary status of our company manager, Simon, was confirmed this Thursday evening. He managed to convince the brilliant Café Samovar in Queensway to stay open late for us for a company meal after hours. So we arrived at 7pm, having ordered our okroshkas, shchis, pelmenis, kotlety’s and studens. We were met by some odd music on the TV (matched with an odd mixture of images), lovely Russian décor and of course, a shot of vodka to kick the evening off.
We spent most of the night proposing toasts to things from the sublime to the ridiculous. The actors sharing unrepeatable stories and Blanche at the centre of the table, leading the massive failure not to talk shop about the play!
We also asked our hosts to help us with our pronunciation of Russian names. Always a tricky one. This was met with bemused smiles from the waitress but of course a quiet sense of pride at the big C-dog, Chekhov himself, coming from mother Russian.
It goes without saying that eating together is an incredibly simple way to relax with one another and share ideas. Perhaps some of the most important ideas have come out of sitting and eating. This is not to say that we cracked the play on Thursday evening, but the ability to sit with one another and happily socialise is pretty much what the characters in The Seagull are trying so desperately to do. And of course failing miserably. Good job they’re actors then.