This week Mark responds to questions posed by followers of this blog, and discusses Shakespeare's birthday and rehearsals.
Transcript of Podcast
Greetings to the Rebel Shakespeare Company and the Wellington Shakespeare Society, and thank you for the messages!
Why did you choose to put on Cymbeline?
The reason why I chose Cymbeline was because of the Master of Play, Mike Alfreds. Mike, in the 1980s when I was in my twenties, changed my ideas about acting. He introduced me to different methods and tools for bringing life into my work. Therefore, ever since I became Artistic Director, I have wanted him to work at the Globe. He was available this year, and when I asked him which play he would like to work on, he said that he was keen to do Cymbeline. This was very good as it fitted in with our theme of plays on ancient Britons.
I find Imogen’s imagination admirable; the ways she can express in great detail the world around her and inside her. She has a great ability to empathise with the situation of other characters, even when they are cruel to her in the way that Posthumus is. She displays, as all of Shakespeare’s great heroines do, an enormous ability to be merciful and compassionate. I think that this is a very admirable quality in people, and is very difficult to do when you are attacked and wronged in the way that she is.
If Imogen is the representation of mercy then I think that she does ‘speak’ to present times, as mercy is relevant to all times. I think that there is a huge need for developing our understanding of mercy. What are the right conditions to be merciful? How do you create these conditions?
This is the prime reason that I like to work with Shakespeare’s plays. If someone has no repentance for their actions, then it may be foolish to forgive them, as the person they have hurt may be hurt again. How do you generate remorse or repentance in a person? The few people who I have met in prison hospitals in England, who have spoken about their crimes, are absolutely horrified when they truly realise the other side to what has happened (as they are usually preoccupied with their side of a situation). Posthumus says "I’ll lie against them, curse them and detest them", and then he tries to kill Imogen. However, he then realises what he has done and he feels considerable horror when he is forced to comprehend the other side of the situation. The potential of this realisation is why I am so against the death penalty and it is this potential that can make the outcome of a prison sentence positive rather than negative.
One of the ways to encourage such a realisation is through drama and plays. For this reason I have taken plays into prisons, because it gives people the opportunity to think about the story and see how it relates to their own experiences. It is an indirect and ‘safe’ way of expressing thoughts and feelings.
Shakespeare himself remarks on this, in plays such as Hamlet - when he uses drama to obtain a reaction from Claudius. Shakespeare shows very clearly that the play has been successful in channelling Claudius’ feelings of remorse, as afterwards Claudius tries to pray for forgiveness. Hamlet does not show mercy when he sees Claudius praying, he could have come in and said "you have done something wrong, lets talk about it". Maybe then it might have been a much less tragic play. However, Hamlet, like the rest of the world, is too caught up in vengeance. I feel very ashamed sometimes of the amount of stories that come out of modern theatre and television that promote the acceptability of vengeance. I do not think that vengeance solves anything. I think that this is what prompts the question of Imogen ‘speaking for our times.’ When I have been in the play Much Ado About Nothing, I’ve noticed that very few women have felt any sympathy for Hero who is another merciful character.
Imogen is a very brave woman. You would think that what has happened to her family could not be worse; her mother has died, the two brothers have been kidnapped and nothing has been heard about them for twenty years. She must keep hoping that news will come forward about them. Her father is ravaged with temper-tantrums and rages. He actually imprisons her. It is a very intense household, which would turn many young people into very angry, vengeful, violent and self-destructive people. However, Imogen retains her imaginative soul and courage. She develops a beautiful expression and imagination, maybe because of the imprisonment and pain she has experienced from her family. I think that beautiful situations can emerge out of hard conditions, the way a diamond comes out of the hardest of rocks. I think that Imogen is the soul of the play. Posthumus and Cloten are the egos and consciousness of the play. I am not talking about a ‘soul’ in a traditional Christian sense, as you do not have to be religious to have a feeling of what a soul is. It is that part of us that exists between heaven and earth, between the imaginative spirit and our matter. I agree with the view, "everyman’s duty is the king, but everyman’s soul is his own".
Is Cymbeline Shakespeare’s most radical play?
There is a very good book by the late poet laureate of Britain, Ted Hughes, which is called Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. I think that it is a wonderful book. You can read bits about the different plays. He says that Cymbeline is the first play where Shakespeare tries a new emphasis on a tragic character. Often in plays such as Othello, King Lear, Anthony and Cleopatra, Macbeth and Hamlet the male characters are enraged against women. In the tragedies there is always a moment when these characters realise what they have done, and then, soon after, they die.
In Cymbeline, for the first time, Shakespeare develops a character unlike this in Posthumus. Posthumus first sets out to kill Imogen, the soul of the play. However, in Act V he comes back onto stage searching desperately for death, he changes his clothes to be on the losing side of the war in an endeavour to get himself killed. Eventually he gets himself captured and is going to his execution. The night before the execution he has the chance to repent, when he is in his cell. When he is released he is forgiven and is reunited with his wife. In the tragic sense he should be dead, and so should she.
Many people have found the play to be unbelievable. They thought the end was too fantastic. It has to be played with great belief in order for the end to work and not be funny. In The Winter's Tale the same thing is done with Leontes, a very jealous character, who kills Hermione. However, Hermione comes back to life and forgives Leontes.
In this last phase of Shakespeare’s work, I think that he is trying to tell stories of forgiveness and about the redeeming nature in the universe. He is trying to do this in a ‘heavy’ way, giving the stories as much gravitas as the tragedies have. I think that there is a radical change of pace in his writing. Shakespeare started with the comedies, which have a holy and redeeming aspect to them, and they sometimes include the intervention of God, in the same way that Jupiter comes into Cymbeline. I think the tragedies were influenced by the death of Elizabeth I (as I think that it had a huge effect on Shakespeare). At the end of his life I think that he was trying to create a hybrid form of writing that had the gravitas of the tragedy, a journey that takes the character into hell and back, with the redeeming qualities of a comedy.
How will you be celebrating Shakespeare's Birthday?
On Shakespeare’s birthday we celebrate by reading sonnets in different places in London. This year we went into the Inigo Jones’ Banqueting Hall, where over a third of the plays were performed for the court. It was amazing to think of a play like Macbeth, or many other plays (which talk about the death of kings and the dangers of kings becoming disconnected from their people) being played in front of King James. Sometimes his sons would be present. Many years later, one of his sons (Charles I) was forced to walk out of the window of the room where he would have seen these plays to his execution for taking the very path in his reign that Shakespeare had warned against.
We have currently been working on Act V. We have found that there are so many pieces of information and revelations, that we have developed an exercise. For each complete thought, you say the word ‘beat’ before you say the thought. Then you play out the thought and then you say ‘beat’ before the next one. Everyone else has to react to each beat, and each beat has to be different. You must not fall into the routine of people playing the same rhythm or speaking unnaturally. My character, Posthumus, around line 170-180, says to Iachimo "I saw thou dost…most credulous fool…the grievous murder of thief…anything that is due to all the villains past and being to come". In the ‘beating exercise’ you would say: ‘Beat. I saw thou dost. Beat. I mean most credulous fool. Beat. The grievous murderer. Beat…’ You put the word ‘beat’ to mark the separate points being made. Everyone stays in character, and shows their objectives and what they want in a scene. They should try to react realistically. It might be a little more expressive than usual, but it helps to awaken you to the different possibilities. It is a very good exercise to highlight the potential of a scene.
Another good exercise that we have been doing is on points of concentration. Once you know the basics of a scene, everyone knows what their character wants, and you understand what you are saying, you then concentrate on another character. All the lines are played through this one character. You find that you are torn between what you want and what the character that you are thinking about wants.
These comments are the actor’s thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and change frequently as the rehearsal process progresses.