Elliot Cowan (Macbeth) talks about his physicality in Macbeth, choreographing the fight scenes and analysing the play's language.
Time: 12 minutes, 52 seconds
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Transcript of Podcast
In terms of translating that story, I guess, Shakespeare’s language isn’t necessarily entire familiar to everybody; as an actor, can you or how do you use your physicality and body language and movement to also help an audience get the story?
First of all the text can tell you. You go through the text as we did, and you underline bits that are spoken in other people’s dialogue about your character. It might give a reference to how valiant, and how brave and how strong your character is, or how wily or weak or how slovenly or how smelly he is, you know, you take this on as these are details that you just underline and you start sticking to you characterisation, and then you make some observations about the given circumstances of the world and of the scenes that you are enacting and in this case this is medieval Scotland, we live in castles, we ride horses we fight with swords, we wear a certain thing, we keep warm, we keep dry by doing certain things too. So that all gets assimilated by your movement, your body, your attitude.
And then you might observe “hey, I’ve just come from a battle, and I have just survived a massive onslaught by the Norwegians and kicked some serious butt”, so it’s unlikely I would’ve emerged completely unscathed, so why don’t I just start myself with a little carrying and a bit of a wound; even after the gentlest game of rugby I know that you get a dead leg here and there, or a kick in the shins or a scrape across the back and that should be something that’s in some of your body movement, give the audience a sense that you’ve come in from somewhere else, that you’ve had a previous life and in the case of Macbeth that’s battle, but it also suggests that he’s not completely invulnerable, he’s not a man without a skin and without an underbelly that can’t be scraped or prodded, so that’s where I’ve started with him, but then… yeah, latterly when you start seeing stuff, when you start as Macbeth, this alters the frame of one’s demeanour massively, he’s no longer the invincible and powerful physical, intimidating soldier that he is, but somebody that is behaving like a child, a frightened child, hiding beneath a chair, running away, cowering…
I mean, there’s various lines, one point when Macbeth learns that Macduff has been born by caesarean, and this explodes the myth of him being killed by any man of no woman born, he says, you know “Accursed be the tongue that tells me so, / For it hath cow’d my better part of man” (5, 8, 18). That can be referred both literally or metaphorically to his strength within, the better part of man being his resilience and his fearlessness against any other man because of this prophecy or because it’s referring to a physical sort of cowering of his strength and muscularity at that point, and suddenly that gives Macduff an opening to come in with his fighting, and eventually obviously kill him, so those are the clues, and then I guess my training has just helped me, allowed me to remain as relaxed as possible, whilst being also as energised and capable and physical as possible, we’re doing a lot of movement in this in one respect or another, there’s a lot of language being told between me and Lady Macbeth that is physical, deepening our sense of physical attractiveness to one another, our sexual history, our symbiosis in that way, so that we see that get fractured as the play opens up and we become more isolated from one another, and the gestures are fragile, brittle and dismissive as opposed to inclusive and sexual and loving. So yeah, that’s where we’re going physically I suppose.
And carrying on with physical theme, one of the moments I guess where movement becomes required are in the fight scenes. And I’m just fascinated to know how the fight scenes are put together, how they work.
All scenes in Shakespeare have I think, if you study the text closely enough, a physical blueprint running through them, and this is about the movement of people around the stage, ins and outs, exits and arrivals, falling over, kneeling, bowing, scraping, you know, kissing, there are little clues in there that say “the actor might do this now”. Also the way that the lines are just set out and where they sometimes finish before the end of the line, that sometimes tells you where a bit of action is, half lines so called, when there are five beats still to play through in a ten beat line and before somebody else speaks you’re thinking ‘why’s that pause there?’ But if it’s coupled with something like an arrival, or somebody bowing, or somebody coming into the room, or perhaps it’s just before a fight scene starts, you might read that that’s where the swords comes out, that’s where the head goes down, that’s where the boy leaves the room, that’s where somebody takes their first thrust or their first cut, so that’s where you sometimes get to start.
You also have to work out where the power play is, who starts with the upper hand, who wants to fight, who doesn’t want to fight, do they both want to fight, do they both need to fight? In the case of Macbeth and Macduff that’s clearly registered at the beginning, when Macduff comes in and says “Turn, hellhound turn” (5, 8, 3), and Macbeth goes, ‘I’ve avoided thee and I will not fight with you because my soul is too much bloodied with your family already’, so he says ‘no no no, go away’, and Macduff goes, ‘no, I’m going to fight with my sword’, “my voice is in my sword” (5, 8, 7) and he comes driving into Macbeth. And one would assume then that there’s a sort of confidence in the way Macbeth is fighting at that point because he then even says “thou losest labour”, and these are three words at the end of a line of beats that have no other words in them, and for my interpretation that means there’s a fight that’s been going on just before he says that and then it comes to its own pause so Macbeth can say, ‘well, thou losest labour, what the hell are you bothering for? I cannot be harmed by anyone who is of woman born.’ And then Macduff comes back with his new piece of information, and we might imagine then that the shock is such that the tables are turned and Macduff then becomes a stronger fighter because Macbeth is disorientated and afeared now of somebody he didn’t expect ever to meet.
So, we then describe some other story in the fight, and every fight must dictate or articulate a story, as much as the script does itself: you work from A to B to C, then you go back to B because something’s gone slightly wrong, and then you jump to an E, F, G and then suddenly you have a climax that’s H, I, J, K, it’s all over. And it’s a creative opportunity for each one of us and the fight director to kind of work out what this could be, what’s the most effective. But in the case of our fight at the end we really want to make sure that there’s language and physical language in there at the same time and that it’s not just a way of walking on stage, speaking a lot and then having a couple of slashes until somebody gets killed, and then end of story. We’re trying to integrate it, make it more realistic, off the basis of some of the lines that each one of us have, as either attacking lines or as defensive lines, and we put together something, I’m carrying an axe, Macduff is carrying two swords, so different weapons have a different rhythm and tempo to each one. This makes it slightly more interesting as well, and we’ll have certain limitations to our choices, and give us whole new opportunities too, so there’s a lot of range even in the sort of particular skill of sword fighting, or stage fighting.
Yes, it’s just as much telling the story as the lines around it, I guess.
Yeah, yeah, well, you want it to be.
It’s not just a token gesture of a couple of waves of a sword.
No, no. Well, there’s one scene that we’re rehearsing at the moment just before the Macduff fight where I kill Young Seyward, who has a very short role in the play and is real cannon fodder for Macbeth who at this point thinks he is invincible, so this boy comes on and he, with a couple of lazy swipes and cuts of his axe, disposes of Young Seyward, and whilst we’ve been doing this in rehearsal, even though Macbeth is the bad guy, it seems to be getting a few cheers and whoops when I take out the poor, defenceless young man. And I think that’s just because the quality of arrogance that Macbeth has at this time to kind of kill him in a particularly gruesome way, so… yeah, I don’t know whether the audience will feel the same way when we come to show them, but yeah, there are ways of telling different stories with every fight you do.
Having talked around all that, I’d like to finish with actually thinking about the language, and I know at the Globe we have different people, whether in research or giving text advice, I’m interested to know whether you’ve discovered anything interesting or unique or even problematic about Macbeth’s language?
Well, there are always differing opinions, which is something to bear in mind. So, whenever you’re approaching a role like this and people are coming in, very talented, intelligent, well trained and experienced people give you pieces of information and observations. It’s often very very helpful, but ultimately you’re the guy that has to stand up there and do it with your other fellow players and make sure that that’s cohesive and understandable and realistic so that an audience believes it in the moment when you’re doing it. But to unlock some of the more complicated moments it’s definitely been useful to hear what other people feel. Also the discrepancies between various texts give you a sense that there’s no one final answer. There are passages of text that Macbeth has to speak that in one edition may be prose and another in verse, and there are various reasons and opinions as to why this might be the case, and while this play has more prose and more rhyming couplets than some tragedies, which is a pointer, it’s not necessarily the be all and end all, if somebody thinks this is important for this to be observed.
However, Giles Block, who does the verse here, I think is an exceptional resource, and I love talking to him about the text and the play because his own manner and his own knowledge is second to none, so he makes observations which even though I’ve trawled through the text quite in detail myself, you know, it surprised me when he comes up with them, and they may be as simple as ‘have you noticed how many times he uses the word ‘against’ during the play?’ And you go ‘No, I haven’t’. ‘Well, you use it four times, and it’s interesting when you use it because it’s normally when Macbeth is feeling up against it, when he’s got some conflict within him internal that he has to fight with’. And you go, ‘okay, okay’, and you wonder what this might mean and you go away to think about it, but the next time you say that word it normally comes out and resonates with something new. And if you do that in some respects to a great majority of the words then I suppose you’re going to come up with some richer performance than you might have done otherwise.
It’s also significant to know what sort of beliefs that the Elizabethans, the Jacobean folk had in things like God and kingship and the idea of divine right in the case of James I, which was apparently a keen obsession of his, or his understanding, James the First’s understanding of witches, and even some of his misogyny, which Shakespeare perhaps would have known something about. Also as I mentioned earlier the referencing to other wars that are going on at that time and what might be experience in the country’s psyche at that time. And I guess because of this particular production’s fascination with hell it’s good to know about what hell was and what certain things were written about as being hell at the time because they give you some interesting little games and ideas to play around with, and references, particularly for the witches I think where if we just related it to our common experience it might be limited to something more banal and less horrific. Because the hell isn't the same place anymore. It's very much still around in different ways, but...
Yes, so I found that all very good grist to the mill, but ultimately you’ve got to go up there and just be yourself in some weird creative way and carry as much of your own soul into a performance and give it to an audience as best you can so that they are moved to some degree of pity and awe that might live up to the ideals of this tragedy.
I think that’s a good place to end on! Thank you very much for today, that was fascinating! Hopefully we can find out after tech week what it was like moving actually onto the stage and the new challenges that brought.
Yes, that’s fine, if we get that far!
Thank you very much, that was great.