I found out that I was joining the RSC about a week before the contract
started, so I didn't really have time to think about whether it was the
right thing to do. I knew it would be useful for the CV, I knew my agent
would be pleased, I knew my parents would be relieved that I had a job
they could understand and tell their mates about. In fact, aside from
the weekly wage, one of the best things about joining the company was
being able to give a simple answer to the question 'what do you do?'
Artistically, I expected to be bored and under-used. I imagined prancing about in an expensive costume, playing out the instructions of an uninspiring director to a Daily Mail audience. And in Taming of the Shrew I hammed around, yelling in the audience's faces, wearing a thousand-pound wig (that's cash, not weight), while everyone over-did the knob-gags (it's a comedy...).
Fortunately, Merchant of Venice was directed by Tim Carroll, the only 'mainstream' director I've ever met who knew about experimental work. A fiercely intelligent, funny, geeky fascist who doesn't believe in doing 'readings' of Shakespeare- he just thinks you should say everything as though you mean it, and you'd bloody well better say it iambically (more on that in a moment).
Talented actors are all good at saying stuff in a cool way. It's amazing how hard it is to simply sound as though you mean it. Actors are driven nuts by this problem, and Tim's rehearsal process focused almost entirely on exercises designed to address this. We didn't block anything. There was virtually no set and no props to distract us. We were given permission to do pretty much what we wanted, as long as we spoke to change things, to make the situation better, to affect the other person. We never discussed character, or what the scene 'meant'. We just got in the space together and tried to make the other characters see our point of view. This approach rocked my world. I've previously struggled with conventional acting methods - all that stuff about who your parents are and emotional memory and 'what would my character do'. I hated the wholesale swallowing of Freudian principles, found it boring, and ultimately no use whatsoever in performance. Tim's approach solved a lot of problems for me- it put you in the moment, helped you focus on the scene rather than your performance, and allowed creativity and improvisation. For anyone interested, these techniques are expressed more fully in David Mamet's True and False, or Declan Donnelan's The Actor and the Target.
While Tim's work has influenced my approach to acting generally, his ideas are crucial for actors of Shakespeare. It's so easy to just get caught up in the language. And you nearly always see people approach a speech as just that. Right, I'm now going to soliloquise for a page and a half. Bear with me. You need to find a reason to speak, and that reason cannot simply be that there's another lovely line coming up. I also found his loyalty to verse structure fascinating. Honouring the five stresses of the iambic meter, marking the ends of lines. This was technically challenging - how do you speak in this way without sounding like an iambic robot - but seemed to release the multiple meanings of Shakespeare's words for the ears of the audience, as well as, paradoxically, offering narrative clarity. I'm convinced that the iambic rhythm actually helps people understand what is being said. Moreover, the juxtaposition of naturalism, improvisation and heightened language brought me back to concerns I have only hitherto encountered in experimental work.
It was interesting that of the two shows, Merchant was the one that got the critical whipping. It lacked epic Shakespearean acting (and telly stars). I saw one blog that was appalled that Shylock neither looked nor acted 'Jewish'. Members of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford literally queued up to tell me how much they hated it, while younger audiences seemed to love it. I realised that when you join the RSC you become part of a long-running debate about Shakespeare that is fed by the company's long history and where, of course, the conservatives tend to have the loudest voices. Audiences and critics have very strong personal views about how their favourite plays should be done (based on what Janet Suzman did in 1967...) and you'll have a hard job to change their views. And now, having joined the gang, I'm probably just as opinionated.
The RSC works you bloody hard. It's just as well, because once you've been to the Dirty Duck and Shakespearience nightclub there's not much else to do in Stratford. We worked 10 and 12 hour days for months at a stretch, and when we weren't performing there was a full schedule of workshops to get involved with. I really enjoyed being pushed like this. At the start of the year I struggled to learn the handful of lines that Nerissa has to say. By December, I could learn all 5 women's roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream in the space of a couple of weeks. This put me in good stead for the quasi-military training offered by the visiting SITI company from New York. SITI are approximate contemporaries with the Wooster Group and combine Japanese martial art-style physical training with 'viewpointing', an approach to improvising and stagecraft that gives terminology to the principles I've learned over the years from my own non-narrative theatre work. SITI found the spoiled RSC actors' attitude to hard work hilariously lax. They couldn't believe we turned up 30 seconds before our call, our lines only sort of learned, voices and bodies not warm. I loved their sessions because they used the experimental strategies I enjoy, but their work ethic gave me pause for thought too. They insisted that you respect the stage and take the art of performing seriously, which was probably at the heart of what I took away from the RSC as a whole.
I loved being in a big ensemble for so long, although It worried me that I become so easily institutionalised. (I've always suspected that if I was accidentally sectioned, I would very quickly go with the flow, put my pants on my head and start throwing bricks at visitors.) Now I'm demobbed, I've regained some critical distance and have to conclude that, while I remain excited about Shakespeare's words on the page, I'm still not certain whether I would choose to go and see the plays in the theatre. Michael Boyd, the RSC's artistic director, says that the company is now reaching out to a wider theatrical world, and embracing the idea of ensemble. From my perspective, they have a way to go to make these ideals meaningful. They're still ignorant of the ground breaking work that's right on their doorstep (ehem ehem), and they don't yet practise true ensemble work as I understand it. But it was interesting to be involved in an institution at a point of change, when it's trying to evolve from being the lack-lustre company of the last decade to one that good artists may really want to work with.
To download a PDF from the RSC in which Tim Carroll talks about directing Merchant of Venice click here.