Two buddies: Chris and me

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Two buddies: Chris and me


Chris hat einen tollen Artikel über Shakespeare geschrieben. Und er ist nicht nur gut in der Theorie, er ist auch einer der besten Shakespeare-Schauspieler, die ich jemals gesehen habe. Ich bin mächtig stolz auf ihn

Shakespeare: Our Contemporary

Not of an age, but for all time…

50 years ago the world celebrated Shakespeare’s 400th birthday. His plays were everywhere, theatres were packed, and Jan Kott’s collection of essays and theatre reviews published under the title, Shakespeare our Contemporary, was all the rage among actors and directors. What a remarkable notion! The four hundred-year-old Bard could finally be viewed in terms of a world we knew and understood! “No more masterpieces!” Antonin Artaud, the father of the Theatre of the Absurd had shouted, and at last the day had come! However, the majority of those who held up Jan Kott’s book as their revolutionary manifesto hadn’t actually read it. They’d simply co-opted the title, granting them license to butcher Shakespeare’s texts as raw material to serve their agit-prop political and anti-literary ends.

The play’s the thing…

Following the devastation World War II had left upon his native Poland, Kott discovered Shakespeare’s “mirror” in the timeless humanity of the theatre. It wasn’t that the works he witnessed had been de-constructed and re-invented, but that these time-honored texts no longer appeared distant or inaccessible in the wake of war. The directors hadn’t found a need to barrage the public with ideological concept, but left Shakespeare’s language and characters speaking explosively for themselves. And this revelation spread across Europe, ushering in a whole new era of Shakespeare production; most notably with Peter Hall’s newly-created Royal Shakespeare Company that grew out of his love of Beckett, Pinter, and the Theatre of the Absurd.

What’s past is prologue…

Shakespeare informs everything we do in the theatre – everything that has come before, as well as after – back as far as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. No one speaks Ancient Greek any longer; even the plays at the National Theatre of Greece have been translated into Modern Greek. In English, we have come to know Oedipus, Agamemnon, Electra and Medea through translations heavily influenced by the language of Shakespeare. Though he himself spoke little Latin and less Greek, he is, overwhelmingly, the most produced playwright in the world. His works transcend the boundaries of language and culture.

Like guilty creatures sitting at a play…

Live theatre holds remarkable power. Each member of an audience comes with an individual set of experiences, and it is our job as actors to connect with each and every one of the public individually. There is no fourth wall. That is a myth. The audience knows exactly where they are – they paid far too much for their seats, never mind the cost of dinner, parking, and baby-sitters. Like a football game – taking place solely on the field – spectators are focused on the ball, on the play-by-play, not by what’s happening on the sidelines. What’s more, Shakespeare lets his characters call their own time-outs: the soliloquy. Hamlet steps out of the game to comment on the dramatic action. He does not speak to himself; rather, he speaks directly to the fans, bringing them up to date on the state of play. We call that shared experience – how cool, how powerful, is that! And no playwright gives us such a remarkable skill-set like Shakespeare. Just as these skills will effectively serve the plays of Miller, Albee, O’Neill, and Williams, they certainly enrich those of the ancient Greeks, Moliere, Shaw, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Goethe.

To hold, as ‚twere, the mirror up to nature…

The inherent ambiguity of “Hamlet” is a continual challenge for actors and directors, and no two performances are at all alike. Yes, we may prefer one Willy Loman over another, but Miller’s salesman is always essentially the same. However, an actor with Shakespeare under his belt can bring far more shading and insight to his modern roles through the invaluable experience of standing virtually naked upon an empty stage with only language to clothe his character, the scene. Theatre, like it or not, is primarily a literary medium. And all the dazzling visuals in the world will not color a bloodless performance. Think of the fourth act scene in “King Lear” when Edgar disguised as a madman leads his blinded father, Gloucester, up the hill to the cliffs of Dover. He describes the landscape below in detail and steps back, leaving his father to hurl himself onto the rocks below. Gloucester falls. The audience gasps. And yet, the empty stage is flat. A moment straight out of Beckett. Has he fallen to his death? Not at all. But the spectator is as convinced as the blind old man that he has. And Edgar, in a new accent, gets his father back on his feet.

To stop our way upon this blasted heath…

Inspired by Kott’s essay, “King Lear” or “Endgame,” Peter Brook, perhaps the most celebrated of post-War British directors, writes: “Give me any empty space, and I can make it a bare stage.” His 1962 “Lear” with Paul Scofield at the RSC in London is still the clearest and most vivid production of the play I have ever witnessed, standing in stark contrast to the fustian British productions so common at the time, its bleak theatrical landscape warning the spectators of the nuclear age to come. As devastating, was the 1987 production by the Rustaveli Theatre of Soviet Georgia with Ramaz Chkhikvadze. In the hands of director Robert Sturua, the play became a startling echo of Kott’s writings a quarter of a century before. It leapt off the stage, grabbing spectators by the throat, daring them to avert their eyes. Chkhikvadze was well-known for his Azdak in Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle” and for “Richard III.” But nothing prepared me for his Lear, as he howled at the storm, and brought the world crashing down around him on the eve of the Soviet Union’s demise.

These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits…

The author, the actor, and the audience are the three indispensable elements of the theatre – what 17th playwright Lope de Vega called “two boards, two trestles, and a passion.” A hard pill to swallow, but the actor is not at the center, not the creator in the theatrical chain. That distinction lies solely with the author and with the audience and its imagination. Our sacred responsibility as actors is that of interpreter. We are creative only by default. For no one cares how we feel or whether we are truly moved; only if the audiences itself is moved. That’s what the public paid for; and that is why the author requested their hearing. And, in no playwright is this clearer than in Shakespeare. If we play the messenger well, it is then – and only then – that we can count ourselves creative.

If you speak, you must not show your face…

In Shakespeare, there is no subtext – at least, not in the way we have come to know the term in the modern theatre. Shakespeare never met Sigmund Freud. So, we must take the man at his word. Where David Mamet will use a single four-letter expletive to sum up a character’s frustration, Shakespeare will write as many as forty lines to express it. To be convincingly “in the moment”an actor cannot possibly sustain Mamet’s mono-syllabic outburst for all those lines! The audience would quickly lose interest. Think of it this way: music travels at the speed of light; lyrics, at the speed of sound. Emotion will always reach the audience long before the words. The forty lines collectively stand for the single flash of emotion. Hamlet sees the waiting Ophelia, and he launches into the most famous and controversial soliloquy of all time: To be or not to be… Is he weighing suicide at this crucial moment in the play, when he has already arranged with the players to catch the conscience of the King? Or does he find himself confronted with an innocent Ophelia trapped in the machinations of the King to unmask his madness?

The fiend that lies like truth…

Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, scattered across the floor, in order to see the picture we must assemble all the various pieces into one whole. Shakespeare wants to audience to hear his lyrics, not listen to the accompanying melody. Which is precisely the reason Stephen Sondheim writes un-hummable tunes. A past master of this concept, he wants the listener to hear the intricacies of his words, not comfortably ride the wave of the melody. A difficult concept for a contemporary actor, confused about the nature of Truth. “Theatre is all a bloody lie,” said Olivier, “remarkably like truth.” Exactly right. It is the audience and its collective experience that makes the truth we experience in the theatre; not the actor alone. It is the audience that assembles the pieces of the puzzle. As sex is not a spectator sport, neither is the theatre. Remember: if you show your face, you must not speak.

The rest is silence…

Perhaps I was just lucky. Perhaps it was my background as a musician. But from the outset, I was intrigued by the similarity of Shakespeare and Pinter. As a young director, I spent a year on “Hamlet” and “The Caretaker,” examining how each of those works communicated through its language – one with a plethora of words, the other with the sound of silence. Rhythm and timing were key to both writers, asking that attention must be paid, without ever demanding their audience to do so.

The wheel has come full circle…

Today, fifty years later, we have embarked upon a new millennium, and twenty-first century man finds himself fixated upon the future, insensible to the knowledge of his past. But, lest our currents turn awry, we now need more than ever to re-examine not just who we are, and who we may be – but, most importantly, who we were. Shakespeare our contemporary is there to remind us of what we stand to lose, before we can even dream of what the future may or may not hold. “King Lear”or “Endgame”? That is the question. As actors we need only listen to our hearts…beating as one with the audience…with the author… 2014 Written exclusively for “The Soul of the American Actor.”

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.


CHRISTOPHER MARTIN is the founder of Classic Stage Company and the Alliance of Resident Theatres/NY. In his two decades as CSC’s Artistic Director, he mounted nearly 100 productions in rotating rep – including “Faust I and II”, “Peer Gynt,” “Moby Dick,” “The Hollow Crown Trilogy,” Yeats’ “Cuchulain Cycle,” “The Oedipus Cycle” and “The Oresteia,” as well as major works by Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Moliere, Pinter, and half the plays of Shakespeare – before moving on to direct, design, and compose for State and National Theatres abroad. As an actor he has played Shakespeare’s Richard II, Falstaff, Prospero, Shylock, Antony, Brutus, King John, Duke Vincentio, Pompey, Oberon, Macbeth, Claudius, Polonius, and Hamlet; Melville’s Ishmael and Ahab; Moliere’s Don Juan and Alceste; as well as both Marlowe and Goethe’s Faust. In America, he has taught theatre at NYU, Fordham, and at Berlin’s Ernst Busch Academie in Berlin, and mentored in France under Roger Planchon at the Theatre National Populaire. Director and musical arranger of the 2012 all-star concert of the Benny Andersson, Tim Rice, and Bjorn Ulvaeus “Chess,” he is currently engaged in a pair of novels inspired by his experiences abroad, and teaches Shakespeare and Advanced Text Analysis/The Modern Classics at HB Studio.

“Above all, you must remain open and fresh and alive to any new idea.” – Laurence Olivier“>RESO


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