This week London Editor Louie Woodall is in Stockholm with Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare ensemble ‘Passion in Practice’ to cover their unique production of Pericles in Original Pronunciation (OP) at the Berwaldhallen theatre. Here, he reports on their second full day in rehearsal.
Mastery of the spoken language of Shakespeare alone is not enough to produce a truly memorable performance. An understanding of the physical vocabulary of his characters is also essential. Crystal’s ensemble devotes a long time in rehearsal perfecting this latter discipline through a unique physical exercise inspired by Complicité, a French theatre company.
On paper, it sounds bizarre. Each actor balances a bamboo stick or pine rod on their fingertips, allowing each bend and sway to conduct them in a whirligig journey across the stage. In practice, though, it’s bewitching to watch. The actors twist and revolve around each other as if in a dance, their whole bodies moving in concert with the sticks in their hands- sometimes crouching low, sometimes extending to their full heights, sometimes lying prone with the wood suspended millimetres off the floor. This exercise, as I come to discover, serves a dual purpose. Not only does it help the actors warm up, it allows them to tune into their fellow actors’ physicality and gain an appreciation of how they move around the stage.
After this initial period of ‘playing,’ the stick work takes on a more practical function in nurturing character development. The actors transpose their character identity on top of their movement and interact with one another, with the sticks serving as visible indicators of the relationships they share. The movements become more distinctive and deliberate as each actor becomes immersed in their own character. Some are balletic, others stomping. Pericles moves boldly, Marina daintily. After a time, each actor has produced a unique library of physical vocabulary they can apply to their performance.
The ensemble during movement rehearsal
Where the sparks really fly is when two actors have competing ideas of their characters’ relationship and have to negotiate a shared understanding without the use of words. In the movement rehearsal, the sticks have to do all the talking.
“It informs the dynamic with the other people that you’re in scenes with, [and] it’s interesting to see how things can emerge solely from the force between you,” explains Joan Walker, who plays Dionyza and elder Thaisa.
“Working with Owen [playing Cleon, Dionyza’s husband], my characterisation is that she treats him quite badly and would actually leap at the chance to get rid of him. Using the stick [offers] a clear way of putting him down and physically dominating him,” she adds.
The stick work is also used to inform the subtext of those relationships afforded scant on-stage time by Shakespeare. It could be tempting to gloss over these bit part stories in favour of the more visible dynamics of the principals, but Crystal’s ensemble doesn’t go down this route. Every relationship, no matter how small, is fleshed out throughout the course of the movement rehearsal so as to “build out the world of the play,” as Will Sutton, playing Simonides, explains.
For example, Joan Walker’s Dionyza has discovered through the course of her stick work that her character is having an affair with Leonine- her servant and the would-be murderer of Marina. This relationship was artfully drawn in rehearsal by the two actors using the sticks to flirt and caress one another. At one point Cleon even became entrapped between the two of them, visually highlighting the complexity of the three-way relationship.
This energy is then transposed to the ‘true’ rehearsal, adding a layer of subtlety to the performance that an audience may not consciously be aware of, but that will enhance their experience nonetheless.
Alex Boxall, playing a number of roles in Pericles, sums up the benefits from an actor’s perspective: “The stick work informed the work that I did in a way that I now know no other rehearsal techniques could or can. I found things organically which very rarely if ever happens in a normal rehearsal room [and] I found things I didn’t expect which is always wonderful.
“When you let the work inform the text and inform characters, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities”.