Lovers and Liars : A David Garrick Double Bill
INFLUENCES AND INSPIRATIONS:
Throughout our production, one of the key considerations has been the performance style we use. In our research, we have developed a set of different – yet stylistically linked – influences and inspirations that have helped us to find this. The first of these influences is, naturally, Garrick’s own performance style. We have been especially intrigued by what has been described by Peter Thomson as, “the Garrick reformation, which had placed acting, particularly comic acting, in closer touch with ‘real life’.” (2007: p.4) In this regard, “his career marks a transition from an insistently aural theatre […] to a primarily visual one” (p.3) From this, we have begun to grow an understanding of how Garrick performed on stage, and we have been aiming to incorporate this combination of a move toward “‘real life'” (p.4) and a greater use of comic physical stylisation. Part and parcel with this, we have also aimed to recreate “His legendary energy, scarcely containable on stage” (p.7). This has aided us in all of the characterisations, and it has especially been invaluable with the character of Sharp – originally portrayed by Garrick himself – whose lies lead to situations that require such a “legendary energy” (p.7).
The aforementioned increasingly physical nature of Garrick’s theatre came in part from the continued influence of Commedia dell’arte, and so we have also taken this distinctive performance style into account. The stock characters and improvisational, inventive quality of this theatre-style can clearly be seen in The Lying Valet, especially when also considering Miss in her Teens, which uses some similar character types in a different plot. Again, the character of Sharp stands out in this sense, as the ‘hungry servant’ type has been present in many plays from different periods, including the work of farceurs such as Molière, who created the similar character of Scapin. This research into the inventive and physical Commedia is something I am keen to reinvigorate in the cast over the final few weeks.
From our awareness of Commedia, we felt there was a link with more contemporary clown, especially with regards to the success of variety and the music hall in the years leading up to the twenties. In order to more precisely explore the sort of improvisational and audience-inclusion style of clown, we have looked at contemporary practitioners like John Wright. In his book, Why Is That So Funny?, he states, “Through laughter, we establish a reciprocal relationship with the audience” (2006: p.5). As such, it is made clear that any kind of comedy relies upon the same shared experience with an audience that is inherent in clown. He elaborates on this shared complicity of humour, stating, “To be effective on stage, you’ve got to cultivate complicity with yourself, complicity with a partner and complicity with an audience.” (p.56) From this, the inspiration of Commedia comes into its own, as those performers had to be able to think fast (“complicity with yourself”), share the improvisation with their fellow players (“complicity with a partner”), and still maintain that crucial connection with the people watching (“complicity with an audience”) in order to create a strong comic effect.
Again, we found a new connection developing from this work. Considering performance style and our chosen setting of the twenties, we became aware of Charlie Chaplin and other silent film performers. Such actors used a broad yet precise performance style that was instantly readable, and most were influenced by the variety and music hall traditions – which in turn were a repercussion and continuation of the ‘evening of entertainment’ in the eighteenth century. They would also often share their play by looking to camera at key moments – another example of “complicity with an audience” (2006: p.56), albeit via a different medium. We have been researching these physical comedians, considering what routines we can take inspiration from.
From Chaplin and his contemporaries, there came an awareness of other styles that were specific to the twenties. This awareness incorporated both film and theatre of the period, as well as the actors and actresses who performed in both mediums. In this regard, we have explored male stars, such as Ivor Novello, Rupert Brooke, and Jack Buchanan, most of whom, we have found, cultivated an air of more feminine masculinity and softness. Jack Buchanan, as well, often portrayed debonair-yet-foolish upper class characters, and so is a strong inspiration for the further development of the character of Gayless. For the women, we have also discovered strong female stars such as Betty Balfour, Joan Crawford, and Jessie Matthews – considering Melissa – and Gracie Fields – with the maidservant Kitty in mind. We have also been aware of the theatre of the time, researching Noël Coward and Ben Travers, among others, considering the ways in which they portrayed the period through theatre. Theirs was a theatre of (primarily) verbal wit, and it has been interesting to consider how we might blend this with the physical demands of Garrick’s writing.
Finally, another source of inspiration has been contemporary representations of twenties Britain. By exploring the ways in which more modern film, television, and theatre practitioners represent this period, we have attempted to harness the understanding that such sources will have spread throughout modern audiences. The television programme Downton Abbey (created by Julian Fellowes), and the film of Atonement (directed byJoe Wright), are both examples of such representation. These two sources, though both fictional, have been most useful in their commentary on the tension between the upper and serving classes in twenties Britain. We have considered also how the men and women behave and hold themselves, bringing elements of the portrayed etiquette into our characterisations.
A great deal of progress has been made so far, and with all of these invaluable sources of inspiration, we are equipped to finesse and develop the production over the next few weeks.
Thomson, Peter. (2007). ‘Acting and Actors from Garrick to Kean’. In Jane Moody and Daniel O’Quinn (eds.). The Cambridge Companion to British Theatre 1730-1830. Cambridge University Press: UK.
Wright, John. (2006). Why Is That So Funny?: A Practical Exploration of Physical Comedy. Nick Hern: London.
PERFORMING AND CREATING AN EARLY MODERN FARCE:
Leslie Smith writes in Modern British Farce that one of the ‘functions’ of Farce is to establish the ‘vraisemblable’. That is to say, to establish what is ‘likely’ within the specific social decorum of a play; what is ‘permitted to happen in a work of art’ ? (pg1 1989). When two characters from the same social class who are eligible for marriage exist within a farcical play, the audience tend to expect that a situation through which they will marry, no matter how unlikely, will almost inevitably occur. This kind of inevitability within a play, especially one that is intended to be a comedy, runs the risk of being perceived as predictable by the audience. The challenge that faces the cast and the directorial team in the production of a farcical play is the creation of a controlled chaos; an accelerating disaster that sweeps around the stage that is both inevitably resolved whilst excitingly unpredictable in its course and nature.
Smith also states that Farce ‘..depends on the principles of repetition and accumulation. Which in turn weakens the resistance of the audience, and make their laughter easier to trigger off’ (Smith 1989, p. 208). This week we have been exploring characterisation techniques and states of tension. Techniques such as Chekhov’s ‘Imaginary Body’, under Luke De Belder’s direction, have allowed us to begin creating distinct and consistent behavioral states of the main characters. By defining and drilling the actors within these states, we are laying the foundations that are necessary for rapid, farcical and (fingers crossed) comical changes in physical and vocal performance on stage.
These speedy changes are not only vital in maintaining the momentum of the farcical machine as a whole, but also in enabling Sharps lies to become physical and, thus, facilitating a dynamic embodiment of the characters and events that he creates. I would argue that the crucial human nature needed to be present for farce to function is that the characters must perceive danger and react to avoid it. Although Sharp is not in any immediate physical danger from an aggressor, the threat of poverty and destitution is however very real to him. Our understanding of the characters motivation, such as Sharps desperation to feed himself, will be crucial to rehearsals in the coming weeks. Without at least one of the four fundamental ‘F’s’ of human desire (Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting or Fornication), a farce will not ‘rebel against convention and morality’ (Smith 1989, p. 5) to the extent necessary to impel the plot forwards.
On first reading The Lying Valet, it was the play’s witty dialogue, fast-paced plot and vivid characters that drew me into wanting to direct. Having studied farce last year, and having such a versatile space in which to perform, the entire group was excited to begin and everyone has had bold ideas about how to bring the text to life. In order to strongly inform any decisions, we have thoroughly investigated the script – a technique advocated by almost every director I researched. Di Trevis succinctly explains why such work is vital, advising,
” Find out what the writer is trying to tell you before you set yourself up as better than the writer. Otherwise, you will be subject to that bane of a director’s life – the good idea without proper foundation in the text.” (Trevis 2012, p. 45)
From the start, I’ve felt that the themes explored by Garrick in this play – the tensions between wealth and poverty, the difficulties of courtship, the growing strength of women, and the relationship between master and servant – provide a great scope for potentially locating it within different periods. I felt that modern day would be one such relevant period, especially with the financial crises of recent years and the issue of Gayless’ poverty. An even more potent connection could be made with 1920s Britain, a time and place where society was undergoing tremendous shifts. I felt this period lends itself well to becoming the setting of our story. During that economic crisis the estates of the upper classes were beginning to crumble as the lower classes gained more strength. The older generations of the social elite were striving for traditional values, while their younger counterparts were seeking new ways of living, spurred on by the growing freedom in the United States at the same time. Considering the characters of Melissa and Kitty, women especially were facing a new emancipation, but there was, again, a tension in the upper classes for young women to live by traditional norms and values. I felt there were parallels between Gayless, who has lost all his money, yet is desperately trying to conceal this to protect his reputation, and the fate of many during the depression which started in 1929.
Another element of The Lying Valet that I am keen to explore is the potential for physical comedy. We have learned that characters’ physicality was often used to provide humour in the farces of the 18th Century, inspired by the previous influence in Europe of Commedia dell’ Arte. In consideration of the 1920s, such a stylised and precise tradition suggested another strong link in the physical comedy of film stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd; all of whom, in their turn, took inspiration from the vaudeville and variety styles of theatre which in turn, are rooted in 18 Century theatre. I have been wary about such a connection as experienced directors warn of focusing too early on a theme. Brigid Larmour says, ‘I don’t tend to start with the grand scheme and then stick to that; I tend to look at the details and the contradictions and evolve the grand scheme out of that’ (Manfull 1999, p. 47). However, as we began the rehearsal and design process, I saw more and more justifications for this decision. Jan Bee Brown, a well respected theatre designer, came to work with us on our early concepts and, upon her first reading of the play, she had also pictured it set in the twenties. Further research into the period told us that the 1920s was a time where farce was once again in vogue in the theatre, with bedroom farces with the likes of Aldwych Farces written by Ben Travers, receiving positive reviews and attracting large audiences.
The Miss in her Teens production team have decided to set their play in its original period (mid 1700s). By updating our production, we feel we will provide variety, making the two plays further engaging, whilst highlighting the theatrical links between the periods and the themes of love and courtship presented in both plays. There is still further research to be done into the differences and similarities of the socio-economic climates of each period, and working with the other group to ensure a smooth transition across the ages.
Rehearsals have been going extremely well so far. Like the design team, we began with detailed script work. Due to the difficulty of the language and Garrick’s intricate wordplay, we began by ensuring we understood every word in the play; the meanings behind certain lines and the possible interpretations. We then moved on to reading the play and picking out clues about the characters: what factual information is provided for us by Garrick, and what is merely implied? We began by playing a lot of improvisation and clowning games to get the actors attuned to comic timing and a less naturalistic acting style.The most valuable lessons we have learnt from the practitioners we have researched are the importance of complicity (amongst actors and between actors and the audience), as well as the value of getting things wrong or allowing oneself to experiment and appear foolish in rehearsals. This allows for the development of natural movement before anything starts to be set in stone. I feel this is vitally important as the rehearsal process benefits ‘from the freedom to explore, to play and to fail’ (Manfull 1999, p. 5). Many of the directors whose work I have studied,
“believes that the dynamic of finding the physical action through the rehearsal process is far more interesting, creative and productive than moving figures around a model box” (Manfull 1999, p. 56)
This process, I find, is yielding more natural, smooth, and spontaneously comic movement. I intend to explore the effect of some of the exercises we are using in future blogs.
Manfull, Helen. (1999). Taking the Stage. Methuen Drama: London.
Trevis, Di. (2012). Being A Director. Routledge: Abingdon, Oxon.