Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Now show me something else…”

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Richard Burton in Hamlet

In 1964, John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a famous stage production of Hamlet, in a collaboration that inspired intense interest, record box office, and mixed reviews. (The story goes that Burton and Peter O’Toole had agreed that they should each play Hamlet under the direction of either Gielgud or Laurence Olivier, with a coin toss deciding who ended up with whom.) In the book John Gielgud: A Celebration, we hear of a surprising piece of advice that the director gave to his actors:

William Redfield, the actor playing Guildenstern, revealed that he and others in the cast were alarmed to find that Gielgud as a director didn’t concern himself with “the play’s circumstances but only with its effects.” Gielgud quoted his old mentor Harley Granville-Barker to them in an attempt to encourage them to pace, shape, and color their performance rather than relying exclusively on circumstance and absolute psychological truth. “Granville-Barker once said to me, ‘You’ve already shown me that—now show me something else.’ It was a wonderful direction for me because I tend to be monotonous. After that, I always made sure that each scene I played had a different color, a new shape. Even the lines should change every few moments or so. If I do one line this way, then the next should be that way, and then the next should change and the next. It’s good to keep the audience off balance, you know—always interested—perhaps even a bit confused.”

Gielgud obviously deserves to be taken seriously, but it still comes off as a peculiar piece of direction. It helps, perhaps, to remember the context. In the early sixties, the influence of Brando, Lee Strasberg, and the Method school of acting—which was nothing if not concerned with “circumstance and absolute psychological truth”—was at its peak. What Gielgud is advocating here is a return to the classic British tradition of fakery, in which a few good tricks of voice, gesture, and mannerism go a long way. As Olivier put it: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” (The two great living masters of this approach are Anthony Hopkins, and, notably, Kevin Spacey, an American who outdoes even his British predecessors when it comes to sheer technical cleverness.) What Gielgud proposes is even more mechanical. In asking that each line reading be a little different from the one before it, he comes precariously close to endorsing the “superficial variety” that the Futurists saw as a feature of the theater of imbeciles:

For instance, to make one act a day, another an evening, another deep night; to make one act pathetic, another anguished, another sublime…Or else have the actors constantly move around from sitting to standing, from right to left, and meanwhile vary the dialogue to make it seem as if a bomb might explode outside at any moment…when actually nothing is going to explode until the end of the act.

Richard Burton and John Gielgud

But it’s important to remember the point of the exercise. Gielgud wants the audience to be “always interested—perhaps even a bit confused,” which is the ideal state for watching a play, particularly Shakespeare. As anyone who has ever seen a bad production of Hamlet can attest, if you aren’t actively engaged by it, all of that rich, overly familiar language has a way of smearing together into one long Elizabethan blur. Gielgud’s approach is designed to keep the audience awake, and also to create the optimum degree of alertness for processing the reversals of the dialogue. Shakespeare uses contradiction as a practical tool: his characters, especially Hamlet, are always questioning and overhearing themselves, and the mood can change drastically within a single line. When Hamlet says “About, my brain!”, he’s only drawing attention to his own rapid twists of emotion and perception. (In many cases, those quick tonal shifts stand for the larger patterns of the drama itself. At the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes switches so unexpectedly from warmth toward his wife and friend to icy jealousy, it sets us up for the even greater contrast between the scenes in Sicilia and Bohemia.) But it takes a certain attentiveness for this to register, and Gielgud’s approach amounts to a kind of training for the audience, so that it becomes more aware of the variety in the text itself.

And like all the best theatrical tricks, it ultimately forces the actor and director to go deeper, until they arrive at the same psychological truth that the Method sought from a different direction. Elsewhere, Gielgud listed the essential qualities of a Shakespearean director:

Industry, patience…sensitivity, originality without freakishness, a fastidious ear and eye, some respect for, and knowledge of, tradition, a feeling for music and pictures, color and design: yet in none of these, I believe, should he be too opinionated in his views and tastes. For a theatrical production, at every stage of its preparation, is always changing, unpredictable in its moods and crises.

This kind of flexibility is crucial for finding the truth of a scene, and the remarkable thing about the tonal experimentation that Gielgud encouraged in his actors is that, when honestly pursued, it leads to the exact mindset that he describes above. You can’t be too dogmatic or opinionated when you’ve been conditioned to try something different each time. Not every experiment pays off, but in the process, you’ve turned yourself into a machine for generating variations, and the best ones survive, in a kind of natural selection, to live on in performance. The result, which proceeds from the outside in, looks a lot like what the Method discovered by going from the inside out. And as long as the result is truthful, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

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