NB: This article appears in Shakespeare Bulletin. Copyright © 2012 Johns Hopkins University Press. This article was first published in Shakespeare Bulletin 30:4 (2012), 560-564. Reprinted with permission by Johns Hopkins University Press.
In the Octagon Theatre’s rehearsal room, the dimensions of the stage were marked out in colored masking tape: a white outer ring showed its edge, entrances and exits; a red ring marked the central playing space; a blue circle denoting the built-up trap was center stage (the theatre’s stage level was elevated for the production, as the Octagon was not built with facilities beneath the stage). David Thacker and his company had been rehearsing for one day over two weeks when I joined them on 7 February, beginning with a week’s prior rehearsal with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in London, commencing on 23 January. On 30 January, the full company had joined them when rehearsals moved to Bolton. On 7 February, just under two weeks of regular rehearsals remained before the technical rehearsal with the first performance scheduled a few days later on 23 February.
The morning began with Thacker arranging blue, padded kitchen chairs in a small circle in one corner of the room. Once the cast was assembled and seated, the day’s work commenced with a textual exercise that began with a variation of a line run. For this, cast members were not allowed to consult their scripts, but Thacker and his DSM, Sophia Horrocks, were on book. The exercise was designed to ensure actors were word-perfect when speaking the text, requiring cast members to repeat lines and review speeches until the text had been cemented within their memories. As Thacker expressed it, the goal was to enable actors to be confident with the words, thus allowing them to be free to find the truth in the moment —something that can be hindered if actors are struggling to remember their lines.
Phase two of the exercise also contained an element of repetition, which reinforced memorization but also introduced technical aspects of performance. Still seated in the circle, Thacker asked his cast again to play the text but this time to pay attention to consonants as they spoke them. As would perhaps be expected, this resulted in a sometimes overelaborate game of exploding “t” and “d” sounds with key words being elongated by the process. The director explained to the cast that this enabled them to drive the action forward through language and—perhaps more importantly—is a technique necessary for performing in the Octagon Theatre’s in-the-round configuration, in which audibility and clarity are paramount as an actor always has her/his back to one section of the audience at all times.
The final portion of this exercise focused on Thacker’s quest for clarity of meaning with the spoken word. Instead of interrupting an actorwhen a word had been mis-remembered (as he had during phase one), there were directorial challenges aimed at fleshing out the specificity of each word and phrase. Thacker also asked the cast to connect with each other through eye contact, suggesting that they include the observer (me) during their sections of direct address (I was expected to participate as much as practically possible as a company member). This was the section of the exercise Thacker referred to as the “acting” portion, which emphasized the fact that phases one and two had been dominated by two technical aspects of performance: memorization and audibility. Thacker later explained that the primary purpose of this part of the exercise was to encourage actors to listen to one another because: “genuine listening involves understanding what your acting partner has said, allowing it to [have its] impact upon you mentally and emotionally, and discovering, for the first and only time, the impulse that makes you deliver your verbal response to what they have said, or not said.” For Thacker, this is: “the Holy Grail of high-quality acting” (personal correspondence).
It was in this final section that the process of layering began, the work that helps to build three-dimensional characters who inhabit a social world, reacting to one another and their environment. To achieve this layering, Thacker sought to: “stimulate the actors’ imaginative understanding” of the text by asking a series of enabling questions (personal correspondence). For example, in parsing out Malcolm’s first speech of the play, Thacker’s detail-oriented approach encouraged the actor to break it down into its constituent elements, addressing each separate thought to a specific individual on the stage. This specificity had the actor first answering his father’s question about the “bloody man,” then turning to the Captain to “hail” his “brave friend.” One key word in this passage became “captivity,” which Thacker pressed the actor on in order to drive home the character’s personal connection to the Captain versus his public proclamation. In the next section of his first five-line block of text, this specificity enabled Malcolm to layer his greeting (“Hail brave friend”) with another tonal palette than the one used in the speech’s first section, creating emotional specificity by varying vocal timbre.
This exercise was repeated for each of the scenes rehearsed and its effect was observable by the change in the way the cast dealt with the verse. The development included a number of moments in which actors worked on understanding and communicating the play’s imagery. For example, once the witches had disappeared after their initial encounter with Macbeth and Banquo, Thacker’s work on specifics yielded from Banquo an astonished: “The earth hath bubbles, as the water has,/And these are of them.” Certainly for this member of the rehearsal audience, the actors’ delivery conjured the image of a bubbling brook of moving water in my mind’s eye, translating Banquo’s utterance into the corresponding visual imagery through the acted word. Thacker’s detailed work on language also enabled the cast to bring out oppositional words embedded in Shakespeare’s rhetoric in ways that communicated their specifics to the audience. Lady Macbeth’s speech at the beginning of 2.2 was a case in point in which she began to play confidently with the pairings of drunk/bold, quenched/fire, etc., juxtaposing a picture of the men’s activity offstage with her account of her own actions.
Sometimes this attention to linguistic detail led to speculation about the interior lives of individual characters. The entrance of Duncan, accompanied by Banquo, into the Macbeths’ castle was one such flight of imagination encouraged by Thacker’s prodding. Responding to the actor’s delivery of “temple-haunting martlet,” Thacker asked if he (Banquo) was interested in ornithology. This developed into a lighthearted riff in which Banquo admitted that he was keen on birds, although Fleance was the member of the family who actively sketched them. The awareness of the natural world seemed to enable the actor to connect with the lines, conjuring the environment for the audience through a combination of body language, gesture, and vocal tone layered over and into Shakespeare’s language. No actor was immune from Thacker’s questioning as even the actress playing Lady Macbeth’s nearly mute gentlewoman was included in the exercise, with queries about the dress Lady Macbeth would be wearing for Duncan’s feast.
When this textual work had been completed to Thacker’s satisfaction, the cast then began to put the play “on its feet,” with only a metal table and a chair for stage decoration. During the ensuing scene work, the di-rector paid particular attention to each actor’s level of physical comfort by reading their body language. This is not, of course, the physical comfort of lounging on a sofa, feet up, with a cup of tea; but rather the actor’s ability to behave naturally in the scenes, comfortable in their own body on stage without any indication of physical awkwardness that can smack of insecurity (or even insincerity) in their (and thus their character’s) actions. For example, in the initial runs of 1.4 (set in a war room), the participants were already on stage as the lights went up. Malcolm stood in front of the central entrance (a vom) with Duncan facing him, impatiently querying his son: “Is execution done on Cawdor?” Thacker asked his actor, “Would it help you if you came in as your father’s speaking?”—an action that was duly tried and then dismissed after two attempts, with Thacker stating: “It looks like a director’s move rather than looking comfortable for you.” The entrance was re-jigged until Malcolm was less awkward with his on stage movements.
Interpretive choices were also a feature of the day, as actors began to build their characters and on-stage relationships with others. These were scrutinized as director and actors experimented with giving weight to particular moments within the play. Thacker asked his two leads if they had given thought to how the daggers (plural, there were two of them in rehearsal) would be disposed of during the duologue between the eponymous couple after the murder. Thacker also allowed moments to develop from actorly exploration and interpretation, as when Duncan proclaims Malcolm his official heir. This experimentation took the form of a pause in the dialogue as Duncan bent over his War Room table, considered one of the papers that lay on it, signed it with a flourish and displayed it to his assembled courtiers, before officially presenting to Malcolm the document on “whom we name hereafter/The Prince of Cumberland” (1.4.39–40). The actor was thus able to develop stage business relevant to the text that helped him to communicate the text’s nuances to the audience, giving visual as well as verbal weight to this important moment in the story.
One scene that seemed to pose problems for the company was the discovery of Duncan’s murder in 2.3. During the earlier work on the text they had done while seated, the heightened emotions required of the action seemed to be arrived at too quickly for the director’s satisfaction, who wanted his cast to concentrate on the storytelling (“Tell me, tell David,” he said to one). Thacker stated that the verse was capable of conveying the emotion of the scene without needing embellishment. What Thacker seemed to want were understated performances that—crucially—were not emoting, but instead were grounded in emotional honesty rather than an actors’ technique. When the cast began experimenting in staging this scene, some actors reverted to the emoting with which they had begun their seated rendition. Thacker intervened once again, this time not with questions but with a naturalistic acting approach, telling them: “You don’t have to work so hard” in wringing emotion out of Shakespeare’s lines. He also urged them to pause and think about: “what it’s like when it happens to you. When you find out someone’s dead, it’s quite shocking.” Thacker also urged his actors to: “find a way of using authentic emotion” in reacting to the news that Duncan had been murdered. As an exercise, he brought the three Lords into a tight circle and had them communicate their lines to each other in a whisper, a whisper that was inaudible to all but the intimate group (again, this was about the actors communicating to each other). This was perhaps the most difficult scene I observed being rehearsed and it felt, on day 7, the least polished.
This relatively early rehearsal of David Thacker’s Macbeth continued in the same pattern, with objectives and staging mulled over, worked on, repeated, tried in a slightly different way throughout the morning and afternoon. What most characterized the day’s work was an absolute commitment to both ensuring the actors knew precisely what their lines meant, and to urging them towards an honest, emotional connection with each other and their audience that was truthful and not manufactured. Although actors and director discussed their individual and collective motivations scene by scene, what was not at any time a subject of the conversations was what contemporary Shakespearean production has termed the “concept.” While the design and staging of the final piece undoubtedly contributed to audiences’ receptions of Thacker’s Macbeth, on this day, in the rehearsal room, the focus was unequivocally upon bringing Shakespeare’s text to life through the humanity of the actors, their voices, bodies, intellects and emotions.
Thacker, David. Personal correspondence. April 2012.