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“All I have seen … are wonders”:n11334
Directing Brome.

Brian Woolland
1Working with Brome’s plays over a period of nearly four years, I often found myself wondering about my own role in the workshops. The brief was challenging and highly unusual, if not unique. From the outset it posed fascinating questions about the function of the director. Although I brought to the work extensive experience of directing theatre and running numerous theatre workshops with young people and adults, I had never undertaken anything quite like this. Directors often come to a play with a ‘vision’, embarking on a rehearsal process with a strong sense of how the play works for them and with an ‘interpretation’ of it. In some cases that interpretation may well be an imposition on the text, but even directors with the lightest of touches, who approach rehearsals as a process of genuine exploration, know what has drawn them to the play; they are likely to want to share their own responses to it, hoping that realising it in the theatre will reveal these aspects to others. Here, in the Brome Project, it was clear from the outset that interpretation, in the sense of a clear directorial line, was not only inappropriate, but highly undesirable. The brief was to tease out possibilities, with the emphasis on plurality of meanings, and to make the processes of exploration and discovery visible.2Although my method as a director is to try to avoid imposing predetermined interpretations on any given text, I do seek clarity in narrative lines, structure and characterisation. And that necessarily demands that I make choices between possible meanings. But whilst that need to avoid directorial interpretation was initially difficult, it was ultimately both liberating and revealing — not least because of the wider issues it raised about the business of directing. During the course of the workshops I frequently found myself returning to the question of what this particular process revealed about the role of the director. It became evident that seeing the director as interpreter was only inappropriate if limited to the narrow sense of bringing a ready-formed interpretation to the workshop process. In a broader sense, the director needs to be an attentive and an astute reader — of both the written text and the evolving performances of actors. Whereas in a rehearsal process leading towards theatrical production, the director is a co-ordinator, creating coherence between elements of performance and design, between the visual and the aural, establishing rhythms and exploring meaning, in the workshops for the Brome project the co-ordination was between actors, editors and the texts themselves. The following video clip from a workshop devoted to Act 1, Scene 1 of The Jovial Crew, exemplifies this relaxed, open interaction between actors (Alan Morrissey as Springlove and Hannah Watkins as Oldrents), editors and director. . The clip starts with Hannah making a suggestion about the relationship between her movement and an aside (both picking up from an earlier note given to her by myself). This leads to an editor (Michael Leslie) making a reflective comment about a detail of vocabulary and then on to thoughts about the cultural and historical context. Some actors might find such open discussion distracting or even threatening. That Hannah and Alan evidently relish it is a measure of their confidence in the focused contributions of the editors and in the process itself.3It may not be customary academic practice to write in the first person, but as is already apparent, this essay is as much about a personal journey as it is about the practice of directing; a personal journey of discovery in which I found myself not only exploring the texts but finding that my understanding of the business of directing was constantly challenged and enriched. One of the great strengths of the project has been this sense of interaction: between editors and actors, actors and audiences, between those involved with the project and the texts themselves; and between the personal and the professional. As we have got to know Brome better, we have grown to appreciate not only the stagecraft and the technique, but also the warmth and humanity of the plays themselves. This has been a truly theatrical collaboration. Actors often expressed delight at being in a workshop situation where they were actively encouraged to experiment and to explore a variety of ways of approaching a given text; where they could consult with experienced editors; and where they were themselves consulted by editors. If actors new to the project initially felt slightly intimidated by working in an environment where they had an audience of academics from their very first read through, they rapidly learnt to use this audience as a resource to be celebrated. And if, early in the process, I too experienced anxious moments in advance of the workshops, I came to recognise that these were healthy concerns rooted in my desire to do justice in the time available to the richness of the material we were working with and to honour the extraordinary range of expertise and experience we could draw on in the workshop situations. On an average workshop day, we regularly tackled as many as six scenes or extracts from scenes, usually from two different plays, and occasionally from as many as four.The beginnings of a journey4One learns from directing any text, but my experiences of directing Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass, The Magnetic Lady and Epicoene were particularly valuable preparations for directing Brome, whose plays contain frequent allusions to Jonson’s comedies: plot lines, comic situations, structural devices and characters such as Cockbrain in Covent Garden Weeded, who not only claims for himself the mantle of Justice Overdo from Bartholomew Fair but even uses Overdo’s vocabulary in claiming that he will weed out ‘enormities’ from the Garden.5But although Brome may often be thought of as one of the ‘Sons of Ben’, and he undoubtedly made good use of what he had learnt from his former mentor, his is an eclectically self-reflexive theatre, containing numerous intertextual references to plays with which he expects his audience to be familiar; alluding to Shakespeare, to Webster, to Marlowe, to Middleton and Rowley as often as he does to Jonson. As Michael Leslie argues in his Introduction to The New Academy, “not only does he (Brome) choose topics that are live and under discussion when the play is written, he seizes upon aspects of the drama and other literary work clearly most interesting to his contemporaries” (see paragraph 11). In that Introduction, Leslie explores the ways in which The New Academy draws on and diverges from Epicoene and Every Man in his Humour. I leave it to my colleagues on the editorial board to provide further concrete evidence of this, but I suspect that a close examination of the dating of Brome’s intertextual references could prove a useful way of gauging the popularity of revivals of plays from earlier in the century. As a director coming fresh to the work of Richard Brome, what I found more significant and more helpful than the specific Jonsonian reference points, however, was a more general familiarity with the way that Jonson creates theatrical rhythms, controls structure, generates tonal ambiguities and, above all, the ways in which he acknowledges and plays with the theatre audience. One of the many ways that Brome does this is precisely through the intertextual references: as, for example, when Cockbrain tells Rooksbill that he is going to “find out all the enormities” . This stirs memories and raises expectations. The plotting becomes a game in which the audience is an active participant. Raising expectations positions us as audience members in relation both to character and to developing narrative.6Peter Barnes, the playwright, director and adapter of several of Jonson’s comedies, asserted that ‘On stage, his seeming heavy, clotted verse unfolds like a Japanese paper flower in water. It is a wonder and a mystery. He works in the theatre. In the end it is the only thing that matters.’n11335 Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with Barnes’s conviction that Jonson ‘works in the theatre’, and that it is indeed a ‘wonder’, I do not share his sense that there is such mystery about this. Jonson works so well in the theatre because he is acutely aware that an audience is an essential part of the meaning-making process. Bringing that understanding of Jonson’s theatre and with it the confidence that what might sometimes appear clumsy and overwrought on paper had theatrical qualities which would appear when worked with an ‘audience’, provided excellent preparation for working with Brome.Methodology7At this point it is worth giving an account of the methodology which we developed to encourage the collaborative process of meaning-making at every stage of the process and to stimulate, during the workshops themselves, the interaction between actors and audience.8In advance, I talked with the editors individually about the scheduled scenes, asking them to identify the questions they wanted addressed through the workshops. These questions necessarily focused on what the workshop might reveal that could not be determined from the written word. Many of the chosen extracts demanded investigations of character, shifts of power between characters and issues of tone in performance. With Brome, however, there was often an interesting inflection to this in that the focus was frequently on the performance of character, of identity. Given the frequency of disguise plots in Brome, this was not unexpected. But the follow-up questions, which often emerged in the workshops themselves, were more surprising: for whom is this performance of character intended, and what effects does it have? These apparently simple questions have profound implications, not only for an immediate theatrical realisation of the given extract, but also in terms of the larger meanings of the play, and indeed of the broader understanding of how Brome’s theatre operates. And whilst there was a necessary pragmatism about the theatre workshops — not least because we had to work to such strict time limits in order to ensure that every text could be explored — I became increasingly conscious of this question about the philosophical implications of performance. Brome is fascinated in theatre as a medium of change, showing us, for example, how characters can be surprised by aspects of themselves they hardly knew (as when, in Act 3 of The New Academy, the irascible, tyrannical Matchil speaks of the need to behave rationally); how pretence can have the most unexpected effects (as in the blacking-up scene in The English Moor, analysed in detail below); and how performance can be used as a force for healing and renewal, as in The Antipodes. Richard Cave discusses this in his general introduction to The Antipodes.9In practice, the questions that the editors presented ranged from the very specific to much broader issues. Specific questions included, for example:10How and where are stage directions helpful? Are those which have been inserted by a previous editor accurate or appropriate? And, more often, are the timings of entrances and exits in the ‘right’ place in the text. In Act 1, Scene 1 of A Mad Couple Well Matched, for example, we used a workshop to consider whether Careless talks about Saveall (prior to the entrance of the latter) because he can see him, or is surprised by Saveall’s entrance and therefore embarrassed at being caught talking about him as he enters, and, if so, whether part of Careless’s line might be an aside. .11Sometimes, the questions were broader, relating to more general issues of stagecraft such as how in a very large group scene, all the characters might remain active whilst an audience’s attention is focused appropriately. The following video extract, which is taken from relatively early in the workshop on the first major sequence from the play-within-the-play in the land of the Antipodes [AN 2.1.speech327], demonstrates the scale of the problem to be negotiated. In the extract, I am to be seen talking to the actors playing Joyless, Diana and Letoy (seated with their backs closest to camera); Gentleman and Byplay work through the exchange which is being enacted for Peregrine; Hannah Watkins (Old Lady) and Beth Vyse (Waiting Woman) work on the entrance and vocal mannerisms of the pregnant Waiting Woman; while the actors playing Barbara and Martha (seated as onstage audience) and Peregrine and the Doctor are discussing their own contributions. And at this point we had not yet introduced the ‘three old men with satchels’ . After walking through the extract for a second time, the issue of what the Doctor’s ‘comedians’ might be doing while the on-stage audience discusses their performance remains problematic . My concern was how the group of ‘comedians’ could stay active without upstaging the ‘audience’ discussions. A delicate balance is required. But, as the final fairly lengthy extract from the scene shows, once the small groupings and the interactions are established, the scene, which is organisationally very complex on paper, shifts focus with great clarity. Had we had more time I would have wanted to develop some of the interactions between characters within the sub-groups, for example between Martha and the Gentleman, but even in this form the extract demonstrates a clear development and gives an indication of the methodology we used .12There were occasions when it was more appropriate to think in terms of a focus for the investigation, than trying to articulate a specific question. Perhaps the broadest remit I was given as a director was in relation to large group scenes from The Late Lancashire Witches (5.2) and The Queen’s Exchange (5.1), where the chief task in the workshop was to explore the stagecraft, movement and comic potential in the given scene. By the time we tackled these, however, the actors had begun to work as an ensemble, familiar with the openness of the exploration; and they now quickly identified specific performance questions. My role in working on these scenes was to provide a structure within which the actors could work, to focus their inventiveness, to work through the consequences of their suggestions and to push for detailed readings of the text. As an indication of how this worked in practice, it is worth looking at a moment from Act 5, Scene 1 of The Queen’s Exchange. This first clip is taken from very early in the workshop. Having talked through the organisation of the space (using two rostra covered with black cloth to stand in for the trap door, which the text specifically requires — “Here is the Trap-door, the mouth of the rich mine, which / We’ll make bold to open”), we embarked on what was effectively the first read through . Note that in this early work on the episode the First Outlaw is played by Robert Lister. As we worked our way through the whole scene I realised that it would make better use of Robert to ask him to play Offa (who appears a little later). The extract shows how, even at this very early stage in the process, the actors are keen to physicalise the characters and to play with those stage directions implied by the dialogue. The next clip (from a little later in the process, after we have struggled through the whole scene and got a sense of the different units of action) shows my intervention in an early walk-through of the first part of the scene. By this stage in the process, Anita Wright has taken over as First Outlaw, the role that Robert took in the first read through . There is already much stage business in the scene, all of which we had developed through close analysis of the script and its implied stage directions; but the actors were going a little too fast and missing some of the implications both of what they were saying and what they were doing. My note to the actor picks up on the Mason’s line, ‘No, we are devils’. I suggest that the intention behind the line needs to be clear, and that there are several ‘beats’ in the moments around the delivery of the line, as the Mason and the Carpenter remember that they are in disguise. The immediate effect of this can be seen in the following clip . Not only is the characters’ confusion around the ‘devils’ line clearer — and far funnier — but the rhythms are becoming more marked. And by taking it all at less of a gallop, the actors begin to find opportunities for more nuanced interaction. The following clip is a longer extract from a later version of the scene . With the actors now using minimal costume, the Smith takes the ‘We are devils’ line as an instruction, a prompt to cover his head, even as the Mason delivers it as an unconvincing warning to the Outlaw. When we first embarked on the workshop process I wondered whether there would be much value in exploring scenes such as this, which demand so much physical action. What rapidly became evident was that, even if working with a script in hand is limiting for actors, the process highlighted the extent to which these texts are embedded with cues for theatrical business and non-verbal interaction.13Those preliminary discussions with editors were essential for me as a director not only because they enabled us to collaborate in setting an agenda and a set of priorities for the workshops but also because they marked the beginning of the continuing and complex dialogue that was so important in the workshops themselves. When I first met actors, we discussed the nature of the project; I stressed that we did not want to reach towards definitive performances but, rather, to embark on various different kinds of exploration. I allocated roles to the actors for the given extract, and then asked the play’s editor to give a brief introduction to the play and to the specific scene, as in the following video extract from A Mad Couple Well Matched . In this extract, the editor, Eleanor Lowe poses a number of alternatives for the character of Saveall then acknowledges that she ‘can’t quite work him out’. This may not have been calculated on the part of the editor but it was useful because it actively encouraged the actors to offer suggestions and contribute to discussions. For all of us, acknowledging what we did NOT know was as important as clarifying what we did.14After a brief introduction, the actors then undertook a first read through of the material, after which I encouraged them to question the editor about issues of meaning. The following clip shows Robert Lister teasing out textual detail early in the process, initiating and then contributing to the subsequent discussion . In this instance, the actor’s sensitivity to Thrivewell’s use of ‘Sir’ to address Lady Thrivewell in the scene leads to a discussion about whether it could be a compositorial error. The editor acknowledges that this is a possibility, and one that a previous editor has ‘rectified’. The actor’s instinct, however, is to find a way to ‘make it work’, to ‘pick it out and use it’. He sees it as his responsibility to trust the text and assumes that part of an actor’s job is to use apparent inconsistencies such as this as a valuable resource. The use of the word has to be marked in some way. Skating over it is the one thing that is not acceptable. In this method of working, the director’s job at this stage is not to judge whether the result ‘works’, so much as to find ways of playing with the implications of the performative ‘marking up’ of the text. Here, as elsewhere in the workshops, the solutions were not definitive in the way that they would ultimately have to be in a theatrical production. We did, however, find that the moment when Thrivewell addresses Lady Thrivewell as ‘Sir’ becomes a pivotal moment marking the beginning of a significant tonal shift. In the later part of the scene, Thrivewell discusses his own infidelity as he might talk to another man in a pub and a new question arises (unanswerable within the confines of the given extract): to what extent is Lady Thrivewell’s calmness in the face of her husband’s revelations a performance?15Although this methodology sounds in some ways obvious and familiar, it drew attention to the collaborative nature of the process, recognising the breadth of expertise and experience in the studio whilst encouraging a spirit of genuine exploration. The presence of most of the editorial board throughout the workshops was immensely useful, enabling the actors to interact with an engaged and informed audience when appropriate. During informal discussions for meal and coffee breaks, many of the actors expressed their delight at this aspect of the process, commenting that they felt the audience was part of the ensemble and not just a resource they could tap into when necessary. Members of this audience were, of course, very well informed and understood the need for their active participation in the process, but I suspect this sense of an ensemble collaboratively creating and negotiating meaning developed not only from the specific context of the project and as a result of the working methods we adopted, but was also a product of Brome’s stagecraft, which frequently draws attention to theatre itself as a site of exchange, of negotiated transformations, in which audience members (whether on or off stage) are active and interactive participants.Direct address16Even on a first reading of a Brome play it quickly becomes evident that characters make frequent references to the theatre audience. I was nevertheless surprised and excited by the extraordinary variety of direct address in Brome’s theatre, which ranges from short asides through informative narrative commentary to extended monologues in which the character explores a situation with the audience or examines a decision that has to be made. In practice, as we soon discovered, even the briefest of asides were rarely as simple or unproblematic as they might appear on paper (or computer screen). Even the most casual reference to the audience begins a relationship, creating a new dynamic within the onstage space and between that space and the ‘outside’ world. Consider, for example, Act 1, Scene 1 of The Queen and Concubine .17The scene is set up with great formality. This is a state occasion. Gradually, the stage fills, but we await the arrival of the King. And then, no sooner has the king entered than his behaviour challenges our expectations. As Lucy Munro observes in her notes to the online edition [QC 1.1.speech33], “It is significant that the King starts to speak in asides almost as soon as he comes on stage: he is already detaching himself from those around him, and his rather querulous concern with his and Sforza’s relative status is calculated to make an audience uneasy. For the King to speak to the audience during such a public occasion perhaps also breaches decorum or the behaviour we expect of a king in these contexts.” Lucy Munro notes the parallels and intertextual references to the behaviour of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, but the breach of regal decorum at a state occasion also has strong echoes of King Lear. The King even tests Eulalia, asking her: “Say, dearest life, ... How welcome am I?” [QC 1.1.speech33]. But whereas in Lear, Cordelia’s asides evoke our sympathy and encourage us, the audience members, to take up a critical position in relation to Lear’s actions, in The Queen and Concubine, the playwright takes us into an unstable world in which our position, as audience members, is as uncertain as that of the onstage members of the court. This instability is something that Brome frequently exploits and encourages. The strategy is not unusual in early modern drama. The great malcontents, Bosola, Flamineo, de Flores, Sejanus and, of course, Edmund and Iago, all cultivate a relationship with the audience in such a way as to create a self-reflexive edge to our own moralising. As we smile or laugh at their dark humour, as we enjoy their theatrical presence, we are drawn into a kind of complicity. Taking us into their confidence, the malcontents imply a theatrical role for us, sharing their darkest thoughts and schemes on the assumption that we will understand their resentment against society. One of the reasons for the uneasiness that arises in this opening scene of The Queen and Concubine is that as audience members, we are being asked to take sides. The actor playing the King could, of course, deliver those lines marked as asides as if talking to himself, with the offstage audience then becoming privy to an internal monologue; but, when we explored that, we found that it placed us, the audience, on the outside of the action, making us passive observers of strange behaviour rather than active participants in the scene. Directors and actors often talk about ‘what is at stake’ in a scene or an exchange between characters.n11336 But in Brome’s theatre, what is at stake for an audience is also of great importance. If the actor playing the King delivers these ‘asides’ as part of an internal monologue, the ‘stakes’ in the scene are reduced for the offstage audience. If the King addresses us directly, he not only shares his anxiety about the situation but creates a sense of risk and danger, daring us not to empathise with him, even as we recognise the inappropriateness of his actions.18In the following extract from Act 1, Scene 7 of The Northern Lass, Triedwell (played in the extract by Robert Lister) visits Fitchow (Hannah Watkins) with the intention of scuppering the planned marriage between her, a rich city widow, and his friend, Sir Philip Luckless. He finds himself increasingly attracted to and obsessed by Fitchow in spite of her reputation as a harridan. As Julie Sanders observes, the scene is intriguing for the developing sexual chemistry between the characters, and for Fitchow's wit, dignity and skill with language . I was interested in how we might use the asides and develop the potential humour in the scene, using it to complement and to underscore the sexual tension, to punctuate it without undermining it. The asides here reveal Triedwell’s inner tensions, making visible his inner turmoil. The asides become a way for Triedwell to share with us what he is feeling without showing this to Fitchow. I encouraged the actor playing Triedwell to break away from a ‘naturalistic’ mode of delivery for the asides and to try to include the whole audience. The effect of this was to reach towards a more physically demonstrative performance style, counterpointed by the performance of Fitchow which was far more measured, echoing the character’s control over language. Whether this disparity in performance styles would be effective in a fully realised theatrical production is a separate issue, and one which could only be assessed in the context of a much longer workshop or rehearsal process. The entrance of Howdee, responding to Fitchow’s ‘Sir, how d’ye?’, punctuates the growing sexual attraction, but also leaves Fitchow observed by an onstage audience after Triedwell has left. Having worked on the scene at length with this casting, we then swapped the casting for Fitchow and Howdee. The following extract shows the final moments of the scene with this cross gender casting . The strategy of deliberately playing across gender was one we frequently explored in the workshops, and editors have discussed the effect of this in their notes on several video extracts. Another example of cross casting is analysed below in my discussion of a scene from The English Moor, where I also consider why the strategy can be so effective.19The entrance of Howdee in the above extract is a good example of how Brome uses a comedic device which on the page might seem coarse or crude but, when realised in theatrical terms, alters the tone of a scene in ways which shift our perspective on character and situation. In this last version of Act 1, Scene 7 from The Northern Lass, Fitchow’s final speech is partially directed at the audience and partially at Howdee. The moment of change from off-stage to on-stage audience offers a glimpse of Fitchow’s need to justify herself, confirmed by Howdee’s quizzical reaction.Comedy20Editors were frequently concerned with issues of tone. Brome’s comedy, like Jonson’s and Middleton’s, is often laced with something very much more threatening and disturbing. Brome frequently writes scenes which are far more tonally complex than they appear at a first reading. We often began these workshops, where the editor had specifically expressed an interest in problems of tone, by exploring the effects of playing with elements of light and shade in the given extract. If in the early stages of the workshops any of us had thought that the process would offer definitive solutions to such problems, we quickly found that it was rarely a question of choosing one alternative. It was much more common to find that the most productive way of approaching a scene was to play the comedy whilst acknowledging the darkness. Comedy thus becomes not ‘light relief’, even in the plays which are described as ‘tragi-comedies’, but an essential element in the overall project. This sense of moments, of scenes, and indeed much of the action of many of the plays, as being simultaneously comic, poignant and sometimes deeply disturbing, in some ways prefigures Chekhov’s phrase ‘laughter through tears’. Understanding how the comic, the poignant and the disturbing elements of the plays interact and feed off each other became increasingly important to me as a director. It would be absurd to overstate the similarity between Brome and Chekhov — I certainly do not wish to claim Brome as some kind of a proto-naturalist — but one of the effects of Chekhov’s ‘laughter through tears’ is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar because it alerts us to the instability of our own reactions, reminds us that there is always more than one way to see any situation. Something very similar is happening in much of Brome’s dramaturgy, although, as is evident in the extract from The English Moor discussed towards the end of this essay, it would sometimes be more accurate to talk of ‘horror through laughter’. Issues of tone are also discussed in depth in Richard Cave’s introduction to The Novella, where they are considered there in the context of intertextuality.21Everyone connected with the project was surprised by the wealth of humour in Brome’s theatre and by the wide variety of types of humour that we discovered, which ranged from slapstick, physical business and caricature to disturbing disjunctions of tone which were often as shocking as they were funny. Humour is notoriously evasive when subjected to analytical scrutiny, and I suspect analysing how one directs comedy is equally difficult. It is, however, important to be open minded and to create an atmosphere in the rehearsal room or workshop studio in which laughter is freely permitted and encouraged. In an interview with me about his production of The Alchemist, Sam Mendes described his approach to humour: “It's just pushing out to those logical extremes... Just give me a gag and I'll make a good day’s rehearsal out of it. And I happened to be surrounded by a cast of like-minded individuals.”n11337 Whilst we rarely had the luxury of working on a given scene for much more than an hour at a time, we were certainly very fortunate to be working with actors who enjoyed Brome’s rude bawdy as much as his erudition and sophistication. The following extracts from The Late Lancashire Witches are chosen to demonstrate how two relatively simple ‘gags’ evolved through the workshop process. The first, from Act 2 Scene 5, in which an actor turns into a horse was developed through collaboration between actors, director and editors. It started with a discussion of the kind of effect that was required; we quickly agreed that the transition should be made as visible to the audience as possible. The extract itself is self-explanatory, though it is worth noting the extent to which the comedy, whilst drawing heavily on the comic timing and mimetic skills of the actors, arises out of the characters’ response to the extraordinary situation. The pleasure for the audience, as we frequently found, also came from the conscious theatricality of the moment. The illusions of the horse itself, the transformation of boy into horse, the mounting and riding of the horse are all created in collaboration with the audience; the pleasures of the scene for an audience lie as much in this undisguised celebration of the actors’ skills as in the comic discomfort of the boys 22The second extract gives an indication of how we began to explore the nature of Mall’s power over Robin .The stage business of moving the witch’s pail is as simple as we could make it. As Helen Ostovich observes in her notes on the video clip, “This stage effect is easily enough created with thin string or wire and a pail; it requires one person at either side of the stage, each holding one end of the wires attached to the pail, and thus able to pull it back and forth without risk of the pail's falling over.... Having the pail back up if Robin attempts to come too close endows the pail with magical intelligence.” The mechanics of the trick are unconcealed; the humour arises partly from the audience’s active participation in the illusion. The following video clip shows an important stage in the development of the scene. When introducing the scene to the actors, Helen Ostovich had suggested that the power of the witch here is a metaphor for sexual power. Following Helen’s lead, I was interested to see if Mall (Adam Kaye) and Robin (Robert Lister) could link the movement of the pail to Mall’s sexuality through gesture . The following clip shows how this is then incorporated into the action of the scene What I find fascinating about this is firstly that Adam accepts and uses the note while resisting the temptation to make Mall’s gesture grotesque and, secondly, that Mall’s ‘magic’ can only become a sexual metaphor if both actors collaborate in the ‘game’. Although my note had been primarily addressed to Adam as Mall, it is Robin’s whimper of excitement as Mall pulls the pail towards her which reveals that he is as excited by Mall herself as he is by the movement of the pail.The English Moor23I want to draw this essay to a close by offering a detailed analysis of a single one-and-a-half-hour workshop which in many ways exemplifies both the theatrical richness of Brome’s work and the working methods we adopted during the workshops: the ‘blacking up scene’ from The English Moor, an extract from Act 3, Scene 1. Before discussing the workshop itself, it is worth noting that the reason for the audience being larger than usual is that we were joined by a group of Australian actors in training from The University of Ballarat Arts Academy with a keen interest in the theatre of Richard Brome. They had been involved in the production of The City Wit discussed by Kim Durban in her essay (included in this edition), Upside Down at the Bottom of the World.24The initial questions that the editor, Matthew Steggle, wanted to address were fairly broad: when Quicksands starts painting his wife with black face paint, what does that look like? What is the nature of the sexual charge in the scene, and what does this do to the power dynamic between the two characters? Theatrically, these apparently straightforward questions raise a host of issues. ‘What does that look like?’ refers to Millicent’s face, to the action of painting and to the placement of the actors within the playing space. And any examination of the dynamics of power and sexual tension in the scene necessarily has to be examined in relation to the audience. Indeed, as so often in Brome, the notion of audience itself in the scene is complex, problematic and revealing. Quicksands is demanding that his wife, Millicent, perform a version of blackness in order to frustrate potential adulterers. As he paints her face, he becomes an onstage audience both to his own work and to the physical and emotional effects that this has on Millicent. The positioning of the characters in relation to the theatre audience is crucial to our reading of the scene. Amongst many other things, a director has to decide what the theatre audience can see and what they are to imagine. Our early explorations of the scene focused on how the placing of the characters on stage affects our reading of the action. It is possible to allow everybody to see both the painter and the painted; and we duly explored that. But I was particularly interested in positioning the characters in such a way as to deny the audience information, with the intention of using this denial to create a narrative enigma, which in turn reflects Millicent’s own shock and puzzlement: “Bless me! you fright me, Sir.” With Millicent seated, facing upstage, while her husband paints her face, we are denied access to what he can see; our prime visual interest is in his response to the painting. As the following video extract shows, however, this does not necessarily mean that he automatically becomes the focus of our attention . Although this extract is taken from very early in the workshop, as the actors are only just beginning to become familiar with the text, there are already hints of tonal instability, of a range of possibilities for humour and eroticism. In the workshop, we found that sexuality, humour and control are closely inter-related. The issue became not so much whether the scene is funny, more a question of how dark, how disturbing, that humour might be.25My suggestion to David Broughton-Davies, the actor playing Quicksands in the following extract, was that he should allow himself to be overtaken by an erotic charge as he starts to apply the paint, and that he is surprised by this. In practice, although there was certainly a powerful eroticism in the enactment, it was suffused with surprising tenderness . An actor’s instinct is often to seek empathy with the character she or he is playing, to find a way of understanding behaviour in rational and emotional terms, to enable them to use their own ‘emotional memory’ (a term coined by Stanislavski) which they can then draw on. This is an understandable and intelligent approach which can inform even non-naturalistic theatre, but it is one that needs to be carefully tempered when working on material such as this. Although some of those actors who worked with us for occasional days sometimes found themselves searching for character motivation conceived in terms which were inappropriately psychologised, Robert Lister and David both worked with us regularly and were experienced and sympathetic to our methods — which drew more on Declan Donnellan’s concept of the ‘target’n11338 than on Stanislavski’s system. Much later in the workshop, Robert articulated some of the reasons for the actor’s instinct to play the scene with a degree of tenderness. His comments here are particularly interesting because they refer directly to specific qualities of Brome’s verse in this scene rather than to a desire to seek personal empathy with the character . His observations relate Quicksands’ rich and ‘flowery’ language to a vulnerability in the character. Regrettably, we did not have sufficient time to explore the implications of this in depth, but the two extracts (above) do both already give a strong sense of this vulnerability. In a fully realised production of the whole play actors and director might well want to pursue this further, to find a way of acknowledging this aspect of the character whilst giving the face painting the weight it demands and allowing space for the more disturbing aspects of the interaction between Quicksands and Millicent.26Given the nature of these workshops, we used the second half of the time available for this extract to pursue these more dangerous aspects of the scene. To this end, I asked Hannah Watkins to take on the role of Quicksands and Jean-Marc Perret to play Millicent. One effect of this cross gender casting is to make the eroticism more visible. The reasons for this do not lend themselves to definitive analysis, but I suggest that the ‘strangeness’ of the casting is a factor: Quicksands’ fragile tenderness, a manifestation of his contradictory desires to protect and to manipulate, disappears as the male desire for sexual control is ‘made strange’ (in the Brechtian sense of interrogating behaviour which we might otherwise accept as ‘natural’) by the casting 27As the workshop progressed and the actors became more familiar with the material, learning from each other’s ‘performances’ as well as from their own, we found ourselves able to take shortcuts, building on work already done and taking it in several new directions at the same time. At this point, we shifted our focus to consider the possibilities for humour and I asked the actors to seek opportunities for direct address. We also decided to alter the organisation of the space so that both characters faced the audience. David suggested playing the scene as if there were a large mirror in front of them, enabling both characters to play to the front when appropriate. A scientist might argue that we were creating too many variables in our experiments, but the intention was never to seek authoritative readings or definite conclusions. The first time through, with David as Quicksands and Hannah as Millicent, the application of face paint was mimed, as it had been in all versions of the scene hitherto. Although there were moments of humour, these tended to be rather broad, deriving from Millicent’s exaggerated horror and the juxtaposition of Quicksands’ richly flamboyant language and the physical clumsiness of his mimed application of the paint. But I was also intrigued to note that although the tenderness we had discovered earlier in Quicksands had disappeared, he remained surprisingly genial . There are certainly elements of the scene that are disturbing in this broadly comic version, but I suspect that miming the action of face-painting kept the tone light-hearted and even superficial; and that the way to push the scene to its limits — to make it simultaneously more funny and more disturbing — was to introduce real face paint.28We tried two further versions of the scene with make up. In the first of these I asked the same actors as in the previous version to push further along the same lines . The difference between this and the previous version is fascinating. This is not only the funniest, but also by far the darkest and the most uncomfortable, the most disturbing of all the versions we tried out. It was not that the actors had been mocking or undermining the scene in the mimed version, but now, with real face paint, the application becomes a violation, whereas previously it had seemed more of an irritation. The audience’s laughter, however, was the most vocal of all the versions. Much of the humour again comes from the disjunction between the poetic qualities of what Quicksands is saying, the brutal assertion of male power, the near slapstick clumsiness of the application of the make up and the character’s sexual excitation. The laughter, however, seems to have been a complex expression of shock as much as it is a response to humour.29We enacted the scene one final time, with Robert as Quicksands and Jean Marc as Millicent . As can be heard on these video clips, the difference in audience responses to these two versions was very revealing. At the end of this last enactment we asked the students in the audience to join a discussion and reflect on their responses to the different versions. What became quickly evident was that whilst there was no consistency of response to the specific shifts of tone, all found the comic version with real face paint actually applied by far the most disturbing. The ‘straight’ version, however, held the audience with rapt attention; and many in the audience commented that they found it more ‘affecting’ or more ‘moving’ than the comic version. A detail to which it is worth drawing specific attention is that in this version Millicent shuts her eyes at the point where Quicksands starts to apply the paint. Richard Cave suggested that this allowed Millicent ‘great dignity and self-possession’. One of the students in the audience, however, felt that it resulted in Millicent becoming ‘invisible’ — precisely the effect that Quicksands intends. If this is what happens, then the ‘invisibility’ becomes something we are made aware of when she looks back to her husband as she is leaving, and Quicksands turns away. There is no specific line in the script to suggest this movement — the extract ends with Quicksands’ injunction for her to “take the Tincture / And perfect what's amiss now by your glass.” But the movement not only makes explicit the chasm that has grown between the characters but also allows Quicksands a brief expression of shame in his inability to make eye contact with his wife; and gives us a glimpse of the man’s humanity, even if he is far from sympathetic. What became evident in this workshop, as in many others, was that it was not a question of playing the scene seriously OR for dark comedy. Quicksands’ cruelty, violation and abuse of Millicent became most evident in the version of the scene which roused the loudest laughter.30One of the editor’s initial questions for this scene concerned the ‘power dynamics’ between Millicent and Quicksands. In all these realisations, the power lay unequivocally with the man, although the difference between the two final versions hints at something I would have liked to have explored further; a possibility which was initially triggered by Robert talking of Quicksands’ vulnerability. I wondered how the scene might have worked had Millicent’s silence been played as passive-aggression. It was of course disappointing that there was not time enough to pursue this line of enquiry, but my sense was that this desire to take things further was in itself a measure of the richness of the material on which we were working, and of the workshop process itself. And although it was sometimes disappointing to have to stop our work on a scene at the moment when new lines of enquiry began to open up, we recognised that extracts should not simply illustrate or illuminate the written text but also stimulate readers and practitioners actively and imaginatively to think beyond what we could realise in the workshop situation.Brome in the twenty first century31As I have been writing this essay and reviewing some of the many hours of video recordings made during the workshops, I have been struck repeatedly by the richness of the material; and reminded of the pleasures of working in such a supportive and healthy working environment. The constraint of having to workshop as many as six extracts in a day did, however, demand that we necessarily focused on the richness of specific moments, whilst deliberately avoiding definitive readings of any given extract. Not only was it beyond my brief to seek an overall interpretation of any of the plays, it would have gone against the spirit of the project to do so. If, as I intimated at the beginning of this essay, this was occasionally difficult for me as a director, it was less so for the actors, who delighted in the freedom to explore the texts, freed from the imposition of a directorial through line. There were, however, frustrations for all of us in this process: as indicated at the end of my discussion of the workshop on The English Moor, we frequently found ourselves wondering at the end of the day what we might have discovered had we had the time to have tried an extract in yet another way, to have pushed our experiments further or to have worked on longer extracts. As Peregrine, from The Antipodes, might have expressed it, Brome’s theatre became for us all a world of many wonders. In particular, we could not help but speculate longingly about how a director might develop the generous, open, collaborative methodologies that we evolved for these workshops to realise a full-scale production of one of Brome’s plays.32‘Your Humanity excels,’ says Peregrine [AN 2.2.speech409], after his first glimpse of the Doctor’s strange theatrical upside-down world. Richard Brome’s work may have been absent from the professional stage for many hundreds of years, but I was in no doubt after this extraordinary sequence of workshops that the breadth and warmth of Brome’s own humanity is matched by the vibrant theatricality of his work.

n11334   “All I have seen … are wonders”: The Antipodes;[AN 2.2.speech409] [go to text]

n11335   ‘On stage, his seeming heavy, clotted verse unfolds like a Japanese paper flower in water. It is a wonder and a mystery. He works in the theatre. In the end it is the only thing that matters.’ Extract from the text of an unpublished, illustrated workshop / lecture on Jonsonian comedy given by Peter Barnes at the Conference Ben Jonson and the Theatre (University of Reading, 10 January, 1996). [go to text]

n11336   Directors and actors often talk about ‘what is at stake’ in a scene or an exchange between characters. The concept of ‘stakes’ informs much of Declan Donnellan’s The Actor and the Target (London: Nick Hern Books, 2002). For a specific discussion of how he suggests it is used by actors, see Chapter 5, ‘The Stakes’, pp. 49-59. [go to text]

n11337   In an interview with me about his production of The Alchemist, Sam Mendes described his approach to humour: “It's just pushing out to those logical extremes... Just give me a gag and I'll make a good day’s rehearsal out of it. And I happened to be surrounded by a cast of like-minded individuals.” An edited version of this interview is published in Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice and Theory (eds.) Richard Cave, Elizabeth Schafer and Brian Woolland (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 79-85 [go to text]

n11338   Declan Donnellan’s concept of the ‘target’ “The target is neither an objective, nor a want, nor a plan, nor an intention, nor a goal, nor a focus, nor a motive. Motives arise from the target. A motive is a way of explaining why we do things… Relentlessly asking ‘why’ can tie an actor in knots.” (Donnellan, The Actor and the Target, p. 27). [go to text]

Contact: Richard Brome Online, ISBN 978-0-9557876-1-4.   © Copyright Royal Holloway, University of London, 2010