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Book Report: Playing Lear

After being vastly pleased and impressed with Oliver Ford Davies’s performance in Richard II last month, Your Humble Blogger thought to look to see if the man had written any books, and in fact he wrote a diary of Playing Lear in 2002. It’s a marvelous book, really lovely, with a huge chunk of endearingly pedantic history and pontification about preparing a Shakespeare part and a set of personal reactions to the various Lears he has seen in addition to taking us through the preparation and rehearsal process from casting to opening night and after.

I would like to write such a book someday.

I don’t know how it would read to a non-actor. It’s much less gossipy than Antony Sher’s similar books, with less focus on what it’s like to be him, in his position. Fewer funny stories about props and costumes, fewer word portraits of mornings spent in dappled sunlight trying to learn the lines, fewer paroxysms of self-doubt. And of course no sketches of himself and his castmates. Instead, Mr. Ford Davies walks himself and us through the text:

I try to read the play as if for the first time. I keep asking questions, and try not to come to any conclusions. When I finish I start making notes, though in truth this takes me several days. I make a little précis of the plot and give some scenes names.

And then he does, for some fifteen pages, breaking it down scene by scene, pulling out a few lines that seem to stand out in each one. Then he goes back and starts over again, asking different questions this time, looking at differences between source texts (he is quite concerned about the differences between the Folio and Quarto texts, and whether Shakespeare improved the play by judiciously cutting out (f’r’ex) the mock trial scene, and thus whether they should be guided by that text, despite it being a great scene. I was reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s fury at people who put back songs that they cut from shows—yes, the songs may be terrific, they weren’t necessarily cut because the song was bad, but because the arc of the show worked better without them. He imagined the guy who leaves the production thinking Man, that Sondheim show dragged in the middle not knowing that Sondheim had in fact solved that problem. Of course, producers have Sondheim to consult, and at any rate the texts we have are pretty well dated and verified. The Shakespeare texts are confusing as hell.

Oh, that reminds me: both Mr. Ford Davies at the Almeida and Mr. Sher at the RSC talk about the rehearsal process beginning, after the read-through, with another read-through, this time with each actor paraphrasing the line. I’ve done four Shakespeare plays, I think—Hamlet in college, Shrew in Boston, R3 and AYLI since I’ve been blogging here, I don’t think I’m forgetting any—and I’ve never done this exercise. It seems very valuable to me, although it requires a tremendous investment of time. Mr. Ford Davies calls it fruitless, though, mostly because Shakespeare uses words so precisely that swapping out synonyms strips out layers of meaning. And it’s a fair point: he will often use a word that means X but also Y, or uses X and connotes Y, or uses X in a way that puts it into Y context. But then, presumably that’s what you discuss in the rehearsal, when the paraphrase falls sufficiently short. And as Mr. Ford Davies admits, the director can’t assume that the actor who sounds smooth actually knows what the words mean.

I am, as I mentioned yesterday, hoping to be cast in a production of Twelfth Night. If I get any of the really juicy parts for men—Malvolio, Sir Toby, Feste, Aguecheek—and the director does not make us paraphrase together, I might try to it on my own, just to see if it’s helpful to me. Orsino tends to be more straightforward in his speech, which would make it less interesting an exercise, I would think. I mean:

Metaphor warning! Music is to Love as Food is to Men.
I want to overeat music
until I am so full that I get sick of it.
Play that bit again that went da dum
It reminded me of a breeze
on a meadow
because it blows the smell away and then brings it back. OK.
Bored now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.