Malvolio Production Diary: What makes good acting good?

Last night at rehearsal I was admiring our Olivia, who I think is doing a terrific job, and I was thinking about what it is that I think makes for a really good performance. She's inventive and surprising, certainly, and I like that. Her Olivia is not anyone else's Olivia, and I like that a lot. She really understands the text, and that's all to the good. It isn't a beautiful or lovely interpretation; she's not attempting to emphasize the music of the language. It's just very watchable, and very interesting. But what about it makes it so interesting?

So, I was thinking about it, and comparing her performance with our castmates, and I think it's the extent that she makes the whole thing come from within her, spontaneously. I 'll take a moment to say that some of our cast are at the moment better than others, which is to be expected, and to a large extent, the actors who are not, I think, on a level with the rest of us yet are the ones who don't have their lines memorized as thoroughly. So to some extent, her comparative excellence at this point is straightforwardly a function of her preparation. And that's awesome! Because everyone really is going to memorize their lines properly and then we'll all be prepared and the baseline level of excellence will be much higher. So that's all right.

I do think that the illusion of spontaneity is helped out enormously by preparation. And I'm trying to define or at least describe what I mean by that, because it's a vast problem of stage acting. I don't mean that the audience genuinely believes that all of this is being made up on the spot. I suppose I mean that the audience is able to forget, or to suspend, their conscious awareness that it's all done prepared in advance. The extent to which you, in the audience, respond to me saying something by anything other than that was in the script. Although I don't entirely mean that, either—it's completely possible to be thinking that was in the script whilst being caught up in the moment. I suppose I mean that the audience is able to think that the actor isn't doing just it because it's in the script. To some extent, you watch then in uncertainty and wondering what is he going to do? Even though of course you know that I'm going to do the thing that is next in the script.

This is very murky, isn't it? Let's take a moment out of one of my scenes and think about what I am trying to do and how and why, as it relates to that illusion of spontaneity.

Malvolio's first speech is to Olivia, about Feste: I marvel your Ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than a stone. Look you now, he’s out of his guard already. Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged. I protest I take these wise men that crow so at these set kind of Fools no better than the Fools’ zannis. Seventy-five words. An audience can easily fall out of sympathy with the show in seventy-five words. Can be bored in forty words, can dismiss an artificial character in twenty. How do I (attempt to) make this speech appear spontaneous?

First of all, by addressing Feste directly: when I call her a barren rascal, I am not looking at Olivia but Feste. I am trying to get a reaction from her, to embarrass her and to see that she is in fact embarrassed. I don't get it right away so I keep needling (referencing the incident the other day) and do get a reaction; Feste makes a sad face. I then turn to Olivia in triumph (look you now!) and attempt to get approval from her. This is tricky—Olivia doesn't approve, and certainly doesn't express approval, but (as I play him) Malvolio sees approval anyway, just because he wants to (and is very bad at reading people). Then I give a sort of avuncular warning: Unless you laugh and so forth. I suspect I need to find another shift for my protest, but I haven't been able to think of one. At any rate, the point is to create a sort of tension between Malvolio and Feste, and between Malvolio and Olivia, and for that tension to be interesting, and to provide some spontaneity to the speech by putting my focus on the other actors.

The point of all this is that at each point I need to have in mind an idea for what Malvolio is doing and saying and why. This is the motivation that stereotypical actors whine about needing. It isn't a joke, though, but a technique. To the extent that I have in my mind a reason why Malvolio's text is what it is, I am able to say the lines rather than recite them. I will add that this means that the speech doesn't sound like Shakespeare, if you know what I mean. I'm OK with that, for me and for such audiences as I am likely to have. A hundred and fifty years ago, I would have presumably have demanded that Shakespeare sound like Shakespeare, and the pseudo-spontaneity that I like so much would have felt crude and small. O tempora; o mores.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Malvolio Production Diary: What makes good acting good?

  1. Chris Cobb

    Thanks for reflecting on the illusion of spontaneity! The difference between speaking and reciting is crucial: isn’t it remarkable that human beings can discern this difference and that it matters so much? And puzzling, that this difference is taken as a sign of authenticity when it is so often fabricated?

    Re the “I protest” line and a shift there–that line is associated in my mind with another unnecessary declaration of Malvolio’s. When Feste in the guise of Sir Topas asks Malvolio what he thinks of the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild fowl, Malvolio responds, “I think nobly of the soul , and no way approve his opinion.” Why does he need to declaim about his view of the soul to answer this question? There’s a need here to apostrophize about his own opinion that seems consistent. Maybe that could be something to work with? Another thought: who are “these wise men” and where are they? Where are they drawing Malvolio’s attention? Could this be a sudden course correction for him like “Play with my . . . some rich jewel” as he suddenly realizes he is about to slip up and say something critical of Olivia? Or is he drawn into imagining some people who think they are so smart that he’d really like to put down (again, with analogies to the letter scene). It seems like, in one way or another, the elaborated imagination of a scene in which people that Malvolio dislikes will be put in their place anticipates the kind of imaginative moves that we discover are characteristic of him in the letter scene, so maybe a shift toward one or another aspect of that would work here? Or not.


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