Celtic Junction Arts Review
This too solid flesh
One of the few advantages membership in the Abbey Theatre company of actors conferred was the wide range of plays that one was expected to be able to tackle. That is not to say that versatility was evenly spread in the company and that square pegs were not forced into round holes on occasions, though this was done for economic reasons rather than carelessness in most cases.
But I was fortunate as an actor in that I could bluff my way to acceptability as a working class Dubliner, a salt-of-the-earth peasant, or a Russian aristocrat, to say nothing of Princes of the Church or middle-class intellectuals of diverse nationalities.
So after a few years’ service on the boards at the National Theatre one could add the names Chekhov, Joyce, O’Casey, Miller, O’Neill, Leonard, Yeats, and many others, ancient and modern, to the list of playwrights who had survived our earnest efforts.
We didn’t do many Shakespeare productions in the Abbey, that was left to the toffs up the road in the Gate, but over the years I got to play a couple of roles that I still remember with fondness. Productions of Shakespeare plays are often easier for the actors to endure than the audience; the language, though poetic, can be hard to digest, although a skillful director and talented actors can make the iambs nearly comprehensible, but in the wrong hands can make for a long day’s journey into night.
But when Joe Dowling arrived in the Abbey there were those who saw his immense potential, with the result that Joe was asked to direct ‘Twelfth Night’ in the smaller Peacock Theatre. He was still a very young man, he had cut his teeth so to speak, as an actor with the company before launching his career as a director by taking on one of Shakespeare’s most difficult but delightful plays. Joe assembled a wonderful cast of actors, a number rarely seen on stage anywhere today. I had the enormous pleasure of playing the cross-gartered Malvolio, and the rehearsals alone were enough to convince me that I had made a good decision on a choice of career.
As we are all aware, Shakespeare’s language is not the English language of today. So the first task confronting the director and cast is to find the meaning of the lines, to cut through the obscure and arcane without depriving the listeners of hearing and savouring the beauty of the Bard’s poetry. We had the luxury of spending a few weeks teasing out the text, understanding the motivation and complexity of our various characters. Joe continued this freedom to explore approach during the rest of the rehearsal period, a great liberation to those of us trained in a more regimented manner.
It was always a help to the finances of the theatre when we mounted a production of one of Shakespeare’s oeuvre that was on the secondary school Leaving Cert syllabus; thus we were guaranteed next to full houses for some nights during the run. For the most part the young men and women who came in school groups were reasonably well-behaved. Because in those days they had to learn speeches off by heart, it could be slightly off-putting when one started Malvolio’s self-preening monologue,‘I will be strange, stout, in yellow stockings and cross-gartered,’ to hear several hundred young voices joining in with you, while others who had taken the precaution of bringing the text with them followed the speech on the page with their fingers to make sure that you added or omitted nothing.
This was way back in the old days of course, before the powers-that-be decided that learning poetry and math tables by heart was injurious to the mental health of children!