NxNE: Open Book in Production

15 Jul 2011 in Aberdeen City & Shire, Argyll & the Islands, Dance & Drama, Highland, Outer Hebrides

KENNY MATHIESON investigates the process of creating a new Macbeth with the principal actors and designer Patricia Niemann

TO ANYONE not directly involved, the business of actually learning a script seems a daunting task, and nowhere more so than in Shakespeare. All those complex lines to absorb, all those nuances of meaning to understand and then convey – it’s hard work.

While different actors will have their own approach to the mechanics of learning lines, both Helen Mackay, who is Lady Macbeth in Open Book’s new production, and James MacKenzie, who plays Macbeth, agreed that the actual process of learning the lines does not really begin until the show is in rehearsal.

James Mackenzie in rehearsal for Macbeth

James Mackenzie in rehearsal for Macbeth (photo Patricia Niemann)

“Personally I wouldn’t learn anything before I came into the first rehearsal,” Helen said, “because I think even if you are not conscious of it you make choices about the character in learning lines, and I think it is better to do that as you are developing the character in rehearsal. Reading through the text would be my starting point, looking up any words I didn’t understand and so on. The script we are using in this version is a shortened one, so it was good to read the original play and know the full story and who all the characters are.”

James agreed entirely on that process, and also noted that the script they are using was not available in advance in any case.

“I think I would say exactly the same, and we didn’t get the script until the start of the rehearsal process anyway,” he said. “I did the same thing – I went back and read the original a lot and tried to make sure I understood the language and was familiar with it as a piece. It’s not until you get in the rehearsal room and start working with the director and the other actors that you can really start to find things and ideas and work out character choices and the reason for doing things.”

Helen Mackay and James Mackenzie watch proceedings

Helen Mackay and James Mackenzie watch proceedings (photo Patricia Niemann)

Accordingly, at the start of the rehearsal process in the spacious and distinctly castle-like upper floor of the Church On The Hill in Glasgow’s southside, it was a matter of blocking scenes with script in hand (“blocking” is a theatrical term for the process of working out positions and movement in a scene), and again, both agreed that is actually easier to learn the lines once they have blocked the scene a couple of times.

“It’s very important to know why you are saying the lines, and what your intentions are,” Helen explained, “so that you are not just learning lines from the page for the sake of it, but you are speaking these words because you want something, or they are coming from an action. You have a reason for everything you say, and I find that makes it easier to learn. We both agree on that, although I’m sure there are actors out there who would learn it before they began rehearsal – everybody has their own way of doing it.”

“Yes, I’m sure there are actors who feel that they have to go in having learned at least a bit before they start,” James agreed, “particularly if they are doing one of the really big parts, something like King Lear.”

Once embarked on the rehearsal process, the actors feed off both the director and their fellow actors – in this case Ewan Donald (MacDuff), Cameron Mowat (Malcolm), Garry Collins (Banquo) and Michelle Gallagher – in what is a constantly changing process.

Marcus Roche, Ewan Donald, Cameron Mowat and Michelle Gallagher

Marcus Roche, Ewan Donald, Cameron Mowat and Michelle Gallagher (photo Patricia Niemann)

“When you get comfortable with your own character’s intentions in a scene, and you know what the intentions of the other characters are, you can really play with it and develop it at that stage. But we find that every time we do a scene it is a little bit different as something new emerges, but it all has to have a logic or a reason behind it.”

The actors’ understanding of their characters develops in a similarly changing fashion, with new facets constantly being revealed through the interactions with their fellow performers.

“Every second!,” Helen responds. “You are always learning something, either about your own character or about another character in a way that effects how you understand your own character or play the scene. Even the smallest interaction can change and grow and develop, and that’s a really good thing ­ you are always learning more about what is going on.”

Helen Mackay

Helen Mackay (photo Patricia Niemann)

“You have an idea of the character when you start out,” James adds, “but it is only when you start to work with the director and the other actors that you really start to discover things, and I don’t think when I finish this job that I’ll go away feeling that I’ve “got” Macbeth. There will always be more to learn. I played Macbeth in college, and doing it again now a decade later I’ve discovered so many new things – and all the things I did wrong the first time! And I’m sure if I do it again in another ten years it will be the same.”

Watching the cast work on the scene in which King Duncan’s death is discovered, it seems clear that Marcus Roche is open to input from the actors on the way that specific scenes are staged.

“You get a bit of directorial input, but by accident,” James suggested. “It’s more a case of just trying to see what your fellow actors or the director think about an idea, so there is a collaborative aspect to it in that sense – we all chip in our tuppence-worth, and as long as you have a reason for what you are suggesting, Marcus is open to that.”

The unusual staging concept in which members of the audience will be seated on stage at the banquet table which forms the set for the whole show gets a thumbs-up from both actors.

“I love it, actually,” Helen said. “I love the fact that the audience is going to be really close to us, and I know we will use them as a focus all the time. There are times when you are on the stage by yourself and it will be great to have someone there that you can tell the story to.”

“It’s certainly different,” James said. “I think that it is going to make it really interesting, and gives it more of an intimate feel than a traditional proscenium arch production.”

Patricia Niemann in the workshop

Patricia Niemann in the workshop

One of the people whose input will help ensure this does not look like a traditional production is Latheron-based visual artist Patricia Niemann. She became involved in the production through meeting John Cairns, who is keen on the idea of bringing artists from different disciplines together.

“We organised an evening at the Mill Theatre in Thurso where we brought together people from the local theatre, musicians and visual artists, and Patty did a presentation about her work and her motivations as an artist that night,” John explained. “It was a very interesting night – although everybody lived and worked in Caithness and knew each other, or knew of each other, very few had seen each other’s work, so it worked well in that respect.

“I got speaking to Patty that night, and then suggested to Marcus we should speak to her about working with us on a look rather than in a straight theatre designer role. We were interested in the impact that bringing in a visual artist might bring. She is very inspired by the landscape in Caithness, and the impact of Caithness on me has also been very great. Oh, and we also have an actress from Caithness, Helen Mackay, in the show, and one of the stage managers is from Wick.”

It is an opportunity that the artist, who first visited and eventually settled in Caithness because of the presence of Northlands Creative Glass in Lybster, has relished, and one that she feels may have opened new doors for her.

“This has been a very exciting process for me – I think I’m addicted to theatre now,” she admitted. “Basically they asked me to think about the look of the play and to make pieces for it. I like to look at death and decay, but to make something positive out of those ideas, and I am also interested in performance and the human body.”

Patricia Niemann's dagger chandelier as work in progress

Patricia Niemann's dagger chandelier as work in progress

Using her favoured materials, glass and jewellery, she has created both artefacts for the stage and an ambiance for the show, in what has been a collaborative process with both Cairns and director Marcus Roche.

“A look developed through talking between us, and I think that is very important,” she said. “For me this experience has been a revelation. It’s a completely different world, and I would love to do more of it. I have been making some sketches of the actors in rehearsal as well, and they will be on show in the foyers on the tour, as will a PowerPoint display showing some of my work. It’s like a travelling gallery for me, and my work may reach a very different audience as well.”

Macbeth tours from 18 July-6 August 2011.

Kenny Mathieson, 2011