“Naturalism: From East to West” Review

A month ago I went along to a public workshop on naturalism, on the set of the Cherry Orchard at the National, The chair of the seated panel, Matt Wolf, introduced the actors and John Beschizza, of RADA, expounded on historical context in which naturalism was realised and how being “real” was such an radical departure in theatre. He sat in his seat, and gave a very convincing if muted account, before leaping up and declaring he didn’t really believe in it. He had an anecdote from an audition where he’d tried to be terribly “real” and bored his teachers half to death and he set this against the need to perform in the sense of entertaining. It was an interesting perspective in what was billed as an exploration of Stanslavski’s pioneering acting method!

But the majority of the workshop was simply a rehearsal of a scene from The Seagull, with Jamie Ballard and Sally Hawkins, in which drawing on the actors’ personal experience and connecting it with the text on the page was emphasised (again and again motivations were questioned, “how do you feel” and “what do you want” being Beschizza’s key directorial prompts). It was fascinating to see the same passage performed repeatedly, with the conversations and questioning dialogues in between bringing a flat interpretation into something lively and convincing. The actors were amazingly open, and professional; I was impressed by how fully they threw themselves into the emotions in a public rehearsal. A performance must be one thing, a private rehearsal another. To be exposed in the way that discovering the part, experimenting, in public, requires seems to me an incredibly courageous undertaking. Both actors displayed admirable professionalism.

After the workshop we discussed whether actors can ever achieve this kind of performance without a director: can they, with sufficient experience, ask themselves the questions and explore their motivations. Do Judi Dench or Ian McKellen really need someone else to prompt this? Although I find it hard to imagine how the director could be dispensed with, it’s an important point. If naturalism really is about connecting with something inner, then direction cannot be imposed. Yet whilst Beschizza never criticised a response, or allowed the actors to feel there were any wrong answers, sometimes he would keep asking the same question (eliciting different  or more developed responses) whilst at others he would be satisfied with the first reply he received. I was left feeling the director’s vision had an important place in the process we witnessed, though whether his skill was in persevering until he got the “right” response, or until he felt the depth and quality of the response indicated that exploration of the question had been exhausted I am not sure.

Interestingly, at the end of the process, the actors were quite dismissive of “isms” in general. “You can’t act an intellectual ideal” was a constant refrain; yet the process of connecting expressions of inner feelings through experiences to the text seemed to be something that Stanslavski’s method had embedded so thoroughly that he was barely acknowledged.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

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