Our first day working on Shakespeare's Clown without you is underway, and although you'll be with us on Thursday, you might be curious about what we're up to in your absence. Even if you're not, this does give me a convenient device for obeying the producer's diktat that I blog about the process.
As so often, the process started in the pub.
Last night the designer joined us for dinner and did a remarkable job of slotting into the rhythm of Dan and Jack's banter. Some people require days to realise they're joking. She was right on in there, and she's not even working in her first language. There was a particularly delightful riff about the brutality and neglectfulness of Jack's parents.
I continue to feel that this brand of surrealist pub banter, invention and deadpan anti-braggadocio is itself clowning. It's at the heart of why I love so much watching you all perform. And indeed why I love so much being in your company. Much as I also love the expansive physical clowning (it's where we started working together), at the core of it is you three making shit up with the most extraordinary fecundity and dexterity I've ever seen. It's exhilirating. My very favourite sequence in the show at the moment is the funeral oration at the start. It combines total confidence with total vulnerability, is dignified and stupid, funny and sad. It got an overwhelming response at Bath and the National Theatre Studio and is the core of something special and beautiful. And you all do this stuff like breathing. God, you're brilliant.
Yes, I noticed the contradiction too. At the core of the show is total, simple truthfulness and utter unashamed bullshit. I feel no need to reconcile this. David Mamet or someone has probably said that we reveal most about ourselves when we're lying. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but we do reveal plenty, and what we reveal demands active engagement. Is it true or isn't it? I feel no need to reconcile this. Yes it's true. No it isn't. We're in the theatre. Everything you see is both true and not true at the same time.
Jack and I hit on a fun new way of thinking about the material in the show. The three gravediggers think they're presenting a historical document, although they have access to very few of the facts. But the less they know, the more confidence they have to claim until they are pretending to present a verbatim representation of what actually happening. It's documentary theatre without any facts. We're clowning verbatim theatre.
(I'm fascinated by the tragic resonance of freewheel improvising around the facts of a man's life who was fired for improvising. He'd have to be both honoured and appalled. At the same time.)
Verbatim theatre seems to me one of the tools given us to understand the times we live in. Whether or not it works like that I'm not sure. But with this show I want to make a case for historical theatre as a means to considering something a fixation on the contemporary leaves out: only by examining people from other cultures can we fully consider the ways in which our own shapes us. People four hundred years ago were utterly different to people now, because the social forces acting on them were utterly different. I don't really believe Shakespeare “invented the human”; I think that's just Frank Kermode getting carried away. What I do believe is that in the early modern period the notion of unified human subjectivity began to emerge. I'm not sure the idea of the individual made any sense before that. To imagine that people used the same processes to consider their place in the world as we use now is just bullshit universalism. We're not the same and rather than flattening ourselves out into one mould, I want to marvel at difference. Brecht said “I don't want to feel myself to be Richard III. I want to witness the phenomenon that is Richard III in all its strangeness and incomprehensibility”. I like that.
We walk a tricky historical tightrope, mind. Our clown-gravediggers are making shit up, and so are Jack, Dan and (from Thursday) yourself. But somehow we're finding ways of making shit up from within 1603, which represents some base-line level of reality. This, I suppose leaves us one or two steps short of full-on clowning, which would instinctively debunk the theatrical construct in which three men pretend to be gravediggers in 1603. As it is, that's just about the only fact our gravediggers have to hold on to. But then, maybe that is debunked too, but more slyly. I'm thinking of your digging a grave with a broom, of the games with Elizabethan language. It's all a construct, it's all a game. That doesn't mean we're not allowed to believe it.
And maybe the bullshit universalists do have one point. When talking about the unchanging nature of human experience, what's often meant is simply that we still have an emotional life which admits of (e.g.) grief and joy. And that's obviously true. But the ways in which we express that grief and that joy do change. You don't see much wailing and gnashing of teeth these days. But imagine if you did. Imagine a show with a total breakdown of the cultural norms around emotional display. (Remember Jack smashing the ukulele?) It would be astonishing, and alienating. Yes, Brecht again. But just because it alienates me from empathy, doesn't mean I don't feel the emotion. It pulls and repels simultaneously. Its truth jars. When watching you act grief and joy, I don't want to feel myself to be grieving and joyous, I want to witness the phenomena that are your grief and joy in all their strangeness and incomprehensibility.
As you know, I'm obsessed with aligning opposites. We can be tragic and hilarious in the same moment. I can feel as you feel and be bewildered by the way you feel it. It can be 1603, 1599 and 2011 at the same time. In the theatre, everything I say is both true and not true. That's the joy of it. We don't just get to experiment with being other people in other times, we get to experiment with the impossible. Why stick at imagining the imaginable?
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will