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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: April ::
Shakespeare Therapy in Leather Trousers
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1098  Monday, 22 April 2002

From:           Takashi Kozuka <
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Date:           Sunday, 21 Apr 2002 21:35:34 +0100 (BST)
Subject:        'Shakespeare Therapy in Leather Trousers'

One more article from The Times Online (21 April 2002)...

Andrew Sullivan: Shakespeare therapy in leather trousers

This is not the place I usually write this column.  It's a muggy night
just across the river in Washington DC. Above my laptop is a row of
standard-issue light bulbs, framing a mirror.

I'm dressed in black leather trousers, purple silk shirt and a somewhat
ridiculous beard attached with toupee glue. It's 10 minutes to what
looks set to be another crisis-ridden technical dress rehearsal. Ah,
those sounds and lights. They tend to have a life of their own.

Yesterday, in the middle of what I thought would be a monologue, a
botched sound cue that sounded like a chorus of Monty Python's Knights
Who Say Ni!  accompanied my peroration. Nobody in the rest of the cast
seemed to bat an eyelid. This is the way it usually is, one of my fellow
actors - a real pro -assured me. It reassured me for about five minutes.

How I got myself into this is a relatively simple story. A few months
back, a director from New York City e-mailed me out of the blue and
asked if I'd be interested in auditioning for Shakespeare's Much Ado
About Nothing.

If John Waters could cast Patty Hearst in his movies, why couldn't he,
in a far less impressive way, cast me in a minor Washington Shakespeare
Company production?  He'd heard through the grapevine that I'd had some
acting experience in the distant past.

Alas, I don't think he was referring to my debut, at the age of seven,
as a dormouse in Alice in Wonderland. Nor to a celebrated moment in the
dramatic history of Reigate grammar school when, in a Roman play, my
toga fell off during a dramatic entrance revealing me, at the age of 13,
in nothing but Y-fronts.

In my later teens I joined the National Youth Theatre, which was a crash
course in theatre discipline, and even got reviewed in the London papers
for some minor parts. At Oxford I spent more time doing theatre than
anything but debating, and even crashed a Union debate in my costume
from The Merchant of Venice.

At Harvard I played Hamlet in, er, Hamlet (a gruelling, uncut, four-hour
version set to Frankie Goes To Hollywood), the psycho boy in Equus and
Mozart in Amadeus. But that was a long time ago.

It was fun at the time and I was under no illusions that I'd ever be a
real actor. I'd long since given up the stage in favour of op-ed and the
shoutathons of America's political talk shows.

But what the heck? It was Shakespeare after all. I auditioned; they gave
me the part of Benedick. I didn't know the play very well, but a quick
read made me an instant fan. So after a brief dalliance with prudence, I
said yes.

And so here I am at 10.50pm with one more act of yet more hellish
technical cues to go, writing this column in the breaks.

So far the night has gone even worse than expected.  With all the sweat,
I somehow lost my beard in the first act and it floated around the stage
for a while like some small rodent looking for a home.

When the time came for the "tricking of Benedick" scene, in which a
critical plot element requires Benedick to be hidden from view, the
actor supposed to set my wooden "hiding" box on stage . . . forgot.

This would have been an amusing spectacle - a little like last night
when I was supposed to exit by a trap door that doggedly refused to open
- apart from the fact that this was the second night running that I'd
had to crouch down in the first row of seats in order to maintain even a
semblance of concealment.

Not since the toga fell off . . .

Oh well. This is the way it usually is in "tech", my fellow
professionals assured me. Really? I don't even remember school
productions as accident-prone in rehearsal as this one.

But perhaps my brain has simply blotted out the nightmares. To our
immense relief we were eventually told that the looming preview was
cancelled. We needed another run-through. Actually, we need another
week.

But the show is scheduled to open in a few days and while you're reading
this, I'm probably sweating my way out of a trap door to make sure it
does.

Still, even if the show careens into critical disdain, it was worth it.
I have a day job, after all. It's not as if I have set my sights on
Broadway from which, in any case, the non-profit Washington Shakespeare
Company is far removed.

But acting, I found out all over again, is also a kind of drug. It takes
you out of yourself, like a good narcotic. Playing Benedick has been
particularly diverting. He's a show-off, a soldier, a wit (though no
real match for Beatrice), but he's also an emotional wreck.

For all this, Shakespeare brings him into unaccustomed maturity in a few
scenes and finds him a wife in the end (although, revealingly, we never
see the actual marriage). Finding a path through this emotional journey
- and making it credible - turned out to be far harder than I imagined
(and I still haven't got there).

But it has also been a wonderfully challenging way to think about my
life. A large part of me, I realised, shares Benedick's disdain for
romantic love, his unconventionality, his pride and scorn.

In fact I found it far easier to play Benedick at the beginning of the
play than at the end, where he capitulates to convention and throws his
hands up at the confusion of his own life - and so many others'.

But another part of me, like Benedick, wants the security of love and
marriage and convention - and simply rationalises my own failure to find
an easy way to get there.

Working your way through a character's evolution can therefore become, I
discovered again, a little digression through your own needs and wants.
It can let you say things you'd never say in real life but that make you
feel more complete for articulating.

It's safe therapy, I suppose, in which you can feel things and say
things and even believe things without ever having to take personal
responsibility for them.  You can call that acting. But you can also
call it a kind of freedom.

"For man is a giddy thing," as Benedick puts it at the culmination of
the play.

By acting out the nihilism of Shakespeare's vision, so vividly portrayed
in Much Ado About Nothing, you can feel somehow the saving grace of
human incoherence, expressed in peerless language, echoing and
reverberating in your own little life. Giddiness indeed.

Wish me luck. I'll need it.

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