Posted by: admin September 28th, 2016

Closer to Shakespeare - Bill Alexander

The rehearsal room

Nowhere brings you closer to Shakespeare than a rehearsal room. It's there that his words become flesh and blood and speech. And soon our new company, Shakespeare in Italy, will be in rehearsal for a series of workshops exploring an aspect of his plays that has never had the attention it deserves; his great debt to the culture, history, politics, poetry and philosophy of the Italian Renaissance.

Initially we will concentrate on the five plays set entirely in Italy:

  • The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet
  • The Taming of the Shrew
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice

We will begin with The Merchant. The play is based primarily on a story by the Italian writer Ser Giovanni from a collection of tales called Il Pecorone written at the end of the 14th century and printed in Milan in 1558. This could be the starting point of our work. That extensive body of Italian material that provided stories and ideas as the rich loam for Shakespeare's imagination throughout his life.

The beginning

A successful workshop begins with asking questions such as:

  • What was his relationship to this source?
  • What significance is there in the changes he made, the way he selected from and manipulated the original story, that will help us better understand his purpose in writing a particular play?

When I first open the text to begin thinking about how to guide rehearsals, almost the only marks I make on the page are question marks. The question marks turn into thoughts, tentative answers maybe and these become the ideas that provide the foundations of a production.


There is so much richness to be uncovered by, first on my own and then with the actors, fully researching the history of the play; what influenced it both in terms of literary sources and contemporary events before the exploration of character begins.


The backbone of that process is backstory. The usual meaning of backstory is the history of each character before they enter the play. How much it mattered to Shakespeare is debatable, but in rehearsal many actors find it incredibly useful to imagine circumstances in the lives of their character that may have shaped their personalities and hence their motivations and attitudes towards others. From the clues in the text much of this may have to be invented, for instance Shakespeare never tells us why exactly Antonio is so sad, it's up to director and actor to create a reason that works for the production.

“Match struck in the darkness of an individual's character”

- Why does Antonio react so sharply to the suggestion that he is in love? 

- Lady Macbeth had a child but what happened to it?

- Benedict and Beatrice have for a long time conducted a "merry war" with each other. What does that mean?

- Sir Andrew Aguecheek was once adored

- Fabian fell out with Olivia over a bear baiting

- Titus had 25  sons and one daughter, and so on

These casually dropped in facts are like a match struck in the darkness of an individual's character. Or they trigger an idea from which the actor’s imagination can take off. 

The trick lies in knowing where to draw the line.

The actor/director relationship

An actor’s job is not to write the biography of a person who never existed; their job is to be someone on stage that an audience wants to keep listening to and looking at. Too much immersion in a characters backstory could create a self-absorption that is alienating and prevent the actor being completely in the moment which is the ultimate aim of all performance. This vital balance between knowing your character and being your character lies at the heart of the director/actor relationship and at the centre of the rehearsal process. A typical exchange might go: 

Director: Why are you doing that?

Actor: My character had a distressing dream that has put them in a bad mood.

Director: But I don't know that because the play doesn't tell me, and the audience won't know that either, and playing it won't help the audience understand the scene. I need to know what you are thinking not what you are feeling, what is your argument not your emotional state. If I understand you I can feel with you.

The director

One of the prime functions of a director is to constantly imagine the events on stage as seen through the eyes of an audience. It is to help the actor extract from their own subjective relationship to their character only that which is useful for communication from the stage to the watchers.