Guest Post: ‘The Sea Voyage’: On Directing a Read Not Dead Staged Reading

During the month of June, ASC Education is featuring the shows of our 2015-2016 Artistic Year in a series of guest posts!

The Sea Voyage appeared in the ASC’s 2016 Actors’ Renaissance Season. James Chalmers is a British actor, director, and producer who has worked with the Globe and the RSC. 


The Sea Voyage: On Directing a Read Not Dead Staged Reading
by James Chalmers

Where to begin? Shakespeare’s Globe kindly asked me to direct, or “co-ordinate,” a reading of The Sea Voyage on August 15th, 2010. Though it has now been some years since the joyous one-off event, the play has very firmly rooted itself in my mind, and I can unequivocally say it is one of the “shows” that I am most proud of having been a part of. I have attempted (through the mists of time and deterioration of grey matter – well a whole five years’ worth at any rate!), to elucidate how we approached this wonderful late Jacobean comedy by Fletcher & Massinger.

Firstly, it is important to understand the setting: The annual Read Not Dead season at Shakespeare’s Globe is a rare but vital beast. Launched in 1995, the annual series of staged readings explores and celebrates the plays performed in London Stages between 1567 and 1642, a repertoire that in playing has become greatly compressed overtime. In the UK, both Shakespeare’s Globe and The Royal Shakespeare Company have admirably dedicated seasons to Jacobean and Caroline plays; however, the number of fully-realised productions have barely made a dint in the canon of some 400 extant plays of this period. The bastion that is Read Not Dead has staged some 200 plays to date.

Shakespeare’s Globe’s website states:

“The ground-rules are simple. Actors are given a script on Sunday morning and work with a director to get the play up on its feet – with entrances and exits, token costume and music if needed. They present it, script in hand, to an audience at 4.00pm.

 These are not intended to be polished productions. There is a shared spirit of adventure, excitement and experimentation for actors and audiences who sense that they might be uncovering a hidden gem.”

For the actor, the motto is “fight or flight,” and barring a cursory glance at the scene in the brief rehearsal period before performance, the real discoveries are made collaboratively as a group through the playing of the piece: the freshness of first impulse, the choices conscious and unconscious. In this unmediated form, without the shackles of imposed interpretation, the free-thinking audience is able to take a draw on the text, like a Gauloises cigarette – unfiltered and maximum strength.

It doesn’t always go according to plan, and sometimes the most wonderful happy accidents occur. I remember some years ago, the actor playing the part of Sencer being “off” for the top of Act 4 Scene 3 of Thomas Heywood’s The Wise Woman of Hoxton. After what seemed an eternity (but was probably only a minute or so of dead stage time) the realisation dawned on the actor that it was his “turn” and he exploded on to the stage with a line gifted beautifully to him in the text, “Now or Never!” You can imagine that this brought the house down!

So wrong, and yet somehow so right.

10 years ago, I had the privilege of working as an actor for the RSC for director Mike Alfreds, whose overarching mantra was that the audience should receive a “freshly cooked meal every night.” With Read Not Dead, the meal is prepared and cooked right before the audience’s very eyes – a veritable iambic teppanyaki – leading to a shared experience of discovery in the moment that heightens the artistic tension or exchange as the rollercoaster of the performance teeters between impending doom and immediate ecstasy.

In his review of the reading, Andy Kesson writes:

“Staged readings make both demands on an actor, requiring them to read as they invent, and the etymological roots of improvisation in the unforeseen and unexpected (Latin, improuisus) reminds us that the modern actor in a staged reading may be nearer than we think to the early modern player with their cue script”

To do this, you need a team of experienced actors with a highly developed sense of classical verse speaking and a finely tuned sensitivity to listening and responding.

So, to the matter in hand. The play starts in action, in the middle of a raging storm on board a boat. Without the luxury of a proper stage (the reading took place in a lecture room whilst construction was taking place on the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse), the challenge became how to open with a “tempest.” (I shall refrain from using this word again as, though often referenced alongside Shakespeare’s play of the same name, I believe the strands of colonialism and commonwealth set The Sea Voyage apart from the magic of, well, the “other’”!)

If you don’t have the budget for special effects wizardry, you should hide in plain sight; if played with conviction, the audience quickly buys in. Armed with rainsticks, thunderboards, and the voice – be it piercing whistle or swelling moan – the company provided a wondrous choric storm. This meant that the actors on the “boat” (delineated by a heavy rope in the shape of a prow, and littered with large sections of heavy cloth to denote broken sails) had to pitch their voices to be heard. This also gives something for the Master to rail against:

Master: We have sprung five leaks, and no little ones.
Still rage! – Besides, her ribs are open,

The missing beat or caesura in the line filled with an appropriate peal of thunder, giving a call and response. For this first scene, I insisted half-lines had to be picked up quickly, and through playing at full tilt added a rhythmic intensity.

To counterpoint this, I asked the actors playing Sebastian and Nicusa to completely undercut the storm in the next scene (ii), insisting they were rooted to the spot through weariness and their own sense of fatalism, and that we should feel through them a suffering through passage of time – such suffering that, when the French encounter them in Sc. iii, they brand them monsters, wretches, ghosts; to be pitied rather than feared.

This weariness of life would mean their internal rhythms would be diminished, and so I gave them a degree of freedom with the half-lines, allowing for suspension through giving the full value pause of the ‘missing line’. This adagio gave a wonderful melancholic tone to the scene.

The Sea Voyage is abundant in half-lines or shared lines; just as Fletcher and Massinger constantly shift focus in the plot, so too do they “gear up or gear down” through the use of the sharing of lines.

One particular example demonstrates the self-perpetuating frenzy as the Surgeon, Morillat, Franville and Lamure prepare their ridiculous cannibalistic onslaught on Aminta:

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Ginna Hoben, John Harrell, and Aiden O’Reilly in rehearsal for The Sea Voyage, 2016. Photo by Jay McClure.

Surgeon:                               Come, gentlemen,
                     Who are for the hinder parts?

Morillat:                                         I.

Franville:                                                 I.

Lamure:                                                      And I.

Surgeon:            Be patient,
They will not fall to every man’s share.

The rising tricolon shows that Franville and Lamure attempt to ‘top’ the proposition of the man before, giving an accelerated rhythm to the moment and providing the Surgeon with the necessary madness to quell.

Stage directions occasionally replace the caesura – ‘She binds his wounds with her hair’; Horns within’; ‘The women draw their bows’; ‘Enter ALBERT, TIBALT and the rest with treasure’ – adding intensity. One moment that I felt demonstrated this well was in Act 2 sc. i, where Aminta tends to Albert’s wounds.

Aminta:                                                Pray give me leave
                        To play the surgeon and bind’em up;
                        The raw air rankles ‘em.

Albert:                                                  Sweet, we want means.

Aminta:                        Love can supply all wants

 She binds his wounds with her hair

Albert:                                                  What have ye done, sweet?

Here the moment between the lines given by the stage direction must be given its full value. We were able to find a suitable hairpiece for the actress playing Aminta that could be “cut off” by a dagger. The actors beautifully played the ceremony of the binding of the wounds, giving the impression of a contract or marriage. We could see the shift in Aminta from the formality Act 1 sc. iii where she addresses Albert as “Noble Captain” and acknowledges his “dear tenderness”, before finishing her speech with:

Aminta:                        So far I am tied and fettered to your service.
                        Believe me, I will learn to love.”

The tenderness and solemnity of the ritual reveals Aminta’s acceptance and love of Albert, leading to her vow:

Aminta:                                                                        O Albert, I offer
                        This sacrifice of service to the altar
                        Of your staid temperance, and still adore it.

When the stage directions cue the hunters’ horns to sound (both times at the midpoint in Albert’s lines), this has the effect of shifting the focus, and the gear change prompts “hope” for survival.

I like to think of these joins between shared lines as “seams,” where sometimes a pause is justified, though it must be active; sometimes a stage direction or action impacts, and sometimes the second line trumps the first, as a new thought supplants the old. The approach to the playing of these “seams” very much helped inform the “music” of the piece in the reading, and provided a key in for the actors to the rhythm of each scene.

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Lauren Ballard in rehearsal for The Sea Voyage, 2016. Photo by Jay McClure.

Another “device” in the text that I asked the actors to respond to was where there was enjambment of the lines – where the phrase and sense of the line carries over the end of the line and is not end-stopped (punctuated with a period, comma, question mark, semi-colon, etc). By surrendering to this, the actors found that there was increased forward animation in these lines, and that gave a greater intensity and urgency to the relevant moments.

As a director of staged readings with the aforementioned time restrictions, these textual clues given in shorthand are what you hope to arm the actors with so that they can key in to each scene, moment by moment, providing a framework of “rules” as a baseline from which they can then feed off of their impulses and truly play. The discovery when watching the performance was that when the actors surrendered to the text and to the “rules of the game,” it punctuated the comedy of the piece. Andy Kesson picked up on one of my favorite moments in his review:

The actor playing Albert [must] enter and collapse, but the actors playing the female characters need to decide not only how to respond but when. In the intimate space of the Nancy Knowles Lecture Theatre, Darcy’s [Albert] entrance forced him between and amongst the women, and their stunned silence followed by Juletta’s exclamation, ‘‘But stay, / What’s here cast o’th’ shore?’’ was a comic revelation.

In contrast to the feeble, impotent Portuguese men on their sterile island, we meet the Portuguese women as they burst forth in pursuit of their quarry – headstrong, attractive and fertile. In the midst of ruminating over Crocale’s erotic dream, a wounded Albert enters and collapses at their feet.

Here I asked the actors playing Juletta and Hippolita to share the experience of the vision that Crocale conjures up through the telling of her dream, so that the silence could be charged. But the timing of the line comes down to the actor’s impulse feeding off of the pulse and rhythm of the piece. I feel it is particularly important in a staged reading that the actors not only render unto, but also render images for the audience. In this moment we (as audience) need to see the creation of the dream in the faces of the actors, and their reactions to the images flashing before their eyes, before they summon up the very thing they speak of.

Costume in staged readings can only ever be suggestive. There simply aren’t the resources and time to assemble a full wardrobe, and doing so would contradict the point of discovery and openness to interpretation. The usual garb for the men is a suit or jacket and white shirt. It is amazing what can be achieved with simple pieces of material,: a bandana for a pirate becomes a sash for a statesmen. The plethora of accessories available at Shakespeare’s Globe (crowns, swords, daggers, bottles, bags of gold, jewels, shrouds, stools (and even for this a Hog on a platter!), well arm the actors to present any piece.

However, I felt it was important to put a little bit of thought into the presentation of the ‘Amazons’ in The Sea Voyage.

Crocale:             But here’s our governess.
                        Now I expect a storm!

The second ‘storm’ of the piece comes in the form of Rosellia – the governess that forbids us/On pain of death the sight and use of men (Act 2. Sc. ii 21-22). With 6-8 pages build up (version dependant) to her entrance, when she did arrive, it was as an unstoppable force of nature as the commander in chief of the tribe. To facilitate the crescendo, it was important thematically to establish the commonwealth of women from the outset.

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Lexie Braverman in rehearsal for The Sea Voyage, 2016. Photo by Jay McClure.

The word “Amazon” for many conjures up a scantily clad siren à la Robert E. Howard, but this image falls short of the mark of capturing the strength of the women in this play. Whilst the men barely survive, the women thrive, and so I wanted to position the commonwealth more inline with the fearlessness of the Dahomey Amazons, an all female regiment, that terrorized Africa for more than 150 years.

To achieve this, I asked that all the actresses playing the Portuguese women come dressed (where possible) in boots and trousers, not skirts, as if they were on expedition in the jungle or were contestants on a survival show. This gave an effective uniformed appearance, a sense of order and strength, and again, the ever-so-handy pieces of material were used to great effect as headbands or headscarves to heighten the feeling of militia.

When Rosellia did appear, it was as a force to be feared, respected, and reckoned with.

That, as they say is that. Bar picking out clues in the text, determining mostly minimal costume, and working out entrances and exits, a director can achieve little else in the 4-5 hour rehearsal period. The rest is with the actors and their ability to respond instinctively to the play.

Shifting and unpredictable narratives, with a heavy underscore of rhetoric, are a mainstay for Fletcher and Massinger as they keep us at bay from second-guessing the plot, and the pendulum swings between romance and farce, through the many happy and convenient coincidences. Characters betray their own convictions when challenged with new circumstances; allegiances are complex: they form, break, and reform; and running through the core of the narrative is love and romance leading to the final resolution that leaves us on a high note proving that the Beatles were right after all: “All You Need is Love.”

The Sea Voyage is like a rollercoaster: the joy is found in surrendering yourself to the ride. I truly hope you enjoy this remarkable piece.

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Patrick Midgley in rehearsal for The Sea Voyage, 2016. Photo by Jay McClure.

References
Andy Kesson (2011) Review of Fletcher and Massinger’s The Sea Voyage
(co-ordinated by James Chalmers for the Read Not Dead Series, Globe Education), Nancy W. Knowles Lecture Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, 15 August 2010, Shakespeare, 7:3, 358-360, DOI: 10.1080/17450918.2011.589068

*Editor’s Note: The ASC’s own Staged Reading series was born out of the Globe’s Read Not Dead series. Join us next year for The True Chronicle of King Leir and His Three Daughters, George a Greene, and Antonio and Mellida.