Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye @ Tate Modern

It is funny how we become attached to the work of certain artists. I was in my 3rd year of undergrad, doing a 'painting project' for our honours acting class, in which we were to write a monologue as a character from a painting to 'come alive'. Most others selected paintings that were fairly naturalist and impressionist. Feeling edgy, I selected one of Munch's wood cuts; how edgy expressionism feels in an undergrad degree in the middle of Canada.

Anyway, I have spent more and more time over the years looking at various phases of his work. Obviously his famous work such as The Scream, Sick Child and Starry Night are beautiful and captivating in their own way, but it is Munch's fascination with photography that I find truly intriguing. I was extremely grateful to this exhibition for showcasing the photography alongside the painting, as it adds an opportunity to see how his experimentation with photographs, moving and unreliable images captured on film fed into the paintings. The movement in Galloping Horse was evident in a manner much more clear than it might have been otherwise.

His later photographs push this further, with images doubling, blurring, looking phantasmagoric. Curious that this led into his period dealing with fights, loss of the ability to see, and ultimately death; each of these is a mirror of our mortality, seen crisply in the photographs. The images that move, but are caught still, seem to capture that essence which is lost in death.

This is a beautiful exhibition, curated with extensive care, and one I strongly recommend.


Act 4 of The Duchess of Malfi presents all sorts of difficulties for directors/actors, and for the audience. Webster has been plodding along in a heightened, but relatively "normal" place of lies and deceit. Then we get to act 4 and all hell breaks loose. It has been said that Strindberg takes a moment that in a naturalistic play would be a minute and makes the whole play of it. Webster has done this in act 4...for all intents and purposes, really, we could just see the duchess be strangled, having heard of the torture. Instead, Webster gives us these gloriously juicy scenes with Ferdinand offering her a severed hand, madmen in her chamber singing and dancing, a disguised Bosola, executioners, coffins, and two deaths. Not to mention the marathon speeches of Bosola and Ferdinand at the end of the act. So given all on EARTH do you put this on stage?

For yesterday's class, my group was charged with preparing act 4 scene 2. We were all agreed that there is a need to step outside of a naturalistic approach; first, because there are a ton of characters and we only had 5 people, and second because we needed to make the violence real, shocking, and not silly for a modern audience. We played around quite a lot, trying out ideas, working collaboratively on what might work. We ended with the idea to be influenced a bit by plays like Marat/Sade and have this scene located in a common room of an insane asylum. All chairs were placed around the full playing space, mostly single chairs, but the odd pairing...each facing different directions toward the front of the room, where the duchess sat alone, facing out to the crowd. All other performers were placed amongst the crowd as their neutral madmen, and popped in and out of the scene as various characters, contributing to the Duchess' terror. Our goal was to really help the audience feel her resignation, feel uneasy about what was coming at them, and ensure that everyone had a different perspective of what occurred in the scene, some seeing things that others missed and so on. The action moved around the space so sometimes audience members from certain places could only hear the text, not see the actor. This worked quite well in presentation, most comments indicated that this had really worked for them, the cacaphony of sound and position of the text distanced over the large space helped with the sense of the time and place.

Our second issue was all of the violence in this scene. Two strangulations, some dead babies. We opted to make the strangulations highly expressionistic; the executioner for the Duchess and later for Cariola faced away from the audience, never touching the victim, but doing a gesture of strangulation which was mirrored by the person dying. From here, Bosola's directions would snap us back to the madhouse and the "executioner" would return to their chair. Again with the children, we made use of the madmen; the scarf that one madman had worn was left at a chair, and became a baby to indicate the dead children.

Overall this premise worked quite well, and would be good to investigate further. Might it be possible to stage the play in this way in its entirety?


Today was the first half/half Friday, with voice and movement on the same day. Adrianne was back for voice, and we continued to build on the work with releasing and relaxing the spine to free the voice. God, i love Alexander Technique work. Love it. It is amazing how much more freedom you can have in your voice simply from releasing tension in and around the is as if it fixes everything else.

Movement was lots of fun today as well; continued to build on LABAN's work, moving into deriving physical work with a story...and then on merging stories with other groups to create an expressionist piece. The story itself isn't what is important, but rather the relationships between the movement, the planes or spheres we are moving in. It was tough not to have my inner choreographer come out and to just let things happen. Even unwillingly we managed to create something circular. I think my brain moves in circles when it comes to movement-based things. It was also interesting to see how the other groups worked together to merge, seeing where their ideas went in terms of layering or merging the movements that were already created, or as our group did, modifying them to work together.

All Over The Place

Today began with Scene Study; presented our work on Act 3 of Duchess. This went well; we found some nice moments and shifts in the text that I think showed a clear understanding of what Webster is getting at. I am still finding that we weave in and out of understanding in our presentations...likely because we move directors each week, so everyone gets a go. Next week we are off, the following week we have been assigned act 4. This time Tom took the two key scenes, and asked two groups to prepare each. We'll then discuss and compare the two interpretations for what did and did not work. This is rather exciting. My group have been given the madman scene, and all of us want to try for a non-naturalistic representation. We meet Thursday to sort this out. Our only limit is that we must stay true to the text.

Theorizing tonight was both good and bad for me. Good in our initial conversations about the ephemerality of theatre, and what remains afterward; reviews, photos, notes, criticism and essays....This sparked an interesting conversation about criticism, which led well into the latter half of our class, where we had two visitors - Dr Karen Fricker, and Andrew Dickson. Dr Fricker is a theatre critic, and lecturer at Royal Holloway. Andrew Dickson is the Theatre Editor for the Guardian (curator of what I think to be the most important source of information on theatre today, the Guardian Theatre Blog). The two talked about their path to their current positions, and then about the role of the critic, good critical writing, and the changing face of criticism with social media and blogs. Then they opened the floor to questions.

Here is my gripe: I have been observing the British tradition from the inside for two months now, including the opportunity to see the plays that are then reviewed by esteemed critics such as Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner. What I am finding is that the review is in many ways a review of the history of the play more than it is a review of the production itself. Similarly, the two revival productions I have seen (unfortunately couldn't make it to Marat/Sade) were entirely reverent to the original production in as many ways as possible. We talked a bit about the symbiotic relationship between reviewers and performers, about the need to get reviewed to be "legitimized" and Dr Fricker suggested that smaller fringe companies should make use of social media in this way. What I think she fails to understand is that to an arts council, blogged reviews don't count as legitimacy when you are writing a grant application.

I'm meandering a bit here...but another point of contention for me is the idea of authority in the critic's perspective; with blogs and comment trails, twitter reviews and facebook...where is the authority of the "published" professional critic? As Dr Fricker suggested, the value is found in the analysis of the production, not the mere reporting of person x playing part y, and a value judgement...but an actual critical analysis of what was shown and what it means. The response to my query on this was simply to read Lyn Gardner. Now I have the utmost respect for her...but heaven knows she isn't the only reviewer! What about the hundreds of thousands of non-theatre "people" who stumble into work as a critic? How are they performing a valuable function that serves the dialogue for furtherance of this thing we call theatre?

Anway, a bit of a rant, and some inconclusive ideas right now....but food for thought.

image: Jackson Pollock - Summertime