I recently directed a short dialogue from the play ‘Our Country’s Good’ which required me to think about every aspect of the performance, including props and the actor’s movements. I will explain what I did and why in terms of staging, speech and the set. Things like lighting and large pieces of set were either unable or I didn’t have enough time to organise them so I will explain what I would have done had the resources been available. I will also compare the work of Timberlake Wertenbaker and her performance style to that of Bertolt Brecht.
I had to direct the duologue between Midshipman Harry Brewer and Lieutenant Ralph Clark. Visual This includes costume, props, staging, lighting and the actor’s physicality. Most of these things were unavailable, and as it was a small piece the cost wouldn’t have been justified. In her production, Timberlake Wertenbaker used authentic costumes and props to show the time period her play was set in and to inform the audience. If given the chance to use costumes I would have done the same thing, which would also make the play seem more realistic.
She had a very Brechtian approach where staging is concerned in that she didn’t use any large pieces of staging, mainly tables and chairs. To show a change of scene or location, she simply changed the backdrop. I think this is effective in that it doesn’t distract the audience from the actual performance but still provides a background for the scenes. In directing this scene I looked at my given characters as they progress throughout the play. Wertenbaker gave lots of stage directions which is especially visible in Act 1 Scene 9 when Ralph is trying to kiss his wife’s picture.
Virtually every other line is a stage direction which guides the actor in how to perform the role and helps to show how sexually frustrated Ralph is. In my piece I used two chairs, with Ralph staying seated for the whole time. Harry eventually sat down when he explains to Ralph that Handy Baker has come back from the dead. They stayed in that general area, as I think too much movement would have been ineffective. Ralph stayed seated to show that he wasn’t really bothered by Harry, and that he thought what Harry was saying wasn’t important.
Wertenbaker wanted her audience to be involved with the production, so I can imagine she would have used lots of coloured lights to add atmosphere to the scenes. This contrasts the Brechtian technique of having a general wash to avoid the audience connecting with the characters emotionally. Personally I would have used a general wash or possibly a soft spotlight on Harry and Ralph to isolate them on stage, and not draw the audience’s eye to other props that may have been left on stage from other scenes. Aural This concerns what the audience and the actors hear.
Ralph and Harry don’t seem to have very distinguished accents, and they don’t speak using dialect or slang. This helps to demonstrate the fact that they are officers and were probably educated when they were in England. I had Ralph use a very sarcastic, uninterested tone, except for the line: ‘Don’t speak her name on this iniquitous shore! ‘ For this line I had Ralph almost shouting but he pulls back as if he’s made a mistake. Harry is obsessed with Duckling and, after this outburst, changes the topic of conversation to her as if Ralph hadn’t said anything.
I did this to show, in a way, how nai?? ve and oblivious Harry can be. Each character has an individual way of speaking. Robbie Ross has his gruff Scottish accent and Dabby Bryant has her broad Devon accent, which gives them both a unique sense of identity. Other characters like Liz Morden speak using dialect. Robbie Ross and Liz aren’t particularly popular with the other characters which could be because they cannot relate to them. The fact they all come from different parts of the country could act as a barrier to their understanding each other.
Ross and Morden don’t have the best personalities, but speaking in a way that only they and other people from their part of the country can understand doesn’t make them any more socially attractive. Again because Wertenbaker didn’t want to distance her audience from the performance it is likely that she would have used music or recorded sound effects when appropriate. This again contrasts with Brechtian technique of keeping the production overly simple and distancing the audience from the performance.
Spatial This is linked to the visual aspect of the performance and concerns how the space on stage was used. My actors generally stayed in one area of the stage, slightly off-centre. I think that too much movement around the stage in this scene is unnecessary, and would distract the audience from what the actors were saying. Ralph tried to keep his distance from Harry, as if afraid of him, but Harry kept unknowingly trying to invade his personal space.
Again I think this shows how oblivious Harry can be when it comes to being around other people. It is more than likely that Wertenbaker would have used the whole of the stage, possibly using different parts of it to show different periods of time. This is a Brechtian technique, developed to keep production simple. The audience was end on, which gave them a single perspective of the performance. I watched the rehearsals from several angles, and neither of my performers blocked the other so they could be seen by everyone at all times.
It would have been a harder task if the audience was in a round, as this would mean I would have to make more use of the entire stage to ensure that their backs aren’t always facing one part of the audience. Overall I think my piece was quite well directed, but given the chance to do it again with a different duologue I would probably change the fact that the actors didn’t move around the stage. Telling them to use the space more effectively might engage the audience a bit more but it is important not to have too much movement or they won’t concentrate on what the actors are saying.