Performing Yeats

On the opening night of L’Ecrivain Public in Paris, Juliet O’Brien – the writer/director – presented me with a slim bilingual volume of Yeats’ poetry. The play contained a reference to He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven, and Juliet knew that I was from Yeats’ heartland in the northwest of Ireland.

That volume had quite a bit of solid advice on life & love; though I’ve wondered of late whether the poetry that resonated most with me in my youth were not the truths, but rather the ideas I wished were true. Pablo Neruda’s first volume of love poetry, resplendent in it’s worship of, not women, but a young man’s idea of women. Yeats’ vision of his own intellect, choosing the perfection of the work over the perfection of the life, and therefore ‘refusing a heavenly mansion, raging in the dark’…. a beautiful and romantic image that always chimes with my inner martyr, but which also conjures up a warning image seared into my childhood mind – Uncle Andrew from C.S.Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, staring down at little Digory from his filthy attic room wherein he practiced dark and selfish magic. “Ours, my boy,” he told Digory and me, “is a high and lonely destiny.” Perhaps as I grow in my own wisdom the elements of Yeats that he & I wished were true will drop away and something simpler, truer and rarely quoted will remain.

Brown pennies, ivory towers and unattainable women aside, there’s also Yeat’s biographical reminisces, which offer a pleasantly readable insight into a very likable man. It wasn’t till I read them that he started to offer me some strongly worded advice on how I should do my job.

Heron Allen had the wisdom to reduce his acting to a series of poses, with not more gesture than was needed… when some other player opened his mouth, breaking up the verse to make it conversational, jerking his body or his arms that he might seem no austere poetical image but very man, I listened in raging hatred. I kept my seat with difficulty, I searched my memory for insulting phrases, I even muttered them to myself that the people about might hear.

– The Trembling of the Veil

Yeah ok, we’ve all been W.B. raging in the middle row – not long ago I left a show outright because a particular performance was driving me round the bend (awards were won – shows what I know). It’s not like me to leave – we learn the most from work we don’t agree with, and theatre tickets aren’t cheap for those on theatre wages. But the ferocity of Yeats’ hatred for naturalism surprised me when I read it first, and made me a little nervous: I was rehearsing for Cuchulainn in On Baile’s Strand at the time, and much of our efforts were spent searching for ways to make the text more real, more vivid, more natural.

Yeats does seem to have broadly agreed with Michael Chekhov that “style is the most precious thing [the actor-artist] brings into his work,” and that “the legacy that naturalism will leave behind will be a coarsened and nervously disordered audience that has lost its artistic taste.” But where Chekhov backs it up with a skilled and subtle understanding of the range of styles and form available to the actor, Yeats is – quite frankly – a woeful performer of his own work, his readings being roughly on par with my poetry. He sought a particular style –

how great might be the effect of verse spoken by a man almost rhythm-drunk at some moment of intensity, the apex of long mounting thought….that voice, whose beauty was half in its harsh strangeness, nobility and style…

…which when heard today – at least in his rendition – sounds anachronistic, stuffy, unfeeling.

My first real encounter with performing Yeats was, interestingly, an attempt to recreate things as he would have done it. The Royal Ballet & Royal Ballet School staged a version of The King of the Great Clock Tower (I played the King) which was an exercise in theatrical archaeology – costumes, set, masks all recreated from photographs; the earliest draft of the script possible; ballet choreography (the real centrepiece) as close to Ninette de Valois’ style as possible; and my performance was, shall we charitably say, old-fashioned…. or – to borrow a bizarre phrasing from the recent controversial Abbey report – the acting style was not in keeping with ‘modern best practice.’ (Seriously?)


Photograph © Patrick Baldwin (2011). From: The Royal Ballet School Collections, White Lodge Museum

Later came the complete opposite – Blue Raincoat had already staged Sanctuary on top of Knocknarae mountain, and now they were to stage On Baile’s Strand on Cummeen Strand, a strip of lowland between the shore and Coney Island that’s exposed when the tide is low. This huge stage was framed by Benbulben to the east and Knocknarae to the west, and to the south, the Rosses road that Yeats wandered in youth and old age.

Here you hit certain problems. Yeat’s writing is of course stylised; and the performance style demands stylisation. But as anyone who has seen outdoor Shakespeare can testify, style usually fails outside the formal frame of the theatre. On the stage, reality has been temporarily barred entry, so that the actors can propose a new reality. In a realistic setting, your proposals for an ‘other’ way of speaking, of behaving, come up against the real world and lose. You look silly. Beneath the lights, you are a Roman emperor beset by tragedy. On O’Connell Street, you are a man in sheet doing a funny voice.

But Cummeen Strand is not O’Connell Street. It’s a huge natural arena, framed by mountains; miles of flat sand; an island as your backdrop, the sky as your auditorium. Even to get there required a half-hour on-foot trek from the coast, the audience entering that ritual theatrical elsewhere with each step they took across what is essentially the sea bed. As far as the real world goes, this was more real than people’s daily lives – and so it had the potential to be a powerful ‘elsewhere.’

Certainly one of the first things that we discovered about the necessarily strange blend of naturalism and heightened style was that we couldn’t compete with the landscape. Where in a theatre you speak of mountains, the land, the sky, in a way that conjures them in the audience’s mind, a way that evokes them, here you can’t. They’re present, and more real than you, and to speak poetically of them feels daft. True even for the mythical elements of Cuchulainn’s story – Aoife, the warrior-woman of Scotland, no longer a character but someone who is beyond that sea; the witch-women, floating in the air, are not ideas that we ask the audience to buy into, but are here now in this air. The location, being both real and ethereal, opened up strange and fascinating possibilities for performance.  I’d like to think it would have given the big man something he hadn’t seen before. It also opened the door to some very interesting staging – like entering the scene from a mile and a half away, possibly the most fun stage entrance I’ve gotten to do yet.

Yeats has never been far from the public consciousness – particularly now with the ongoing Yeats2015 celebrations – and his poetry remains as vibrant, honest and heartbreaking as it ever was; for me it’s always and forever a thing of home, both of Sligo and of Ireland…. growing up, those of us with fires in our heads often went out to the Hazelwood, whether we’d read him or not. Keep an eye out for Blue Raincoat’s upcoming contributions to Yeats 2015 – no doubt there’ll be more creative staging afoot, although without me on board – I’ll be playing my geetar in the Olympia all summer.

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