Wednesday, 30 May 2007


In one or other of his collections of collected writings, Alan Bennett tells a story about Dudley Moore comparing the playing of jazz and the playing of comedy. Musical timing, he says, is not about hitting the note at precisely the moment the metronome strikes, but that either side of the strike there's a temporal space, anywhere within which the note can be hit. In classical music, it is expected that the musician will stick fairly closely to the ticking of the imaginary metronome, but jazz is considerably looser. In jazz, says Moore, the challenge is to hit the occasional note as far as possible from the metronome's strike, while still remaining just within the space provided for that note. Whereas in classical form, most of the subversion of expectations that takes place occurs in the selection of the note, in jazz, the moment at which that note gets played is also a major factor.

(It's worth noting before we go on that this does happen in classical music, too - check out Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven sonatas - but it's clearly a phenomenon of the last forty years and while classicists might deny it, maybe jazz has played its part in that.)

How does this compare to comedy? Dudley Moore avers that the playing of comedy, unlike for example the playing of Shakespeare, demands a similar rhythmic elasticity. Comic timing is, in part, about hitting the laugh-line when the audience least expect it. To which I would say, that depends on the line. Sometimes the line itself is unexpected enough to require no further gamery. And anyway, Olivier built a whole career on delivering Shakespeare in unexpected ways. Moore's point, I suppose, is about precisely how surprising one can afford to be: too surprising and you become ridiculous and are suddenly playing comedy by mistake. Olivier's much-vaunted 'boldness' as a performer might be susceptible to the re-interpretation 'very close to comedy'. But not too close.

There are some fairly obvious applications of this to theatre more generally. Olly wrote, for his third-year final piece at university, a twenty-minute play called Rhapsody which borrowed its structure from a piece of music by (I think) Philip Glass. It introduced themes and motifs in precisely the way Glass did, broke its story down into movements in the same way, and followed his shape with some precision. Musical shape and dramatic shape clearly bear much comparison, although if I make such comparisons I'm not going to do so just now.

Because unsurprisingly, it's when it comes to directing that this interests me most. To what extent is directing like conducting? Well, in the sense that the conductor sits at the front and the director does not, not at all. While it might be amusing as an experiment to see Peter Hall flapping his arms about throughout the show rather like Simon Rattle (or Sam Allardyce, for that matter), I can't see it catching on.

But I do spend a fair bit of any given rehearsal period, usually in the mid to late section, noticing the musicality of spoken text more powerfully than its sense. This probably coincides with the point in the rehearsal period when I've heard it so many times that sense starts to recede somewhat, but it's always a useful period. Several directors, myself included, have some fairly deep-set 'rules' about the rhythms of the text: keep up the pace, think on the line rather than before, only pause at the end of a beat (a beat is a unit of dramatic action*), that sort of thing. To a very large extent this is just common sense, although it's astonishing how much work you see that breaches it out of sheer tedium-inducing incompetence. Still, I put the word 'rules' in inverted commas because they're rarely if ever rigidly applied - it's just that when something's not working as well as it should, these are often the first port of call and often fix the problem.

And it's not just about rhythm, it's also about tone. There's a very high chance that the beginning of a new beat will play best if it comes in on a note different to the previous beat. A line can be made to stand out within a beat if it strikes a different note again. None of this is particularly astonishing, yet again, it's terrifying how often shows slip into a fixed regularity of rhythm and tone. This is particularly true of classics, whose companies often seem to think they've found the key to speaking that text, before proceeding to speak it in exactly the same way for three interminable hours. And I've heard of directors (European, mostly) who conduct rehearsals by getting the actors to do the scene, then asking them to do it again, but differently - a good way of finding new musicalities, and an equally good way of inducing nervous exhaustion in your actors. (John Wright has an exercise designed to elicit rhythmic elasticity which involves the speaking of one line repeatedly, punctuated by a loud clap, in as many different ways as can be mustered. But he doesn't ask you to do it all day.)

I should stress that this isn't much of a way of making a show. The way a text is spoken can't in practice be separated from the way it's staged or from what it means without disastrous results. But it's a very useful way of looking at something late in rehearsal when sense and blocking are fairly solidified, and giving it a polish. As often as not something physical will be implied by the musical realisation, and as often as not it will happen the other way around. Both of these can then augment or subtly alter the sense. Thinking of a text as music for a period can open it up hugely just when it's starting to be in danger of getting stale. This is the period of fixing the metronome.

So in a sense this does make one somewhat like a conductor, in rehearsals at least. But once the performances get going, the performers become jazz musicians. The metronome has been set in rehearsals and their job is to stay within those boundaries while also keeping the show alive by testing them. Shiver last night fell very much into this category. It was quite different to any previous performance in countless matters of detail, while being very similar by way of content.

The performers were in effect, improvising together. The text was (more or less) fixed, the dramatic action unchanged, but they took every opportunity to find new notes, new rhythms. This is what happens when a show is alive, when the performers are really listening and in tune with one another. It's rather exciting. An audience should always feel - even though they know the contrary to be true - that a show is happening for the first time, that anything could happen. When the performers are bound by the metronome, this isn't possible. When they have internalised it and are able to play with it, anything is possible.

* There's a (probably apocryphal) story about the origin of this term. Stanislavski, giving a workshop in English, occasionally referred to "thees beet here" and "that beet there" when talking about the text. His accent being thick and the English being likewise, the term became accepted.