We are now well into rehearsals and the Comedy of Errors is beginning to emerge, crab-like, from its Marshallese shell. As with any play, the first week or so of rehearsals is settling in time. The actors are beginning to get to know eachother, both as characters and as themselves, and we are discovering the many and varied talents of the Marshallese kids, from natural comic timing to a great sense of physicality- and an ability to laugh at pretty much anything!
Having spent the first week getting tangled up in bed sheets in our depiction of the shipwreck, we are now moving onto the 'play proper'. The shipwreck has emerged as a success, with rhythmic drumming, a physicalised sail ship and a seascape of sound replacing what threatened to be a laundryroom-like scene with actors stumbling around mummy-like in great swathes of cloth, whilst a cacophony of squawking pigeons threatened to descend overhead- we have now limited the sea bird sound effects to two of the actors to avoid the audience mistaking the setting for a zoo.
As the play focusses so heavily on mistaken identities, there is a great demand for comedy from our actors. Unusually there is little intense emotion in this play, as his first, perhaps the bard was building up to that, using this play as an exercise in how to entertain an audience. Reading it in English, at first I was disappointed by the lack of poetry in comparison to his later plays. Whilst there are moments of exception, generally the dialogue here either propels the story forward and plays on witty double entendres. This is great for an English speaking audience, but the confusion of a 'crow', the bird and a 'crow bar' just isn't funny in another language! However, the further we have got into rehearsals, the more I have realised that this is an ideal play for translation. With such a strong emphasis on visual comedy, onstage brawls and mistaken identity, it can't fail to go down well with an audience who loves to laugh. And boy, do the Marshallese love to laugh!
There are huge challenges for a play director here. We got the Marshallese script last week and had a read through... suddenly I felt as if my grip on the play had just been ripped away and I had no hold on it. How can you direct a play when you don't speak the language it is spoken in! Whilst I am trying hard to master Marshallese, I can just about manage to call a cab and say thank you for the lift, but a full length Shakespearean translation is another matter entirely.
However, as we take each scene, moment by moment, the process becomes workable. Line by line, we work on the meaning and emotion of the words, giving the character intentions so that each is clear of what he is trying to do with the line- what does he want? Why does he say this? How can his tone make that clear? It is certainly a fascinating process.
This week we are embarking on blocking (setting the characters in their positions on stage). This does, however, rely on full, on time attendance, which seems to be a stumbling block in the Marshalls. We have been bribing the actors with food and games, so hopefully we'll make some progress. Unless it rains, of course, when the entire island shuts down and everyone decides to stay at home. It's certainly different from life in the English theatre!
As for the other aspects of the play, Alisha and I are embarking on a new spin for one of the dances- as a contrast with the Fijian opening and closing dances, the festival dance half way through is going to be performed to Michael Jackson's 'Black and White'. The students are desperate to do something to this kind of music, and it provides an effective contrast with other music in the play- it'll certainly liven up the show. Plus, whilst the singer clearly didn't stick to his own views on the concept of skin colour being unimportant, we still think the song has a great message for this project- uniting different countries and cultures in one umbrella of bawdiness, bardiness and fun!
Let's just hope they start learning their lines!