A slightly gloomy person

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A new year begins, and everything – and I belong to the list-making sort, if only marginally. So, with a lovely new notebook to start, what was more natural than making a list of writing projects for the new year?

It is, of course, one of those hopeful lists, with way more items than I can reasonably expect to tackle – although you never can tell – and written down in full awareness of the nature of the best laid plans. Continue reading

Dickens’s Christmas Tree

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I don’t know about your corners of the world – but hereabouts these are days for trimming the Christmas Tree.

As a matter of fact, most people in Italy seem to do it on the 8th of December, a Marian holiday and, usually, a first taste of Christmas vacations. Others do  it on the 1st of the month, and I have a friend who used to hold that a Christmas tree should, by definition, be trimmed of Christmas Eve, and taken down the day after the Epiphany. Now he has two young daughters, though – and the tree goes up as early as the girls can wear down their parents’s patience. In my family, for some old reason no one quite remembers anymore, we keep a tradition of trimming our trees on the Eve of Saint Lucia, on the 12th – the day after tomorrow. Continue reading

A strange December

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December again…

Had things been different – had things been normal – I’d be going through the backstage routine for the umpteenth time with the newest recruit of the Quick Change Team (whoever she or he might be), getting ready for tonight’s dress rehearsals of a Christmas Carol, discussing our Scrooge’s foibles – and perhaps trying on my own costume for Ruth Grimshaw in the prologue… All the while, also getting ready for our new big play – my own Verne adaptation, to open on New Year’s Eve.  Also, Gemma and the good old Squirrels would be doing my Christmas Triptych on the 17th – so, even without being directly and officially involved in the production, more preparations… Continue reading

Do as you will – the Volumnia technique

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There is this thing in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – Act 3, Scene 2 – where the eponymous hero is dragged home by his friends after wrecking his campaign for Consulship.

Caius Martius’s unwilling bid for popular vote in the Forum began badly, and ended worse when the two People’s Tribunes goaded him into a shouting match. All patience lost, he gave them all a very abrasive piece of his mind on the rabble and its representatives – the sort that the Tribunes can easily construe as treasonous speech. So now he is at home, with family and friends trying to talk him into what he perceives as a humiliating apology, unless he wants to face charges of treason for himself and/or civil strife in the City. Continue reading

Rehearsing at a remove

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Every day I seem to realise a little more how much of our lives has moved to the realm of distance connections – even when the distance isn’t much at all. I told you about how our drama school moved all classes and meetings to Zoom, and then there is my mother doing her yoga practice via GoogleMeet, and the Company’s similarly organized cycle of Sepulveda readings… Continue reading

A tall and freckled wench – or, the (French) R in “character”

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Teaching in the Covid era – even teaching playwriting in a drama school – means that we are back to distance learning, these days. My corner of Italy is shut down again, and last night’s class happened on Zoom.

It was all about dialogue, you see, and using it to either forward action, or enhance characterization. Well – both, ideally, and all the more when writing for the stage, where dialogue is one of only two tools the playwright has to tell a story, the other being action.

But as we discussed ways to use dialogue to build character, I was reminded of a bit in Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger. Now, The Lodger is wonderful nonfiction, focusing on Shakespeare’s time as a lodger with the Mountjoys, a family of successful tyrers (or wig-makers) of French origins.

Shakespeare managed to get himself embroiled with a lawsuit between Christopher Mountjoy and his son-in-law, and let us say that the Bard doesn’t cut his finest figure – but that’s hardly the point. The point is the Bard’s landlady, Marie Mountjoy, who went from Huguenot refugee to tyre-maker to Anne of Denmark, no less. Well, at one point Marie, a wealthy businesswoman and perhaps an adulteress, goes to see astrologer and physician Dr. Simon Forman, in the hope of recovering a couple of lost ring and some equally lost money. It was a common practice, at the time, and Forman was a man of huge renown in the field. The good doctor used to take copious and detailed notes of his cases, and his notebooks have largely survived, to provide us with a treasure trove of details. Details like the very short list of Marie’s suspect thieves – one being Margery, a servant in the Mountjoy household. A tall and freckled wench, in Marie’s words.

These few words, jotted down by Foreman as he listened to Marie, have always given me the shivers – in the best possible way. It’s a bit of a voice from four hundred years ago, unphiltered by the conventions of literature, law or ritual. It’s a small window thrown open across the centuries to show us, to make us hear this long dead woman… Nicholl loves it just as much as I do, and goes a step further: Whenever I try to conjure up a sense of Marie, he writes, I imagine her while she pronounces “freckled” with a French accent.

Try Nicholl’s little game – and here is Marie at thirty, leaning forward in her seat in the flickering light from a pair of candles, with a disapproving frown, and pursed lips, with her hands folded in her lap, and her French ‘r… So vividly alive, after four hundred something years, and all because of five words told to an astrologer. Five words that keep a trace of her origins, her mindset, her beliefs, her voice, her personality. Five words.

It goes to show how a few well-chosen words of dialogue  can go very far in creating a voice and a character – whether history kindly provides them, or we make them up ourselves.