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Phil Willmott: Great writing is the foundation for character building

Celine Abrahams, Ivy Corbin and Molly Crookes in Phil Willmott's production of Three Sisters at The Union Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander
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This isn’t something that’s troubled me for a while. I believe if you and your cast collaboratively identify the motivation behind each line and the director helps the actor play it clearly and simply and without what-did-my-character-have-for-breakfast-on-the-day-her-dog-died psychological clutter, you usually get what the playwright intended and good theatre.

However, directing Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a masterpiece of a play in which virtually no one says what they actually mean, has got me reaching for my drama school Stanislavski notes.

From my formative years in acting I remember two very contrasting attitudes to subtext. The first was as a drama student at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in the late 1980s when we were often and rightly told not to play the subtext, and the second was the year I spent in a soap in which the speed of storytelling necessitated signalling very clearly that, for instance, you were lying even if it made the character you were talking to look like an idiot for not picking up on it. Both methods are equally valid. If anything, soaps touch more people then Chekhov.

As a director or actor working today, how do you convey the subtitles of the former to an audience used to the narrative clarity of the latter? As I’m discovering, one doesn’t preclude the other and not playing the subtext can actually help to tell a story.

In one of my favourite scenes in Three Sisters, two women are wrestling for control of the household servants. Gradually the social niceties break down and it turns into a very ugly and direct confrontation. That’s the easy bit, the interesting challenge is the little verbal dance that leads up to the snap. Both women are adept at wielding their linguistic weapons of choice. One uses the passive aggression of the bourgeoisie, intimidated by (yet dismissive of) the upper class, the other has the quiet authority of someone used to being obeyed. After some experiment we’ve found that the most compelling version of the scene demonstrates no surface animosity from either. The harder they work to respectively charm or advise the other, the clearer it becomes that they loath each other. We need add no superfluous vocal inflection or flick of the eyes.

This is the glory of great writing. The more brilliant it is the less the actor needs to do and can concentrate on playing the truth of each individual moment confident that the big picture takes care of itself. The difficult bit, for the actor, is to trust the writer to have done his or her job – and to resist the urge to comment on the character through the performance.

I’ve been reminded that the actor can often have a far better understanding of how a scene can be played, if it’s based on a character’s carefully researched inner life, than the director, who has to keep half an eye on serving the writer’s vision. As rehearsals progressed I rediscovered how rewardingly these can mesh.

The actor playing the character of Vershinin and I differed on our overview of the character. I saw a manipulative narcissist who the playwright goes to great lengths to show is a liar and a terrible husband and father. The actor saw a troubled, lost soul, gripped by the emotional turmoil of finding some beauty in life. The actor was right to focus on how the character viewed himself, making no moral judgment in his performance. The exciting thing is we’ve ended up with something we’re both happy with, because the more sympathetically he plays Vershinin’s angst, the more the character comes across as self-obsessed.

Our challenge is to identify which version of Vershinin, Masha, the sister who is drawn to him, sees at any given moment. Chekhov gives her virtually no dialogue to directly answer the puzzle. In early rehearsals we explored expressing her growing infatuation with a series of knowing glances between the two, but tomorrow I’m looking forward to getting back into rehearsals and stripping all that away. If we’re to unlock what Masha’s not saying, we need to be entirely focused on what little she does say, with no embellishments or commentary from us.

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