When I left Rada, some of the other actors went straight into West End plays but I couldn’t have been happier that I worked with an extraordinary lady called Chattie Salaman. Chattie ran the theatre company Common Stock. She knew Jerzy Grotowski’s work thoroughly and trained us in his vocal and physical exercises, which were really demanding on the body. It meant forgetting this notion that the actor stands upright and delivers lines. It was more about exercises like finding the shapes and sounds of different animals, in order to bring out a more ancient part of ourselves.
We performed mainly in community centres and small-scale theatres. The thing I remember very strongly is the idea that a performance is more than delivering a set of words – albeit by a very talented playwright – but that there is a sense of ritual to it. Sometimes we performed in really grubby places but it didn’t matter – the preparation remained the same. Once you began and committed to a piece of work, you did so totally. I’ve carried that with me always.
Grotowski believed that theatre can be a vehicle to access another level of perception of the world. For him, the “poorer” the style of theatre the better because it falls back on the actors and what they have to bring, rather than sets or costumes or designs. It’s going back to the original instrument, which is the actor.
In the early 1980s, he left his home in Poland and went to America and worked with a group of actors there. But very soon his methods of training began to be interpreted and boxed and codified in a way that horrified him, so he moved to Italy. With theatre, people want to know: “What’s the secret? Let’s have a bit of that.” It’s the same with the work of Peter Brook, Jacques Lecoq, Complicité … But it doesn’t work like that. Once the originators have gone, the important thing is to work with people who have understood the spirit of their work, rather than copying specific training exercises. DV8 and Complicité in the early days had something of that Grotowski spirit, and so do Gecko today.
Grotowski collaborated very closely with Roy Hart. They were very interested in exploring the sound, as well as the meaning, of language. To this day, whether I’m working on Shakespeare or Beckett or a modern play, I find myself in the warm-up representing the situation in sound because there is something about breath and naked sound that reaches a deeper place than the meaning and logic that the brain brings. The great voice teachers, Cicely Berry and Kristin Linklater, both say there are many levels in Shakespeare. There is the level of logic, argument and rhetoric, but there is also the sound of the vowels and consonants, the power of that musical quality. Shakespeare’s genius lies in his musicianship as much as in the stories he wrote and his explorations of human nature. John Barton also spoke of the “hidden poetry” in Shakespeare’s verse and prose, the undefinable cadence of sound that touches something deep inside us. I see all of that as connected to Grotowski, who is saying: let’s attend to the sounds and their vibrations, the spirit in the sound, not just the logic.
The work of Peter Brook also resonates with Growtoski’s spirit of exploration. The first time I worked with Peter I was very intimidated and awestruck. I met his actors and they were wonderful practitioners, very friendly. Then I noticed that they never just gambolled on to the stage. The shoes came off and as soon as they stepped on stage, it became another space. We would start in silence – I found it very uncomfortable to begin with, thinking: “Isn’t anyone going to speak?” But it meant being still, realising that you are here, now, with each other and not carrying around with you everything from your past. Then we can begin to work.
Grotowski, too, demanded that level of attention and awareness. He brought audiences into intimate spaces. Grotowski’s actors communicated through different types of energies to reach a different state of being and take the audience somewhere else. The evidence I had of it was seeing Grotowski’s star actor Ryszard Cieślak in a Peter Brook production of The Mahabharata. He had this ability to enter another state. It was extraordinarily compelling.