Warning: the subject matter here is inherently unpleasant. No offence is intended in the writing of this article, which aims to explore and share theatrical techniques discovered when presenting difficult and controversial subject matter.
Now and again I’m asked to choreograph fights for fringe productions. One of the more unusual and challenging jobs I’ve ever undertaken was First Time, by Suzy Gill. I was asked to choreograph a fight scene as part of a rehearsed reading.
This in and of itself was the novel idea of director Anoushka Bonwick, to add a meta-theatrical device that ultimately aimed to serve the stakes in the text, as the action on the page broke out on the stage.
In the concluding fight, scripts were used as weapons, as integrated in the action as the words themselves. It was intended as a fun process that would help the reading stand out, complete with a gory finish that took things to another level.
And then came the rape that started it all.
Rape is a complex issue. Unraveling that complexity and trying to express the very nature of rape proved a trap that we couldn’t afford to get caught in.
Instead, we quickly had to accept a very simple truth. One that is valuable to all discussions of rape.
Every rape is different.
We were talking about just one.
Depicting the act of rape proved a real challenge for us as a creative team, both cast and crew. We had to take something horrifying and approach it with sensitivity.
Suzy Gill’s script called for it to happen on stage, in front of the audience. In a reading that was fully staged, with fights breaking out as a result of the rape, we couldn’t shy away from this.
As an actor combatant, or qualified fight performer, I had learned certain principles that proved invaluable for the staging process, but also allowed for the scene to be played without going to melodramatic extremes.
Addressing The Scene
Rape is an act of violence, but not all violence is physical. There are of course violent rapes, horrific acts in which both victim and rapist will fight to preserve themselves or exact their will, but our script did not call for this. We learn little about the complexity of the issue by leaning heavily on such extreme examples. We needed something subtler.
The scene played out as a dispute between young lovers, culminating in the boy being over-stimulated and forcing himself on the girl.
In my head, the key was to ensure that we crossed the line into that territory. But only by one step. It must be definitely rape. The challenge was to have the all conflict without the physical lash-outs of punches or slaps, while the sexual acts remained, of course, inherently physical.
Stage Combat Principles In A New Context
In stage combat, we talk a lot about intention, and that proved to be the first key to unlocking this challenge.
When swinging a broadsword, the intention is to kill or maim. However, when using a small sword, there may be four or five feints, deceives, disengages and counter-disengages all designed to mislead an opponent before a strike.
As such, the more sophisticated the weapon, the more nuanced the intentions. Here, the weapon was primarily emotion. It called for physical actions, but of a far more subtle nature than any ‘moves’ the audience could identify as ‘punch’ or ‘kick’.
When strangling we practice a notion known as reverse-energy, or victim-control. The person who outwardly appears to be doing the strangling in fact pulls away from the victim, while the victim pulls toward themselves, keeping the hands around their own throat.
This way, if the victim becomes uncomfortable and lets go, the hold is released and the illusion is broken.
At all times, the victim was in control. As the boy put his hand up her skirt, she took hold of his wrist. He pulled away while she pulled toward, and through this mechanism she could control where he was positioned to sell the illusion.
There was all strain and struggle needed to make it feel real, while at the same time allowing the actors to remain comfortable.
The final element was one of eye contact. In staging a fight, eye contact is key. Creating eye contact with a partner (seen only by the audience as an opponent) allows fighters to build trust and communication during a choreography.
By breaking eye contact and looking at the intended target, we help the audience follow the character’s intention. If I look toward your thigh with a sword in my hand, I am going to try and stab you in the thigh. This cue helps tell the story to the audience.
In our rape scene however, eye contact was zero from the boy, and absolute from the girl.
This worked, because she was responsible for leading most all of the actions, though it would appear as if he was the aggressor to the audience. They also had constant contact, using proprioception (awareness of the body in space) to gauge each other’s position, much like in dance.
This lack of eye contact created an affecting game between the actors, where she would try to catch his eye, and he would try to avoid it.
This inspired the final moment, and the final step across the line. She had been forced to the floor and was trying to soothe him, to find his eyes. In so doing, she hoped to diffuse his intention.
He at all times looked down, focusing on his physical objective. It was a fight in the eyes.
She tried to reason with him gently, to bring his focus back to her and not his intention, but he turned her face away. We added to this that his script would cover her face to finally prevent any attempt at eye contact. This act was about power, not connection. It had taken the step over that line.
Affecting Audiences With The Unspectacular
The only physical acts had been to put a hand up her skirt, lower her to the ground, separate her legs and turn away her face – all controlled by the actress. The act itself was deliberately perfunctory.
Though these were deliberate acts, and arguably acts of aggression, she did not ‘fight’ them for fear of heightening his already agitated state.
In this way, we hoped to highlight the issue of consent. Consent was visibly absent. Lack of consent was verbally reinforced by her pleas. The emotional violence was all the more profound by her attempts to reason, console, resist, and redirect his energy, while he ignored her every attempt.
It was easily the most difficult thing I had ever been asked to choreograph. As we made the actions less physical and more psychological, I felt my own discomfort and aversion rising. It felt less staged, less ‘dramatic’, and less far less removed from ordinary life.
My hope was that the same feelings would be stirred for an audience. From the reactions of the other actors when they saw the sequence played out in rehearsals, and the discussions that subsequently sprung from this, we had judged it about right.
We said more with less. When Macduff attacks and defeats Macbeth with sword and shield, in full armour and on the roof of a castle, in a climactic battle over love, loss, grief and tyranny, we use those principles. Those same principles facilitated a teenage boy abandoning self control and forcing himself on his girlfriend.
They enabled us to create something completely unspectacular, which was all the more unsettling for it.