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Declan’s Tagliatelle

by Declan Donnellan

Read in: English, Italian

Production photo
Macbeth. Photograph: Johan Persson

One legend has it that tagliatelle were discarded pieces of unused pasta (tagliare meaning ‘to cut’). Although tagliatelle was seen as an off-cut, many still liked it. I am still labouring over book two (don’t hold your breath!) but this is some tagliatelle from one of the many starts that I’ve made to it, that I hope you will enjoy and may prove useful…

In The Actor And The Target we found a possible tool to help the actor escape from block.

It contained some choices, rules and steps to fashion a ladder which may help to climb out of confusion, but only if problems should arise.

This book looks at similar problems from a different point of view. The Actor And The Target was one possible map and this is a different map, of course of the same city.

Please remember that as in the first book, the rule is: ‘If it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.’ In other words, if you are happy with your acting that is wonderful and leave it well alone.

But if you do happen to get lost, either book may help you find yourself.  It is after all the same city. Roads and tunnels cut different channels through it, sometimes they run parallel, sometimes they do not, but the destinations are the same. The terrain is the same. 

‘Go around!’ said the Boyg.

There will be many digressions and diversions, but we are going to the same place. We may get lost en route but you will find your way back.

When Peer Gynt got lost he met a huge spirit called the Boyg. He tried to pass and go on his way, but the Boyg stopped him told him that first Peer had to ‘go round’.

We will often get lost but to find ourselves, instead of going straight ahead we will have to stop and ‘go round’, with digressions and stories and anecdotes.

As in The Actor And The Target, nothing in this book is true, but elements may prove useful. It is like an allegory, but certainly not one that leads to a hidden meaning. This is rather an allegory that might help us, through stories, to think about some things that cannot be tied down, but things that still matter and that matter a lot.

Boris and Lena

The two young actors start to play a scene from Macbeth.

He enters and shouts ‘we will proceed no further in this business!’ and then walks around the stage like a robot.

She sits on the floor and says her lines in a loud monotone.

Eventually she stands and slaps him.

He bursts out into manic laughter and then abruptly faces the wall saying his lines slowly into it. She lies on the floor and moans.

And then they finish their text and look at me. And they seem very vulnerable.

Unbearably vulnerable. Far more vulnerable, in fact, than at any point while they were doing the scene.

‘Were you trying to say something about their incapacity to make contact with each other?’

They nod ‘Yes, yes”!’ compulsively and look relieved.

Actually, fair enough, Macbeth does present us with many things including a marriage that descends into disconnection. But, and it is an immense ‘but’, the disconnection is suggested by subtle and fine degrees – and above all is mediated by the interplay of human beings, by people seeing people being people interacting with people.

But instead they have presented an idea, an idea pure and simple.

Before we begin.

There are many different forms of theatre and forms of acting.

I can only write about the type of theatre and the type of acting that I appreciate.

So this is not the truth, it is just my personal experience, it just seems to me to be so.

How can we describe good theatre?

Well, great theatre we may feel is often fun, cool, challenging, transgressive, funny, philosophical, breath-taking, magical, moving, political, deep, subversive, spiritual, original and surprising.

Very good, and we could all add or delete a few. But what proves to be maddening is that when we actually try to make our work any of these things – it inevitably fails.

For example, if our first aim is to be original we normally produce awful work.

However, when work happens to be good, it will also be ‘original’.

In fact, chasing any of these attractive qualities can prove a killer. Because each of these characteristics, truthful, exciting, funny, magical, etcetera, are only symptoms – they are not causes.

So, what ‘cause’ could possibly come before all these beautiful adjectives? What cause could cause all these formidable desirables?

Actually, this first condition of good theatre keeps presenting itself to us however often we paint and paint over it – and this patter will always emerge through the whitewash like an old bloodstain.

The first, and indeed only, characteristic of good theatre is that it be alive.

Some things may seem briefly to be alive, but soon turn out to be dead. A word we sometimes use for this is ‘uncanny’ or ‘creepy’…

But on the whole, we learn very soon if something is alive or dead.

Now if we allow ‘alive’ to take precedence over all these other very desirable attributes and we prioritise it so that everything else is sacrificed to make sure our work lives and breathes then that work will seem suddenly, hey presto, to be original and surprising and transgressive and magical, etc.

Can we have more than one priority?


Ad men and politicians say that we can. And to prove it they will sell them to us. But of course, we can’t.

‘This private university has two priorities, one to show a healthy return for its investors, and two, to provide the best possible education for its students.’

I rest my case.

So, we always have already made one priority whether we choose to see it or not. (And only by seeing it can we change whatever it is)

And the priority I suggest in theatre at least is ‘life’, ‘That it shall live!’

But beware, life only works if we keep it as a priority, like the Hippocratic Oath for a doctor. For if we try first to make our work original and then also alive… it will probably never come alive. Even worse, perversely, the more different we try to make our work, the more it will seem to be like all other dead things, however hard we try, however hard we suffer and however unfair it seems.


So how do we make our work alive?

Well the very simple answer is that we can never make life. (But we can end life, of course.)

However, although we can never make life, we can connect with it in two ways. First we can find it, and second we can pass it on. Parents do not give their children life. Parents pass on the life that was once passed to them. And life has a funny way of reminding us that it is in control. Expensive fertility clinics attest to the fact that conception is never guaranteed.  We can never be sure we will pass on life. Interestingly some parents find it impossible to conceive – until they finally stop trying.

Some parents get confused by this and feel that they possess ‘rights’ over their children. But they don’t. Only the children have rights, which indeed the courts must protect. All the parents possess, are ‘duties’ to protect that life.

Now we cannot directly pass life into our work. Just because I have done something I think is brilliant does not mean it is alive. I can read a speech and assume that just because I am alive so will the speech be. But no, sadly, this is not true. If I have no artistry, what I read will come out dead. I cannot stick my own life, unmediated, into my work. I am alive, but that does not entitle me to assume that everything I do will be alive as well.

I am alive and when I speak as me (and am not lying) what I say will almost certainly be ‘alive’, but if I am reading something already written it will almost certainly be dead – unless – that is – I have enough artistry to make it seem spontaneous.

Acting is about achieving that artistry. It has nothing to do with pretending. When we act for someone we have a contract with them. They know that what we are doing isn’t real. But we will make it seem alive for them with their consent. Without their consent, it is not acting. Without consent, acting is lying. To act is to live, to lie is to die.

But though we cannot make life directly, there is another thing that we can do. We can find life.

When astronomers try to find life, interestingly they never try to find ‘the-thing-itself’, they do not search directly for life, or even for signs of life. What they do search for is quite different, they search for ‘the conditions under which life might arise’. Not life, but its context. Not the giant, but his cave; not the bear, but his den.

Two young fish were playing. An older fish swam up, said: ‘the water’s good’ and then swam past. As his tail fanned majestically into the distance, one of the young fish turned to his friend and asked: ‘What’s water?’

Another fish and water story.

A young boy wins goldfish in a fair. They swing by his side in a plastic bag and as he walks home he whistles.

He buys a big goldfish bowl together with ornamental rocks, a plastic sunken treasure boat and fish food. Indoors, he puts them all together in the bowl and arranges them carefully. The water in the plastic bag looks dirty so the boy lovingly removes the three goldfish with a tea strainer and places them in the bowl. Then he turns to get water. He finds a big bucket but it won’t fit under the kitchen taps so he takes the bucket upstairs to the bath and fills the bucket with clear clean water. When he comes back to the bowl he finds one fish very still and the other two gasping and flipping on their sides. He rearranges them so they will be more comfortable. Then he decides that tap water isn’t good enough for his beloved fish so he heads for his mother’s stash of Evian, underneath the stairs. When he returns with the cardboard box all three fish seem to be asleep. What a surprise they will get! He fills the bowl with the water but is perturbed as the fish float to the top. They are now perfectly still.

Sequence can matter more than importance. Yes, the fish are ‘more important than’ the water. But the water must still always go in first. Yes, the fish are more important than water, but water goes in first. This seems so obvious and yet fish are dying every day.

Someone once asked a rabbi why no one could see God any more. Oh that’s simple, he answered, it’s because no one can stoop low enough. 

Macbeth scenes

The students are watching another scene from Macbeth.

Natasha has come on stage to ask her husband why he has left the banquet.

This time the actors look at each other, and have done a lot of work on the text.

They finish the scene and while they leave to change one student says to another:  

‘They were ok’ 

And another:

‘They didn’t really understand what they were saying’

‘They had no inner life’

‘It was rather cold’

‘They were over emotional’

‘It was boring’

‘I couldn’t hear them’

‘They were shouting’

‘They were miscast’

‘I couldn’t believe them’

However well intentioned, not a single one of these criticisms will actually help the actors. And to repeat such criticisms to the actors is only cruel.

It is as useful to criticise the fish for lying dead between the plastic rocks and the pirate boat.

It is as useless to say that that the Evian wasn’t good enough, or that next time the boy should try Badoit.

The water was not as ‘important’ to the little boy as were his beloved fish, but the water still needed to be in there first.

The Macbeth critics are all floundering after an explanation. To take for example,

‘He didn’t understand what he was saying’

Please don’t say this to Igor. He has agonised over his text for weeks. He could write an essay on every sentence. In fact he has spent longer fretting over every possible nuance than Shakespeare himself ever did while writing it.

So that is not why Igor is incomprehensible.

Sending him back to the text would be like sticking another plastic mermaid in between the dead fish just to see if it wakes them up.

Sometimes the actors seem not know what they are saying but in fact have previously researched and worried the text to distraction. It may however seem to the audience that they ‘don’t know what they are saying’ – it may come across as laziness. But these actors are not remotely lazy. If there is any laziness it is in the friend’s diagnosis. The problem is not because they did not work hard enough. When actors seem lazy it is rarely because they are lazy. Normally they have been exhausting themselves by working in the wrong way.

The real cause of this incomprehensibility is very different. And indeed if Sasha hears someone say that: ‘he doesn’t know what he is saying’, he may well buy yet another edition of the play and work and worry the subtleties of the text to a pulp and the ‘helpful criticism’ will make the problem even worse. Igor may well become even more incomprehensible.

And the other criticisms. ‘Shouting’, ‘boring’, inaudible’ … surely all these results come from different causes?

Boyg time, so let’s go round. In As You Like It we laugh with Touchstone when the uneducated Corin lists what he knows and adds that ‘a great cause of the night is lack of the sun’.

But is this so stupid?

We have all lived through many very different nights, but they all had one thing in common – there was not a single sun in any of them.

Now there are many reasons why a plane may crash from the sky and sometimes miracles can happen and a brilliant and brave pilot pulls the machine up out of its nose dive. But the final cause of every plane crash is the same. The aircraft meets the ground at the wrong time.

That is so obvious that we never say it. But that is in real life. In real life, we make many assumptions. There are many gears we just never mention. ‘Night = lack of sun’. ‘Air crash = plane meets ground too soon.’ But in the theatre, we sometimes do have to consider them. We cannot take them for granted. But these gears are just as present in the theatre and it is often fatal not to notice them. In theatre, we are dealing with illusion. And illusion works to different rules.

After an air crash the investigators go to the crash scene and search for forensic evidence. Seats, and luggage, pieces of fuselage and try to explain why the machine hit the ground at the wrong time.

But saying to the actor that they are inaudible or shouting or incomprehensible is occasionally useful, depending on the circumstances, but not always. Sometimes these criticisms are like saying that the plane crashed because Mr Jones’ suitcase flew through the window.

Normally when the actors don’t seem to understand what they are saying, it is not caused by a failure of their intellect, but it is caused because the scene is dead. And when that happens everything seems to become incomprehensible (and for that matter, also cold and boring).

The real reason that all these horrible symptoms have occurred is that the actors have tried to swim in the scene without water. And they can shout and wave and pull faces or be subtle and cool but they are just different death throes of the fishtail beating the dry air.

So if there is missing water in this scene, what is it?

Let’s remember the two young fish in the first scene, happily splashing around and then let us imagine the predicament of the old fish trying to explain to them what ‘water’ is.

He could say ‘Well, water is a substance that is wet, a molecule, H20, a basic structure of life, the major component of our bodies and the surface of our planet.’

But then they would say “Wait, wait, wait… you’re going too fast! More slowly now, first what is ‘wet’?”

And then he would explain that it is the opposite of dry.. and so on and so on…. The problem is that the young fish cannot possibly grasp the existence of water until they are taken out of it and when they are taken out of the water for any length of time to understand what is happening… then it is already too late. And it is impossible for the old fish to make them understand what water is because being a fish he doesn’t properly understand it either. But he is wise enough to work out two things,

first – water exists and
second – it is important.

So what is the ‘water’ that these actors so catastrophically lack?

(And why, when a scene is going well, does this ‘water’ exist without any problem?)

The problem is that the young fish cannot see the water, precisely because it is so ‘there’. In fact, it is all they know. The water is almost the totality of their experience.

So what is this precious ether for the actors? Is it air?

No. As a shorthand for what is water for the actors, we will use a simple word – ‘the space’.

Written by Declan Donnellan