In this week's IN:SITE blog, Fiona Lindsay looks at the art of being funny…

The Comedy of Errors

It’s said that you should treat a new play like an old classic and an old play as if it were hot off the press. Following through on this oppositional theory, it is also said that you should look for the comedy when performing in a tragedy and search out the darkness within when acting a comic role. I’d like to suggest that looking for the funny stuff in the funny is also of importance. However, not to dismiss the theory about taking comedy seriously, I think the intention behind it is to encourage performers to pay very particular attention to comedic text as it’s far more difficult to make an audience laugh than it is to make them cry.

Humour is such an intangible thing and getting collective laughter from a group of strangers can be extremely challenging. There are so many factors that come into play when it comes to approaching the performing of comedy and humour and the key thing is to hold on tight to the narrative structure and be guided by it.

Not all performers have funny bones but those who do are able to fuse technical precision with an ability to be truthful and spontaneous. There are, of course, very specific skills that have to be harnessed in attempting to make an audience laugh, with timing, focus, and building to the punchline all being important. Perhaps, though, the major attention is on the creation of character, playing the objective, and investing in a moment-to-moment approach.

When it comes to getting a laugh from any of William Shakespeare’s near-500 year-old jokes, a full archeological kit is required. The text has to be excavated for meaning so that the humour of the time can be understood within the context of a modern sensibility. Making old jokes new is a serious job. Often there is a temptation to ignore the textual joke completely and to create all sorts of business around the language. This may generate lots of laughs but the story will end up being lost in translation and the laughter will eventually lessen.

One of The Bard’s earliest comedies provides the toughest comedic challenge: The Comedy of Errors is a slapstick farce of a play with a very knotty narrative and archaic language structure, and it moves at a pace too. Physical and mental agility are both required to communicate the play successfully as the jokes come fast and furious. One of the highlights is when Dromio of Syracuse is describing the body shape of the housemaid Nell; it’s an opportunity for the actor to employ all the tools of the comedy trade in order to release the full hilarity of the situation, which the RSC ensemble describe in this week's transcript.

Private Lives, Noël Coward's comedy of manners, is a much more highly wrought affair. The text is like a musical score and its orchestration requires sophisticated handling. Each of the lead characters plays a set of very distinctive notes and whilst they have to pick up and elaborate on each other’s tune, it’s vital not to blend into any harmonious generalism. Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor are perfect together as Coward's can’t-live-with, can’t-live-without couple, Elyot and Amanda. They bring huge amounts of fun to the seriousness of the situation in which their characters are placed by having properly invested in understanding the objective as well as the emotional landscape the couple must cover throughout the play. Anna and Toby are classical actors who demonstrate that a heady cocktail of technique plus truthfulness, stirred up with a dash of spontaneity, can bring about great entertainment and lots of chuckles from an audience. Enjoy reading how they approached their roles.