You can’t beat a stage fight, writes Peter Crawley
Each night two enemies become locked in battle until they are pulled apart, their swords batted away. Each night, though, one of them lands a sneaky blow, thrusting his blade into his opponent when the fight ought to be finished.
“What, art thou hurt?” Mercutio is asked, to which he replies, with forced bravado, “Ay, Ay, a scratch, a scratch.” But the truth is far worse: at this point in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio has been stabbed – and he’s done for.
For Michael McElhatton, who plays the part in The Abbey Theatre’s current show, even a scratch would mean something had gone badly wrong. Despite the seeming chaos of the action, where rapiers draw sparks on the ground, every swipe and parry has been meticulously choreographed. That’s the job of Paul Burke, whose title, “fight director”, sounds like the coolest job description on the planet.
In another recent credit, for his work guiding swords, splintered pool cues and even chainsaws in Macbeth, he was attributed with “designing the violence”, a pleasing little oxymoron, for a job where fights never break out, they are micromanaged.
McElhatton knows the importance of careful fight direction better than most.
Ten years ago, in the same building, he was accidentally stabbed on stage during “a complex piece of choreography”. In a display that has since gone down in theatre lore, he carried on until the show ended before being rushed to hospital.
We should take that as a freak accident – it isn’t just in the last decade that theatres realised blood might be better supplied by the make-up people.
Stage combat, in fact, is as ancient as the first gladiator who pulled a punch, while the role of fight director goes back at least as far as Richard Tarleton, the English fencing master who was Shakespeare’s contemporary. That seems right, given that The Bard is still the fight director’s most regular employer. Maybe that’s why stage combat has changed so little over time.
The Irish Dramatic Combat Academy (proprietor, Paul Burke) still starts off with the basics, such as how to handle a rapier and a dagger, before introducing broadswords and quarterstaffs, which seem both bloodthirsty and quaint. When do we move up to the Glock 9?
Even the newest manuals on orchestrated brawling never worry about sounding dainty, giving serious instruction on “fisticuffs” and “swashbuckling”.
The main rule of stage fighting is counter-intuitive: the victim must always be in control, usually performing the “knap” – that slapping sound of contact – themselves. “Practice thumping yourself on the upper pectoral muscle with an open hand,” urges one guide on dummy punching, while offering sage advice on faking a “kneeling face kick”. “When the attacker kicks the victim’s hands, she snaps her head back like a Pez dispenser.”
Ouch! Feel free to try these at home, but remember: in stage combat, the last thing we want is someone getting hurt. firstname.lastname@example.org