sTage sTruck

You can’t beat a stage fight, writes Peter Craw­ley

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

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. pcraw­ley@ir­

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