Arts: The fine art of missing the point

It's fight arranger Nick Hall's task to turn Romeo and Juliet into War and Peace.
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"I LEARNED this morning that they want blood." Which is funny, really, because drawing blood is precisely what the fight arranger Nick Hall strives to avoid.

Advance publicity for English National Ballet's all-thrusting, all-dancing Romeo and Juliet at the Albert Hall had hinted at dozens of sword-fighters. Hall knocked that on the head straightaway. "We can't have that many, from the point of view of safety." So how many has he got? Er, six: Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, Tybalt and Tybalt's two friends. Wait a minute. I didn't think Tybalt had any friends."`They are characters that Derek has created."

"Derek" is Derek Deane, artistic director of ENB. Although freely admitting he's no Balanchine, Deane has realised that if he does the choreography himself he can save ENB a fortune. He has knocked out a series of popular hits. The most recent was his high-glucose Nutcracker and before that we had his infamous Swan Lake in the round which boasted 60 swans bourree- ing in formation. This year he's aiming to repeat that popular success with Romeo and Juliet. A massed display of synchronised fencing would have been impractical, so we must settle for a handful of ballet dancers eating up space in Nick Hall's carefully choreographed sword fights.

Deane has clearly picked the right man for the job. At 49, Hall looks wiry and dangerous in his black biker's leathers. He has an impressive record, with the likes of Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company, the RSC and the Royal Opera, and some particularly relevant experience at the Manchester Royal Exchange , where has worked on and off for the last 10 years. This knowledge of theatre in the round has proved invaluable preparation for the Albert Hall: "I learned quite a bit about keeping things moving," he says. But fencing to music was a whole new headache.

In Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev really does call the shots. The signature tunes are every bit as clear-cut as Peter and the Wolf and the score spells out the scenario. "In the theatre I generally talk to the director, then create the fight with the actors based on character. Here the music dictates; there's very little leeway at all. You can cut across it here and there, but even that only works if you stay with it the rest of the time."

The dancers can't work without music: "Normally you work it out very slowly - walk it, walk it, walk it - but that's not the most comfortable way for dancers to work. They want to hear the music as soon as possible - often before they know all the moves."

Even without the music there is a world of difference between a regular stage fight and a ballet fight. The trend in Shakespearean and Jacobean rep has been away from the regimented thrust-and-parry of the old school towards a looser, uglier, more realistic style: "It's much more like warfare."

In the old days actors knew the moves off by heart: "Routines were handed down: the `Glasgow Eights' was a series of eight moves - backhand shoulder, parry shoulder etc. - then you'd repeat it reversing the moves. People would say `We'll do the 8s, then the 10s, then the 7s'. These corny old sequences were safe, but incredibly predictable and not terribly exciting."

That said, too much rough and tumble would be inappropriate in a ballet fight. Musical swashbuckling is necessarily more stylised and variety is less important. "In ballet, repetition is not necessarily a bad thing, and you have to keep it simple" - particularly when you have a different cast every night and only three-and-a-half weeks' rehearsal.

When he directed the fights in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Exchange, Hall worked with the same four men throughout; at ENB nightly cast changes mean that he's working with 20 dancers. A single torn ligament can throw the entire casting schedule out of whack and create unexpected problems: "One of the Mercutios is very short, and the Tybalts are all shapes and sizes."

Fortunately dancers are adaptable, movement-literate performers who are well used to memorising complicated enchainements. Although competitive fencing is no longer a compulsory part of the ballet curriculum, the basic moves come quite naturally to them. In a "linear advance" (those scurrying runs when one swordsman chases another across the stage while trying to poke him with a rapier) the fencer should keep his feet well apart so that he can move easily in any direction. A dancer's "turn-out" (the splay-footed stance acquired after years of training) is ideal for this. "The most important things in a fight are balance and timing, and they are terrific at that. We have taken advantage of their athleticism: ask them to leap and suddenly - swoosh! - they're 5ft in the air."

As any Saturday-afternoon couch potato knows, no sword fight would be complete without a serious bit of furniture-jumping. Mercutio will be doing a back somersault onto a market stall, but apart from this the Albert Hall is not well served in the table-turning department - "there's not a great deal of set, and no levels" - which means, sadly, no staircase duel a la Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Rathbone, whose career began on the British stage, grew up in a tradition where fencing was part of an actor's basic training and was an accomplished swordsman but - as Hall is quick to point out - "a lot of those Hollywood actors could do it, but they still had fight directors and fencing coaches."

Fencing is still taught in drama schools (Hall himself teaches at the Central School of Speech and Drama and at the E15 acting school) but it is less relevant than it was. The days when every young actor earned his spurs doing years of Shakespeare in rep are long gone - elegant swordplay is unlikely to land anyone a bit part in EastEnders. Besides, the likes of Nick Hall can always be called in to train performers from scratch.

He's not alone, of course. There's a whole guild, the British Academy of Dramatic Combat, whose aim is to promote good technique and, more important, safety. Even with dummy blades things can get pretty nasty. Only last year the Royal Ballet's William Trevitt had a chunk sliced off his knuckle during the duel in Romeo and Juliet. Did he rush to the wings to get some Steri-strips and a squeeze of Germolene? Did he hell! He carried on regardless, brandishing his bloodstained fist at the victorious Tybalt.

Blood certainly makes great theatre - hence Derek Deane's decision to add to the laundry bill. "Derek said he wanted it to be brutal and vicious, so we're trying for a degree of realism."

It turns out that Prokofiev's music for the fight scenes is firmly anchored in the grisly realities of combat. When Mercutio is stabbed by Tybalt he recovers suddenly and does a little dance. This had always seemed a bit daft to me, but apparently this is exactly how rapier wounds behave: "The flesh tends to close around the blade. There's quite often a short delay before the blood starts to flow." Hall's job is to make sure that tonight's bloodstains are all strictly ketchup.

`Romeo and Juliet', Royal Albert Hall (0171-589 8212), to 30 June

Great Swashbucklers Of The Movies

1. Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli 1968) The fights were arranged by William Hobbs, to whom all fight arrangers owe a debt of gratitude. His fights were far more realistic for the weapons concerned (rapier and dagger). Quite often, a fight will use moves that are not possible with that style of weapon - much of the choreography is based on modern fencing sabre moves. A lot of Hollywood film fights were arranged by people who were very adroit with the sabre. Not authentic, but very entertaining.

2. The Duellists (Ridley Scott 1977) A long series of duels fought with sabre between two army officers ( Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel).

3. The Pirate (Vincente Minnelli 1948). Gene Kelly did a great sequence, across the rocks into the sea. It was a feat of endurance, even breaking it down into several takes means a lot of hard work.

4. Royal Flash (Richard Lester 1975). A lovely fight , with great gags. Alan Bates is making a sandwich during the fight - cutting a bit off a sausage, a bit off the bread. A great comedy fight by William Hobbs. 5. The Adventures of Robin Hood (William Keighley and Michael Curtiz 1938). I love Basil Rathbone (above left): you really believe he's going for it. That's what makes a good fight: when they believe they can kill each other.