Book Review: THE ACTOR AND THE SPACE, Declan Donnellan

Co-founder and joint Artistic Director of Cheek by Jowl Declan Donnellan's new book is an inspired gem.

By: Apr. 13, 2024
Book Review: THE ACTOR AND THE SPACE, Declan Donnellan
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His first publication went viral (again, in a way) when Mr Jeremy Strong of Succession fame featured it in a GQ interview, confessing he swears by it to this day. Once again, 19 years after the groundbreaking The Actor and the Target, Declan Donnellan succeeds at describing the indescribable, putting the ephemeral art of acting on paper in another gem of a book. The Actor and the Space admits it’s not trying to be a manual of any kind, specifying that, ultimately, every single choice is a personal journey - but the result becomes a light in the dark. Yes, it’s a collection of advice and invaluable suggestions on how to approach a dramatic text to attain the best results, but, curiously, it swiftly turns into a celebration of the human experience.

Donnellan is reassuring and warm, never patronising or pushy in his ideas. He maps the process with direct images, breaking the problem down into easily accessible chunks introduced by what he calls “keys”. His candid, no-nonsense mode is built on examples of mundane and realistic scenarios that pin down a feeling. We also analyse his own case study: two performers starring in Macbeth might be grappling with the piece. He hands them the keys to unlock their potential.

The director suggests that the characters (just like people, therefore actors) are constantly fixing the space they live in, adapting and responding according to the changes that happen around them. It’s immediate, crystal clear reasoning. He surmises that there are unseen rooms that influence what unfolds on stage: “Next door” is as important as the exact location we’re in. Macbeth and his wife do everything in relation to what happens somewhere else, whether that’s their banqueting hall or the bedroom where Duncan sleeps.

He demotes the idea of “character” and lowers it to the notion of man with all its contradictions and idiosyncrasies. “Even the spear-carrier with no lines in an obscure history play has a predicament. Find it, because the audience’s empathy and the character’s life depend on it,” he says. The foundations of the art of acting suddenly drop onto our laps, from being a myth from Garrick’s past to a swirl of straightforward philosophy and a profound understanding of human nature.

Down-to-earth and grounded in language and method, the volume is in itself in conversation with what surrounds it. Specifically, while it avoids being a straight sequel to The Actor and the Target, it’s an excellent companion to it as well as Peter Brook’s seminal contribution to the discourse The Empty Space. It’s a powerful instrument for actors who feel stuck or those who are trying to dodge turning into armchair psychologists in the rehearsal room.

The last few pages make you wish the book was double or triple its length so that Donnellan could dissect the magic of theatre further. But the director and adapter knows better; he keeps it essential and concise. It's a liberating read whether you perform or merely have a curious disposition.

The Actor and the Target is published by Nick Hern Books.


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