We are very pleased to host Hester Bradley‘s response to the Galatea workshops hosted at the Jerwood Space in August this year. Hester is a PhD student at Oxford Brookes, whose work explores what representations of the moon by John Lyly and William Shakespeare can reveal about contemporary ideas of female identity and personhood.
I attended the workshop on the afternoon of its third day, as the group were focussing on the nymphs and boys in Lyly’s Galatea. I felt as though I’d been plunged into the already-rolling activity in the room, with the boys at one side rowdily ‘hallooing’, celebrating their survival of the sea-wreck with suitably high energy. On the other side, the nymphs were creating a gestural song to go with their plan to revenge themselves on Cupid for making them fall in love.
The nymphs’ movements went from slinky, flirty, and silly, into a set of more powerful and sinister gestures.
The dance was augmented with music from the guitar and the song from Lyly’s text (in the second, 1632 edition), but the dance itself was also a song, with suggestive and demonstrative gestures, that worked in parallel to the words. It made me think about the inter-connection between song and dance, and later on in the afternoon I was able to see the expressive power of the boys’ song in British Sign Language (BSL).
While the creation of the dance of the nymphs felt very organic, with the performers each suggesting moves to be adopted, the dance itself was also complete. It contained resonant repetitive moments, such as the nymphs’ Cupid-like shooting of the arrow with a small, sideways, playful gesture in their slinky phase, recurring as an intimidating head-on tautening and release of the whole body.
The transition from flirty to frightening seemed to mark the transition of the nymphs’ unwilling allegiance with Cupid back to Diana, from being the hunted to the hunters. They went from being the playful traditionally feminine captives of love to having a more imposing, fiercely defended attachment to chastity. The dance ended with the nymphs using their hands as antlers as though they themselves were deer. It reminded me of Diana’s menacing lesson to Cupid in 3.4:’I will teach thee what it is to displease Diana, distress her nymphs or disturb her game’, in which the ‘game’ is both the hunt and the prey, and the nymphs an uneasy combination of both.
The song/dance highlighted the question of whether the nymphs of Diana are too naïve or too cloistered to know or understand love at all before Cupid comes along, or whether they deliberately reject love like Diana. Andy Kesson pointed out that when Cupid first meets one of Diana’s nymphs, she either does not know who he is, or she pretends not to recognise him deliberately as a method of deprecation. The nymphs’ playful interweaving between one another recalled Cupid’s line of intent in 1.3 to ‘play such pranks with these nymphs that, while they aim to hit others with their arrows, they shall be wounded themselves with their own eyes’, in which he casts the nymphs as unwilling or accidental Cupids to one another. The actors’ creation of different signs for each of the gods was also revealing: a misunderstanding occurred because the sign for Cupid involved the drawing of a bow and arrow when Diana also had a bow and arrow in her picture on the wall. While the nymphs do not necessarily understand Cupid, they mirror him, and I was struck by the way in which love and chastity, Venus and Diana, are both at loggerheads and intermingled within the play, and both presented as alternatively virtuous.
On the other side of the room, with the boys, the use of BSL enabled alternate translations, commentary on the text of the play, and a connecting coherence at the same time. The motif of the sign for ‘drowned’ repeated many times during the boys’ scene emphasised their near escape from the threat of the ocean, which pervades the rest of the play and the virgin sacrifice to Neptune (1.4). It was really impressive how the different languages incorporated into the script served to both simplify and complicate meanings, with an added joke of the Mariner’s inability to learn BSL, except for the sign for ‘idiot’, with which he frequently addressed the boy, Rafe. This was particularly striking because the scene involves the Mariner trying (and failing) to teach the boys his language, starting from telling them what happened at sea, ‘It is called a wrack’, to the boys’ hysterical incomprehension of the points of the compass, about which Rafe comments ‘I will never learn this language’. The parallel languages highlighted the underlying idiocy and ignorance of the Mariner himself. The director, Emma Frankland, pointed out that while it took a long time to go through the text, translating it into BSL, it also gave the play surprising scope and richness. It was especially telling that these nuances and complications work with Lyly, a writer who has been traditionally critically lambasted for being difficult to understand, but who an actor told me was easier for them to understand than Shakespeare.
Someone commented in the group discussion that physicality was the place where the languages meet, and I think this idea was clear within the work of the actors playing both the boys and the nymphs, casting unlikely comparisons between the two groups, and pressing home how much Lyly’s play can be made to interrogate the difficulty and rewards of understanding the languages of chastity, gender, and love.