Show artwork for Swashbuckling Swordplay
Claire van der Boom with the Shakespeare in Love cast. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Swashbuckling Swordplay

Fight Director Nigel Poulton brings organised chaos to the fight scenes in Shakespeare in Love.

As the Fight Director for Shakespeare in Love, Nigel Poulton has worked with the cast to choreograph spectacular swordplay. Here, he tells us more about the rehearsal process and the principles that underpin his work.

What's the process of taking actors through fight choreography? 

Ideally the starting point is to equip the actors up with a basic skill set appropriate for the production. In this case we were able to do a small amount of pre-production training with the cast to help them be prepared. Swordplay is not, contrary to perceptions, a natural or intuitive endeavour, and time must be spent developing the fine motor skills and allowing the anatomical adaptations to occur in order to implement the choreography in a theatrically satisfying and safe way.

The process also involves interrogating the script, liaising with the director, Simon Phillips, and the cast and creatives in order to start to build the work inside the framework of the story and the artistic vision. Then together we slowly start to build the fights - moment by moment, beat by beat, phrase by phrase.

What are some of the challenges you’ve enjoyed solving in Shakespeare in Love as the Fight Director?

Choreographing sword fights always presents unique challenges because people’s skill levels, physicality and experience differ - and these are all elements that influence the work. Also, people’s expression of ideas, their language, interpretation of principles and ways of storytelling are unique and are important considerations in an artistic collaboration. The task is to tell a story using the medium of sword fighting, so integrating the work into the overall story is always challenging. This means finding the right style and tone for the fight and embracing the opportunities presented by the set and the space - there are many actors on stage during some of the sword fights, which makes for exciting times. It’s a lush, vibrant and dynamic production so my challenge has been to meet that.

1906043_084-cc.jpgDaniel Frederiksen and Michael Wahr in rehearsal. Photo by Deryk McAlpin.

How do you collaborate with the other members of the creative team during rehearsal?

It’s always great to be able to liaise with the creatives and build the work around all the other elements that are going into make a production such as this. It tends to happen in a very informal way and we each invite and rely on each other to provide feedback and input as to what each creative needs to deliver their component, and how we might go about ensuring that.

Are there principles you use when directing swordplay? Does research/history inform your work?

Yes, absolutely. There are important principles that underpin the work and generally those principles are based in proper fencing theory. Having the actors understand the theory gives them accessibility to the ideas that shape the work. Actors are smart and hungry for knowledge and I find it important to help them understand what they are doing and allow them to engage deeper and have a logic to the work. And absolutely research, and in particular historical research, forms an important backbone, not only to the work itself but also in terms of the body of knowledge that I bring into the room. I am a classical and historical fencer and have a keen interest in these areas. I also have a keen interest in the works of William Shakespeare and in the sword fights that appear quite regularly in his plays and productions. Not only are they dramaturgically intrinsic, they also give us a wonderful socio-cultural window into Elizabethan England. 

What tips would you give to performers developing fight scenes for the first time? 

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Take your time to develop your skill set and then the work. Keep investing in the exercises that have been provided so you can develop your skills and don’t rely on the choreography to do that. The choreography will never get any better without a progression of skill. This is something I always say to the actors and I take great effort in having them understand the importance of continual training in order to realise the choreography in the most exciting, effective and safe way. 


Shakespeare in Love plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until 17 August. Book now.

Published on 1 August 2019

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