Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.
Most of us only dream of setting foot on a professional stage. Imagine if that stage was at venerable Stratford Festival — and the legendary Christopher Plummer was your tour guide. It happened to actor Luke Humphrey when he first joined the Festival ensemble three years ago. “My first steps onto the Festival stage were when Christopher Plummer was showing me around during my first year here,” said Humphrey. “I was moved to tears.” While for many of us, that experience alone might be thrill enough, for Humphrey the “pinch-me” feeling didn’t end there. This year, Humphrey stars in his first lead role asD’Artagnan in the current production of The Three Musketeers. When I spoke with him after the first performance of the show–where he received a standing ovation–he enthused, “being able to perform at the Stratford Festival is amazing. Now that I have a little more experience and have gotten to know the space a bit better, it is thrilling to play on the Festival stage along with such great people.”
Thrill aside, given the innumerable stage and film versions of The Three Musketeers over the years, D’Artagnan has now become an iconic and highly desirable role. Coincidentally, Humphrey shares the stage with Graham Abbey(Athos) who played D’Artagnan in the last Stratford production 13 years ago. How does a modern 21st Century actor transform into a chivalrous 17th Century musketeer? According to Humphrey, you immerse yourself in author Alexandre Dumas’ world by first familiarizing yourself with the source material. “I read the novel several times,” he said. “I tried to saturate myself in the wonderful world Dumas created as much as possible before rehearsals began. I would go through chapters over and over again, mining the text for any information about the character, his relationships, and the world he lived in.” The two crucial themes for Humphrey are of “stakes” and “tone,” and finding ways to portray these ideas authentically. “Dumas wrote a thrilling adventure story about people who live and die for things like honour and love, and it is important to me to try and stay true to the joy and reckless abandon that his characters live with.”
There’s a whole lot more to The Three Musketeers than sword fights and damsels in distress. When poor D’Artagnan sets off for Paris to join the King’s guards, he gets himself into three fights, which he avoids only by getting into another, and that’s just at the beginning of the play. All the stakes run high in The Three Musketeers. One head of state tries to take down another through political, emotional and psychological machinations. Church elders prove themselves to be something other than chaste men contemplating higher ideals. And those damsels? Well, “distress” doesn’t apply to them. In short, it’s difficult to know who to trust, so it takes some time for D’Artagnan to coin the creed “all for one, one for all.”
Navigating such a volatile world, wielding a sword all the while, takes stamina and synchronicity on the part of the actors, particularly those playing the musketeers who must emote and fence, often simultaneously. “The fights for Three Musketeers were choreographed by the amazing John Stead and his fantastic team,” Humphrey explained. “What makes John so impressive to me, is his focus on character and storytelling. He made sure that the style of the character, the relationships between the characters, and where the fights fit in the arc of the story are all expressed through the fight. Once he found choreography that fit all those demands, then we would start the earning process.”
The fencing scenes in this production are truly intricate “dances” with partners utilizing the entire stage, each knowing precisely where the other is at all times–something that comes from conceptualizing the entire piece before implementing it. In describing the process, Humphrey explained that, often times when the actors came to rehearsal, they would see Stead and his team already at work exploring the choreography. “In the beginning,” he continued, “learning the fight, and learning how to fight were the same thing. In stage fighting, it is all about safety, safety, safety — so our technique was critical in making sure all the fights were as safe as possible, but also exciting to watch.” At a rehearsal the day before the initial performance, Humphrey was startled by a poke in the face. Happily, stage swords bounce off, but you get the idea. One imprecise, ill-timed move, and someone could lose an eye. And what that means for the musketeers is continuous and repeated practise. “After the shape of the fight is created,” said Humphrey, “it becomes about bringing it to life. That, for me at least, takes hours and hours and hours of hard work. I was constantly running the fights in my head, practicing them in the kitchen or while walking to work. Any free time I had went to making sure I was solid on every little detail of the fight, and hopefully that work pays off in an exciting show for the audience.”
The hours of hard work have paid off. Humphrey is a compelling D’Artagnan: earnest, idealistic and feisty. The show is full of adventure, intrigue and chivalry, and yes, lots of sword play. My own “three musketeers” loved it and were thrilled to tell Humphrey so themselves. One piece of advice if you plan on taking your family: the plot is intricate, so your children will appreciate the show more fully if they read a synopsis (like my earlier post, “From Page to Stage–2″) –or even better, the novel–first. The Three Musketeers, directed by Miles Potter, is playing at the Festival Theatre until October 19. Visit www.stratfordfestival.ca for ticket information. Also, to enhance yourMusketeer experience, check out the Forum Events: “All for One, One for All” for 10-12 year olds, which introduces children to the historical time period and the basics of sword play, and “Star Talk” with the Musketeers Luke Humphrey, Graham Abbey (Athos), Jonathan Goad (Porthos), and Mike Shara (Aramis).
© 2013 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya