I'm appearing as Athos, Buckingham and Rochefort in THE THREE MUSKETEERS at the Unicorn Theatre (7 April - 8 May).
Before I’d read the book, when I thought of The Three Musketeers I thought of adventure, sword fighting, bravery and glamour. Now that I’ve read the book, I think of honour and friendship first, then adventure, sword fighting, bravery and glamour. And the rivalry between France and England. Whichever way you look at it, sword fighting, or fencing, takes centre stage. And it will take centre stage in our play.
Fencing is one of the three key skills any musketeer or gentleman is expected to master (the other two are rhetoric - speaking well - and, er, dancing). In these days (1600s) a war is always round the corner and the sword is still an important weapon in warfare. The other reason why fencing is an important skill for gentlemen, is the duel. The goal of the honourable duel is to restore one's honour by demonstrating a willingness to risk one's life for it. Honour is everything to a gentleman. And musketeers are gentlemen. So Aramis, Athos, D’Artagnan and Porthos duel a lot in their adventure.
What fascinates me about duels is that they were actually outlawed and yet had their own unwritten rules that, I’m sure, everyone followed. For instance, if you’d been offended, you could signal a demand for satisfaction (a duel) with an inescapably insulting gesture, such as throwing your glove before your offender, hence the phrase "throwing down the gauntlet". Or with a ritual slap in the face, said to be the last affront one could accept without redress. Each party would name a trusted representative (a second) who would, between them, determine a suitable location for the fight ("field of honour"), check that the weapons were equal and that the duel was fair. In the 1600s it was normal practice for the seconds as well as the principals to fight each other. At the choice of the offended party, the duel could be until one man is wounded, even if the wound is minor (first blood), until one man is so severely wounded as to be physically unable to continue or until death.
So we’re doing a lot of fencing at the moment. During our first week of rehearsals we were introduced to fencing basic techniques - fencing, then and now, has always been a very regulated, technical and stylized “martial art”. There are techniques for standing, ready to fight (i.e. en guarde), for footwork (i.e. advance, retreat, lunge,...), for blade work (i.e. moulinets, parrys,...). So since the beginning of February we’ve been doing an hour session pretty much every day going through the basic techniques. And since this is all for stage, we won’t be fighting for real (so no contact with the bodies whatsoever) and our fight directors, Rachel and Ruth, will choreograph routines which we will learn, as if they were dance routines. But that’s for March, when we resume rehearsals and have mastered the basic techniques.