In rehearsals, safety is very important. I’m a fencing coach and black belt martial artist so I’m aware of potential injury. There are crash pads at the back of the room, for when an actor is thrown. I also have back pads, knee and elbow pads. In one fight both Hadley Fraser and Tom Hiddleston are thrown as they grapple and the crash mat was used as they learned and became familiar with the mechanics of the throw.
So that swords don’t actually hit the actors we use a technique called “off line”. The sword basically makes contact with the area that an actor was previously in. The actors continually watch for spaces to move into. There’s a structure to a fight, which is like a dance; the moves are done over and over until they are second nature. In early rehearsals you see an actor counting out the moves (one, two, three…), but by the time the show opens, they’re invisible.
Ensuring that the actor is able to convey their character in a fight scene is fundamental to my brief. In Coriolanus I need to establish Coriolanus as a warrior and Tullus Aufidius as a worthy adversary. We also need to confirm Tom as a leader, which is achieved through a combination of what he does, the way others respond to him and using stagecraft to ensure he is in strongest position on stage.
In the action, similar principles apply. Tom (Coriolanus) has minimal, but definite movements, whereas junior warriors would quite simply move more. We’d contrast a confident stillness for Tom, with a more edgy, nervous physicality of a less experienced soldier. Tom and I tried to develop an icon fight style, reflective of his vision for Coriolanus. We settled on a signature low stance, from which he launches into explosive attacks.
The energy of a fight scene should build. You do this by creating the illusion that the fight is picking up pace. You start the fight with the actors doing bigger moves - and reduce them in size as the fight gets more intense. You also reduce the number of pauses in the action, as anger builds. It gives the illusion that the moves are faster and more violent, that tempers have frayed. But it’s an illusion; the reality is it’s very controlled.
I had the good fortune to teach Tom swordplay at Rada. Then, as now, he was diligent, enthusiastic and physically fit. He also contributed ideas – and did so on Coriolanus too. Tom and I had been debating whether to “play” an injury, after he was thrown. I wasn’t convinced it would work. So, in a run through of the fight - with the rest of the cast present, who hadn’t been privy to our conversation - Tom landed from the throw and faked the injury. It worked wonderfully and the rest of the cast liked it, so I conceded that Tom was right. Tom had a broad grin for the rest of the day.