First published on 11 Apr 2012. Updated on 12 Apr 2012.
What kind of swords are the actors using in Macbeth?
They are German longswords, often incorrectly called broadswords. They belong to a family called hand-and-a-half swords. Against unarmoured opponents it was used with two hands to cut, thrust and parry. Against armoured opponents the sword was grasped in the middle of the blade with the left hand, while the right hand gripped the hilt. It was used like a short spear, enabling accurate thrusts into the gaps of the armour and levering actions to disrupt balance.
Shouldn’t it be Scottish sword fighting?
It could be. But the director Peter Evans didn’t want to take a literal interpretation. It doesn’t have to be Scottish fighting, but in a way they would have had swords like this back then.
So you’re teaching them ancient German sword fighting?
The system I’m teaching is the German longsword tradition, which spans some 300 years from at least the 14th century. It’s also called the Liechtenauer system, due to the influence of one of its principal exponents – Johannes Liechtenauer.
There is quite a burgeoning community of historical martial artists who are reconstructing and teaching and sharing this information. A lot of these old treatises are being translated and published and there are tournaments. It’s quite a huge movement.
By the mid-1500s, these fights had evolved into a sport. Things like thrusts had been taken out because they were considered too dangerous for a recreational activity for gentleman, who were just wanting to stay fit – they weren’t preparing for combat.
Is it unusual to have long swords on stage? Are they normally shorter?
It depends on the show. An armourer in North America made these swords. He made a few alterations for me, so they are custom built. Ten years ago, we didn’t have access to this kind of craftsmanship. We were getting swords that were big, heavy and pretty dangerous. They were very hard to use safely whereas these are a lot lighter than people think.
Which Shakespeare play has the best sword fights in it?
Macbeth is good when you get to do it with longswords. Romeo and Juliet is fantastic. And Hamlet, of course. Romeo and Juliet is a really complex fight. It all depends on the production values. I just worked with the New York City ballet and they used rapiers.
Favourite sword fighting movie?
I can’t say I have a favourite but I love the work of William Hobbs, one of the great grandfathers of what I do. He coined the term fight director. He worked on The Duellists, Rob Roy, Excalibur, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Mel Gibson’s Hamlet. He brings a high level of technical proficiency and an understanding of story, so the fights are very character driven, as opposed to someone like the late Bob Anderson, who is brilliant in his own way but much more about rhythm. He did films like The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and The Lord of the Rings series. And he was the stunt double for Darth Vader’s light sabre battles in Star Wars: Episode V and Episode VI.
There’s also some amazing fight work coming out of Indonesia and Korea and there are some beautiful Japanese films, especially those by Yoji Yamada. The Hidden Blade and The Twilight Samurai are just beautiful because they are totally integrated with the story. A lot of Chinese films have a big fantasy fight scene – which are good in their own way – but they don’t always fit in with the story.
Where did you learn?
All over the world. I’ve had an interest in martial arts since I was very young. All different systems. I became a scholar of martial arts 15 years ago and have since built up a good relationship with a lot of colleagues around the world. My fencing teacher master Ramón Martinez lives in New York. He is the source of most of my fencing knowledge.
Does anyone ever get hurt?
The only way I answer that question is to say my job is to make sure they don’t get hurt and I do everything I can do that. It’s the biggest part of my job.
Do you know other fighting styles?
I know Italian rapier, French small sword, Italian duelling sabre, Roman gladius, Viking sword and shield systems, and knife systems.
Macbeth opens at the Sydney Opera House, Thu Apr 12, 2012.
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