My life is full of first experiences – usually several in a week. Not long ago, for example, I went to the rather delightful Lion and Unicorn theatre for the first time. I was there for a predominantly female Macbeth presented by Wyrd Sisters Theatre.
It was an interesting evening and a perceptive take on the play. Only two flies nestled in the ointment. First, the Lion and Unicorn auditorium on that July evening must have been the hottest place in Britain. To say we had a free sauna is putting it mildly. It wasn’t easy to concentrate and some of the anyway smallish audience gave up at the interval. A case for some decent air con as a matter of urgency I think. Second, and more significant from a training point of view, some of the actors were seriously struggling with the verse and clearly needed a lot more coaching to make it effective.
Many students and actors are frightened of the verse in Jacobean and Elizabethan plays and, in some cases, of the language itself. Odd when you think about it given that 95% of the vocabulary Shakespeare uses is still in current use and that the heartbeat-like iambic pentameter sits very comfortably in the rhythms of modern English. Think about “I left my brief case on the Northern Line” or “When Susan wants to rant she shouts a lot”.
I recently interviewed actor Ben Crystal for The Stage and reviewed for a newspaper four new books about specific plays as well as taking had a good look at his earlier book Shakespeare on Toast . He is very good indeed at explaining how rhythms work in Shakespeare and sharing ideas of how to speak them. Young actors please note.
What you don’t do, of course – and I’m no voice coach but it’s obvious – is simply to gabble them so fast that they’re incomprehensible. You cannot make Shakespeare sound like a bit of dialogue from Eastenders and it’s very misguided of actors and directors to try. One of the secrets, as I used to point out to my A Level English students – and it isn’t exactly a reactionary idea – is simply to observe the punctuation.
Yes, I know that most of the work for graduating students is in television where such skills are surplus to requirements. But while we have live theatre (thank goodness) and continue to mount classical drama (praise be) we also owe it to trainee actors to equip them with the ability to speak Shakespeare and co with conviction, clarity and confidence.