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Books for theatre professionals: November 2

Derek Jacobi performing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010. Photo: Johan Persson
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The Oberon Book of Comic Monologues for Women Volume 2, by Katy Wix (Oberon)

monologuesI enjoyed Kathy Wix’s first book of monologues and now she’s given us 40 more. She is often very funny – even on the page – and in the hands of a skilled performer some of these new speeches would be pure gold. She’s very good at the apparently random deadpan opening: “I was in a band”, “I never feel the cold”, “I’ve got to pee”. The skill, as ever, is to be deadly, earnestly serious about something laughably, perhaps pitiably, trivial. There’s plenty here for anyone wanting a fresh comic audition speech or for anyone brave enough to be assembling one-woman show material. Communion – about a woman who has learned the power of prayer now that she has “a credit card bill as long as a novel” – is my favourite.

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells, revised by Will Sharpe and Erin Sullivan (Oxford University Press)

Oxford-Companion-ShakespeareThe new Oxford Companion to Shakespeare comes in a different format from its 2001 predecessor. Now an A4 book to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death next year, it is more for the coffee table than reference shelf in image, although all the scholarship is still there. Sharpe and Erin have updated it to include the modern emphasis on the global awareness of Shakespeare and there are more than 80 new entries to acknowledge the importance of performers, directors and scholars such as Lucy Bailey, Samuel West and Alfredo Michel Modenessi. We also get useful information on, for example, Shakespeare in the digital age, and the thematic contents list should help newcomers to find their way round the alphabetical content from Aaron (Titus Andronicus) to Zuccaro, a 16th-century Italian painter to whom a “likeness” of Shakespeare was wrongly attributed in the 19th century.

Performing Lear: Gielgud to Russell Beale, by Jonathan Croall (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare)

Performing King LearStill on Shakespeare, this rather untidy book – a mixture of contemporary review, memories, commentary and interviews, examines in depth the ways in which King Lear has been directed and played in the last 50 years or so. Regarded as more or less off-limits for centuries, the turning point was Harley Granville Barker’s 1927 Preface to King Lear which “put the case for the play’s actability.” Since then we’ve had Gielgud, Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Wolfit and, of course Peter Brook’s groundbreaking 1962 production with Scofield… and dozens since. Today, it’s a role that every actor works towards. Croall mentions seeing four new productions in the year he was compiling this book and, of course, there’s Antony Sher’s coming next year. There are about 40 living actors who’ve tackled the role. Read this book, all ye students, and find out as much as you can about how it’s been done in the recent past. Your turn is coming.

The Voice Exercise Book, by Jeanette Nelson (National Theatre)

NT Voice Exercise Book-1Jeanette Nelson has worked at National Theatre since 1992 and been head of voice there since 2007. Her exceptionally clear and accessible book shares the work she does with NT actors and suggests ways in which it can be used by actors elsewhere or, indeed, by anybody, anywhere. There are exercises with tongue and lips, with abdominal muscles and with breath. Later she moves on (the exercises are in two stages) to working on words and text. The emphasis is on using your voice healthily and well – which is why she considers voice problems – but Nelson also discusses accents, your own and one you might be using for a role and working with young people. I’m not an actor but I do some amateur choral singing and I learned a lot from this book.

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