I started acting through youth theatre, and while we did a Shakespeare play around the time I joined, it was an updated version set in modern times and with a lot of music and dance segments.
At the time, the production was described as “more based on Baz Luhrmann than the Bard”.
It was great fun to do, but I have to be honest and say I still couldn’t tell you a lot about the original play our version was based on.
I can tell you a lot more about my first ‘legit’ Shakespeare play, which I’m due to start working on with quite a well-known company shortly.
Not wanting to be the philistine of the cast, I’ve been reading commentaries, watching the greats do it on YouTube and generally doing more homework than I did for my GCSEs and A levels combined.
The only problem is that all the conflicting advice and approaches are getting me more, rather than less, confused.
And as for my RP, it might work in a Blackadder tribute show, but, in a proper tragedy, who needs laughs in the wrong places?
JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE As you’ve already alluded to, if I was to set out “Byrne’s definitive method for performing Shakespeare”, I’d merely be adding to the plethora of other ‘definitive methods’, that, like the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, have been raining down on actors’ heads for centuries. But that’s not to say that a lot of what you are discovering in your research isn’t useful.
Respect for tradition is important, not just for artistic reasons, but also for business reasons – in any career, why waste time reinventing the wheel, when it actually makes more sense to learn from the best and then try to bring something uniquely your own to it?
However, respect and worship are two different things, and if we follow somebody else’s lead – no matter how excellent an actor or commentator – so slavishly that we end up doing a copy of their approach, we won’t be doing ourselves, the audience or even the original interpreter any great service, since a copy is always going to feel a bit second-hand.
Very few of us approach Shakespeare (or Chekhov, or any of the other big names) without preconceptions, so the first thing I would suggest is to, in as much as is possible, approach the play as if it were a new piece of writing that neither you nor anybody else had read before.
Commentaries are certainly handy shortcuts to getting your head around unusual language and gaining an understanding of the theatrical and wider culture of the time. A plain old glossary, on the other hand, will probably slow you down, as you’ll need to keep stopping and starting as you check the meaning of words. But, if you stick with it, you’ll be exploring your own feelings about the characters and the plot, which, as with any other piece, is the fuel you will draw on to create your performance.
A modern English translation of the play is also a useful tool, as it gives you an overview of the plot (something that a surprising number of actors often neglect to lock in, even in contemporary work, with dire consequences when somebody gets confused).
Don’t get hung up on trying to deliver your lines in RP (unless this is a specific note from the director). If you’re already feeling that Shakespeare is a foreign language, and then you have to speak that language through what, for you, is a foreign accent, it’s going to be very difficult for you to communicate the thoughts and emotions underlying the dialogue, which in the end is the aspect of the characters that contemporary actors – and their audiences – have the most chance of connecting with.