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Obituary: Cicely Berry – ‘RSC’s pioneering vocal coach who transformed theatre practice’

Cicely Berry pictured in 2006

Cicely Berry’s influence on the speaking of text, on the physicality of actors’ vocal performances and the central importance of a body-and-mind approach to verse-speaking was as radical as it was revolutionary. It transformed contemporary theatre practice as Berry’s thinking and methodology became ingrained in the classroom and rehearsal room.

As the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘voice guru’ for more than four decades from 1969, Berry pioneered a new, integrated approach to the theatrical voice that inspired successive generations of actors, directors and voice teachers. Her five books, beginning with the seminal Voice and the Actor in 1973, blended authority with approachability to explore and illuminate the relationship between text, character and the voice and remain essential texts.

Renowned voice coach Cicely Berry dies

Born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, she showed an early interest in poetry and the spoken word. She later studied on the teacher’s course at the Central School of Speech and Drama under the guidance of Elsie Fogerty, imbibing her tutor’s dissatisfaction with the then dominant but already old-fashioned notion of ‘elocution’ as a route to verse speaking.

If Berry had a credo, it was expressed in Voice and the Actor when she said: “Speaking is a part of the whole: an expression of the inner life.”

On graduating from Central (to where she returned often to teach) she began to give private lessons and conduct open classes at the Inns of Court Mission, Drury Lane in the heart of London’s Theatreland. She quickly attracted early devotees. As early as 1961 The Stage remarked that “she seems astonishingly young for the reputation she has acquired”.

At the end of the decade, her growing profile brought her to the attention of Trevor Nunn, newly appointed as artistic director of the RSC. In 1969, he invited her to become the company’s head of voice – the first such appointment for any British company – and, he later recalled, “the unique authenticity of [her] work has made it a fundamental part of the RSC’s achievements”.

Berry herself sidestepped any suggestion that she had developed a technique that could be of use in itself, always at pains to stress the crucial need for the actor to fully engage with the text. “Technique is such a myth, for there is no such thing as a correct voice. There is no ‘right way’, there are only a million wrong ways.”

If others regarded her as a guru, Berry never indulged in the flattery. Paying tribute on news of her death, Nunn’s most recent successor at the helm of the RSC, Gregory Doran, described her as “radical and subversive, playful and provocative, utterly unsentimental and rigorously unpretentious”.

There were few areas of the RSC (and outside) where Berry’s contribution wasn’t felt. For 12 years, during which she became affectionately known as “Cis”, she was the sole member of its voice department before enlisting David Carey and, later, Andrew Wade as her assistants. She regularly devised anthology programmes and directed the twin peaks of Shakespeare: Hamlet, with Tim McInnerny as the titular prince for the National Theatre in 1986, and King Lear, in 1988 with Richard Haddon Haines in the lead role with the RSC.

If the former was hindered by the slender resources available to the National’s then fledgling education department – its tour to schools and colleges conducted in a single van – the latter was remembered by Doran as “a startlingly fresh production, viscerally connected to the power of words, which honoured the violence and physicality of the text”.

In 1990, together with Paul Schoolman, Berry adapted three film scripts about prison life into The Dartmoor Trilogy and regularly returned to work with prisoners, convinced of theatre’s capacity to change even the most blighted and disadvantaged of lives. The following year, providing evidence of her by then well-established reach around the globe, she hosted the first international conference of theatre voice teachers in Stratford.

In work away from the RSC, she established the Voice and Speech Centre with fellow voice coaches Patsy Rodenburg, Sally Grace and Robert Freeburn in London in the late 1980s.

Her influence extended to playwrights, striking up close working relationships with David Rudkin and Edward Bond. She described the latter as her “great mentor” in arguing that text only came alive when it was fully absorbed and channelled through actors.

In 2002, well into her 70s, she began working with Nos do Morro (‘We from the slums’), a youth theatre group in Rio de Janeiro, maintaining the relationship for several years.

Although she went into semi-retirement in 2014, she continued to contribute to the RSC, most recently conducting workshops for the company’s revival of The Tempest in 2016, and remained its advisory director at the time of her death.

Her few screen credits included an appearance on the BBC wordplay game show Call My Bluff in 1967 and as dialogue coach for two Bernardo Bertolucci films: the Oscar-laden epic The Last Emperor (1987) and Stealing Beauty (1996). She was also credited as ‘voice specialist’ on Julie Taymor’s visually striking Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins, in 1999.

In 2016, she and Adrian Wade created The Working Shakespeare Library, a five-DVD and book package based on a three-day masterclass featuring a host of star actors including Samuel L Jackson, Helen Hunt, Lindsay Duncan and Toby Stephens.

Awarded an OBE in 1985, she was appointed a CBE in 2009 and received the Sam Wanamaker Prize in 2000 in recognition of her long and illustrious career.

Cicely Frances Berry was born on May 17, 1926 and died on October 15, aged 92. She was married to the American actor Harry Moore until his death in 1978 and is survived by their three children.

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