The Future of History

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bard?

I came across a recent comment piece in the Telegraph, entitled There is no reason to be afraid of the Bard.  Well, that's a relief!

The commentator, one Harry Mount, began by explaining that many an actor is utterly terrified of Shakespeare.  Michael Gambon, for one.  Christopher Ecclestone and Zoe Wanamaker can't get their heads round iambic pentameter (or "blank verse", as they called it in Shakespeare's day).  Ralph Fiennes admits that he doesn't really understand King Lear.

Fortunately, Harry Mount was on hand to dole out some advice on how Shakespeare should be spoken.  This advice boils down to "avoid the theatrical and keep it real" - which sounds to me a bit like the summary of a PowerPoint demonstration given by a management consultant.  Or pretty much anyone, for that matter.  E.g.: "We in the West Highland Mountain Rescue Service have one motto, and that is - 'Avoid the theatrical and keep it real.'"

It so happens that Nicholas Hytner, the outgoing artistic director of the National Theatre, seems to agree with Mount (for the record, the incoming artistic director of the National Theatre, Mr Rufus Norris, was once crucified, naked, in one of the very first stageplays I had produced in London, so we've got a bit of history, me and the National's new Mr Big.  Anyway ...)  Nicholas Hytner has said that Shakespeare should be acted in "spontaneous, comprehensible, natural speech patterns".

Harry Mount helpfully provides us with an illustration of how Shakespeare's dramatic words should be delivered.  He points to Withnail's sozzled speech from Hamlet which closes that wonderfully actory movie, Withnail and I.  And yes, Richard E. Grant doesn't do a bad job, intoning Shakespeare to some bored and bedraggled-looking wolves.  (Strangely, Harry Mount seems to feel that Shakespeare always works best in the pouring rain - too many outdoor productions, methinks.)

Okay, so Messrs Hytner and Mount think that actors should forget all about the iambic pentameter and just say the lines as if they were written in prose.  Unless I'm very much mistaken, that's what they're saying.  Forget the rhythm.  Just imagine you were having a chat around the watercooler.

Sorry - but that's just about the most atrocious advice I could possibly imagine (short of something really extreme, like "put a couple of quail's eggs inbetween your cheeks and your jaw when you do Hamlet - if one of the eggs breaks, you're doing it wrong").  No.  That is entirely the wrong way to tackle Shakespeare.

Think about it: why, why, why would Will have gone to the trouble of writing in blank verse if he knew that, give it a few hundred years and they'll just speak the words as if they're reading out an autocue?  When Shakespeare wanted his characters to speak in prose, he wrote those speeches in prose!  Indeed, there was a distinct difference between the parts written in prose and those written in verse.  Prose was for comedy, the low-grade characters and the pretty mundane stuff.

Reducing all of Shakespeare to some lazy sort of modern prose is basically rewriting him.  Harry Mount is proposing an outrage almost on a par with Julian Fellowes rewriting Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that most of us scum just won't understand the movie otherwise.

There's nothing that weird about blank verse anyway.  It's essentially our normal speech pattern.  Take a line of Shakespeare (e.g. "The quality of mercy is not strained") and think of something more modern and everyday which fits the same sort of space (e.g. "I wouldn't mind a coffee and some cake").  Was that difficult?  Does the rhythm of either of those two quotations strike you as odd, or do both sound fairly natural when spoken in English?

Where actors really go wrong with Shakespeare is when they try to make him sound perfectly normal by abandoning the verse.  Why so?  Well, first of all, because the lines weren't written in prose.  Blank verse offers a very effective guide to the rhythm of the words and (roughly) where the stresses should fall (e.g. "To be or not to be, that is the question"), and once we throw that to the four winds, anything goes (e.g. "To be, or ... not ... to be - that is the question!").  At that point, actors start indulging.

I caught part of a production of Hamlet on TV, not so long ago (I won't identify which production, so as to protect the guilty).  It was horrendous.  Everybody seemed to be moving in slow motion.  And when they weren't moving, they were strangely still, like bad extras.  Whenever an actor had a line to speak, he seemed to think about it for a while before actually saying anything.  Then the next actor would gather his thoughts before opening his mouth.  The result was that the scene seemed to drag on and on till the crack of doom.  It was turgid, pretentious and boring.  And that's not what Will Shakespeare had in mind!!!

Shakespeare, I believe, spent much of his career trying to persuade his actors to speed up a little.  As a dramatist and occasional director, I know how difficult it can be to get actors to have their thoughts and utter them as rapidly as people do in real life.  Something happens when they step on stage: everything slows down.  Shakespeare described one of his plays as a "two-hours' traffic".  They're usually performed these days like a three-and-a-half-hour traffic jam.

The blank verse actually works like a kind of metronome.  It effectively tells the actor how fast he or she should be speaking, and how quickly they should respond to the previous speech.  If Shakespeare had wanted an actor to take a pause, he would have worked in a space by not completing the line.  If the rhythm remains unbroken, then there is no pause.  That keeps things fairly snappy and - I would hasten to add - more realistic.

When I edited The Tempest for a production in Germany recently, I had one rule: keep the rhythm!  I cut out almost half of the text, but did my utmost to make sure that there were no ragged lines.  It wasn't meant to be spoken in prose, or some sort of loose collection of random quotations.  Rhythm matters in Shakespeare, and even if you cut a speech down, you need to keep that rhythm.  It's what's needed to keep the actors on their toes.  Without it, they go all "natural", and it sounds hugely unnatural.

Of course, our inability to understand Shakespeare has nothing to do with the rhythms of his verse.  Nothing at all.  It stems from our refusal to understand his life and times.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you - trippingly on the tongue, said Hamlet to the actors.  Suit the action to the word, and the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature.

In other words, speak the speech as it is written, allowing the iambic rhythm to carry you along (if you turn a speech into prose, you'll cock it up, because many of Shakespeare's sentences are long and convoluted, but if you let the rhythm work through you, you'll get through them without imposing your own ideas on how the sentence should sound).  Don't overdo it, and don't go too slowly.  Just do it as it is.  Cleanly.  Honestly.  Straightforwardly.  Listen to me.  I've shown you how to do it, with as much precision as I can.  It's all in the verse.

And don't pause every time it's your turn to speak!!  Because that gets very, very boring!  It slows down the scene and pretty soon the spectator hasn't a clue what you're on about and has probably lost interest.

(Okay, it was the RSC's Hamlet).

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