By Ed Kaye
Shakespeare has never been more accessible.
Theatres may be closed, but online streaming services provided by The National Theatre, The Globe and The RSC are providing us all with some of the finest shows their respective archives have to offer. Unsurprisingly, one writer keeps popping up.
Shakespeare has worked his way onto the laptops and televisions of the nation during this lockdown. Not only that, but we have all been treated to some of this country’s finest performers of Shakespeare. Paapa Essiedu, Tamsin Greig and Ralph Fiennes (to name a few) are perfect examples of what theatre-goers might call “a great Shakespearean actor”.
Ask anyone to name a great Shakespearean actor, and chances are the same names will come to the fore. Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Mark Rylance, the list goes on.
But what makes a great Shakespearean actor? What separates them from the rest of the pack? How can the budding actor, drama school graduate or seasoned professional hope to earn this grand title?
At GSA, where myself and most of ShakeItUp trained, performing Shakespeare well meant combining total understanding of both the meaning and rhythm of the text with bold and truthful gestures.
Sounds awfully actory, right? Basically you need to understand what you’re saying, say it in the rhythm which Shakespeare set out, and match your big words with a big physicality.
Mastering the rhythm of Shakespeare’s text is the part where many performers get stuck.
Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in lines of verse - like a line of poetry. These lines of poetry contain a rhythm called Iambic Pentameter. It sounds complicated, but you can achieve this rhythm by saying the words ‘I am’ (iambic) 5 times (pentameter).
Iambic Pentametre I am I am I am I am I am
Richard III Now is the win -ter of our dis-con-tent
To talk about the rhythm of Shakespeare’s plays puts me at risk of turning this blog into an online GCSE English class. This highlights a significant problem for most actors approaching Shakespeare’s verse; it can seem too academic.
When an actor is about to perform one of Hamlet’s many soliloquies, surely their mind should be focused on their character’s desire for vengeance or painful grief, not on the rhythm of what they’re saying?
What’s more, many actors will argue that their main job is to convey as much reality and truth through their performance as possible. Who in reality truthfully speaks in that rhythm? Surely no one, not even in Elizabethan England, has ever asked for a pint of beer in strict iambic pentameter?
How do actors overcome this challenge and ensure that the rhythm of the verse does not become an enemy to their performance?
Peter Hall founded the RSC and has directed some of the most famous Shakespeare productions this country has produced. What was his approach to performing Shakespeare’s verse?
According to Judi Dench, regimental.
“When Peter Hall directs, he stands at a lectern-and you’d be rehearsing in front of him-and he’d be looking at the lectern and beat out the meter”.
His focus on iambic pentameter was so concentrated that he would labour over single lines of verse for hours, to ensure that the actor performed to the rhythm of the verse.
The result, when successful, is actors like Judi Dench. Actors who are so comfortable with the verse that when they speak it is like poetry. Not only that, but their extensive knowledge of the rules means they know how to break them; like a great jazz musician.
Other directors, rather than following the meter, choose to ignore it.
The 2017 sell-out Almeida production of Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott as the titular role, garnered widespread critical and public acclaim. In an interview with the director Robert Icke, Scott confided how even with 20 years experience in the theatre, he had to deal with the same insecurities less experienced actors have when approaching Shakespeare.
“I’ve always thought that there was maybe something within Shakespeare that I didn’t possess…I don’t really understand what iambic pentameter is”.
Was this an issue? Not for his director.
“We’ve invented this idea of verse speaking when I suspect (Shakespeare) wouldn’t have known what that was”.
A quick search of Scott’s ‘To Be or Not To Be’ on Youtube will show you that sticking to the meter was not on his mind. Instead, the rhythm of his delivery is constantly altering, with pauses and stresses on words which wouldn’t be seen in a Peter Hall production.
And yet many would argue that Scott’s performance was more realistic. They would say that a Shakespeare play is not a poetry recital, but a dramatic depiction of real life. No-one in real life speaks in verse, so why perform like that?
Two opposing and highly successful approaches. The question is, which one will help the good actor to become the great Shakespearean actor?
The truth is that if I knew the answer, I’d be on the doors of The Globe Theatre as soon as it reopened, brashly preparing to show them my Romeo which they never asked for.
The fact that these two styles both yielded wildly successful results may prove that there is no one answer.
Perhaps the closest we can get to a firm answer lies in this crisis we all find ourselves in.
Shakespeare is currently being provided to many viewers who otherwise would not buy a ticket to one of his plays. People like my two older sisters. Their reasons for not seeing more Shakespeare is the same for many other frightened audience members: the language is too difficult to follow.
I recommended they watch The National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, which recently streamed YouTube. Whilst they may not have loved the whole production, they both agreed that Tamsin Greig was exceptional as Malvolia. What was it about her performance that they loved so much?
“We understood what she was saying, and she made us laugh.”
Perhaps the key for great Shakespearean acting is not becoming a master of the meter, but rather ensuring that what you say makes sense and moves your audience. Like any good acting.
However you get there is up to you.
By Joseph Prestwich
Mercutio’s words from Romeo and Juliet, cried out repeatedly on his deathbed after a misjudged swordfight with Tybalt, are a subtle invocation of Shakespeare’s relationship to epidemics and disease. As we bolt up our doors and weather the storm of Covid-19, perhaps now is a good time to remind ourselves how Shakespeare himself was affected by pestilence, and how, despite the devastating effect the coronavirus is having on families across the world, great times of crisis also provide inspiration for great, lasting forms of art.
The Black Death of 1348 and the Great Plague of 1665 are probably the two main epidemics students of GCSE History will well recognise. But there were, of course, at least 40 more outbreaks that affected London in that time period. Shakespeare himself was born in April 1564, just as a plague that wiped out a quarter of the population of Stratford-Upon-Avon was dwindling away. This early confrontation with disease has invited scholars such as Jonathan Bate to view plague as “the single most powerful force shaping [Shakespeare’s] life and those of his contemporaries”.
In 1606, another plague swept through London, causing many playhouses to close and forcing The King’s Men “to get creative about performances” (Cohen 2020). They toured to as many plague-free rural towns as possible, and Shakespeare used this opportunity to write “three really extraordinary tragedies”: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra (Shapiro 2015).
The word “plague” comes up in my favourite of these three plays, King Lear, at some interesting moments. Consider Edmund asking his goddess Nature why he must “stand in the plague of custom” and allow his “legitimate” brother to have all his family’s wealth. Here, Edmund see following the status quo as a threat, and so employs some dastardly deeds to alter it. Consider how vile an insult this would have seemed: “thou art a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood”. That’s Lear to his daughter Goneril. Consider Gloucester’s chilling lines to the old man guiding him: “’Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.”
Returning to these lines in full knowledge of their context does little to alter their meaning, but certainly increases their effect. It attunes us to what’s important in this Lear: family, loyalty, compassion, love. Key themes that resonate now as they would have done then. But for me, and most of all, reading of Shakespeare’s ability to work despite the plague gives me hope. Theatres might close, but theatre-making can never stop. Of course, there are those right now who are not in a position to settle down and write plays. Financial and job insecurity, the possible economic burden of care, the threat of ill health: these are real issues faced by a lot of people. But for those who can stay at home in some comfort, now is the time to be creative. Re-engage with those projects set aside last year. Re-convene that writers’ circle online. Re-edit that script one more time. If Shakespeare could manage it, so can we.
Bate, Jonathan. Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. Random House, 2010.
Cohen, Ben. “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign.” Slate, March 10th 2020, https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/shakespeare-plague-influence-hot-hand-ben-cohen.html. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Museum of London. “London Plagues: 1348 – 1665.” MuseumofLondon.org.uk, 2011, https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/5014/5434/6066/london-plagues-1348-1665.pdf. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Online version created by Jeremy Hylton, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/lear/full.html. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Shapiro, James. 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. Faber & Faber, 2015.
With contributions from members of the ShakeItUp company, this monthly blog will cover behind the scenes peaks into the rehearsal room, news about our latest projects, and insights into what goes into creating our Bard-based Bedlam!