To quote Sir Ian McKellen: “If you can do Shakespeare, you’re a proper actor.” But whether it’s for an audition or a stage run, where do you start? Tackling a Shakespeare text can be a daunting task, so what do you need to know in order to understand the Bard and enjoy his extraordinary language? Backstage spoke to directors and actors from The Globe, Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and The Shakespeare Ensemble to find out.
What research would you recommend?
Iqbal Khan, director (RSC, The Globe): “Read Emma Smith’s book This is Shakespeare. She’s a great iconoclast and has a naughty urgency to how she imagines the texts. There’s also a wonderful workshop on YouTube led by Brian Cox (the actor, not the theoretical physicist!) examining the surprising mix of comedy and tragedy in the plays.
“And, as a great introduction to how the material gives clues to interpreters, watch John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare TV series (made into a wonderful, elegant book of the same name) from late 80s. The language, the themes, and the dramatic possibilities of the plays are explored by a great generation of RSC actors in their prime.”
What’s your advice for memorising all those lines?
Charlotte Randle, actor (RSC, National Theatre): “Start learning early! I try to start a rehearsal process with long speeches already under my belt. Start by looking up all the words you’re unsure of in the Shakespeare Glossary by C. T. Onions – apparently this is where the phrase ‘knowing your onions’ comes from. I break the speech into chunks and then learn by rote ie: I go for a walk, walking the rhythm, reciting the words. I probably look completely mad, but it gets the words in!
“Once I’ve memorised a new section, I practise the speech from the top, over and over again until it’s almost automatic. That way, there is space and confidence to play with all the interpretive possibilities in rehearsal. Bear in mind, most characters don’t know they’re launching into a speech when they start talking, so learning each new thought as a chunk is quite useful for your own clarity.”
How can you protect your voice during a long Shakespeare run?
Randle: “Be technical! If you need to shout/scream/cry/rage – support your voice with an open throat and plenty of breath. Your voice is a muscle that needs preparation, particularly in the early days of a run, so a physical and vocal warm up is really important. Stay hydrated… and don’t go to a noisy pub or club and talk over loud music into the early hours. That’s the worst thing you can do if you want a voice the next day.”
Any top tips for tackling the language?
Owen Horsley, director (RSC, Bard City): “Pay attention to the iambic pentameter. This regular heart beat is written to help the actor. Try approaching a line and make it fit the regular rhythm. By doing this, you will hear when the line can’t be regular – when the sense doesn’t fit the heartbeat. Embrace the regularity as much as you can so that the irregular moments really stand out. When a character goes ‘off-beat’ it might suggest they are trying to grab someone’s attention or indicate they have been emotionally hit by something.
“A curiosity for language is essential. Become a text detective. Look for repetition, antithesis, alliteration, similes, and metaphors. You’ve got to fall in love with the way words sound – for example, a run of open vowels or repeated ‘s’ sound. Shakespeare rinses language of every possibility. In Shakespeare, language is your ammunition – you want to be fully armed!”
What about the big speeches?
Horsley: “At the beginning of a speech, Shakespeare will give you a headline. For example: ‘To be or not to be; that is the question.’ Everything that is spoken in this speech will be in relation to this headline. The movement of the speech is about finding a conclusion. A speech can be hard to follow if you miss the headline.
“We get to know the character by how they think. In order to do this, we need to separate the thoughts. How does your character structure their thoughts? What is the relationship between long and short thoughts? A good thing to remember is that each new thought is better than the last. This is a good way to build. The way a character thinks is incredibly dynamic and the more we immerse ourselves in this thought process, the more we connect to the character.”
What should an actor bring to the rehearsal room?
Ben Crystal, curator (The Shakespeare Ensemble), author (Springboard Shakespeare, Shakespeare on Toast): “Openness and humour as well as resilience, integrity and a passion for the craft. It has nothing to do with age or experience. I look for people who come prepared in and of themselves and then we can explore techniques together. This might be the ability to spend an hour talking about the difference between a comma and a full stop and then, having touched on that specificity and structure, to have the ability to fly free from it – a desire to play!”
OK, we’ve done the work... now what?
Antonia Weir, actor and producer (The Shakespeare Ensemble): “As well as really knowing your own individual part, it is about being very responsive to your ensemble during performances and not big fixed in ‘this is my character and this is how they are.’ It is a case of doing the work, but then not gripping too tight to the scaffolding but letting it fly. In other words, not forcing the text or premeditating anything but just listening and responding. I found so much surprise every time we played!”
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