I have had the great privilege of seeing some of the most extraordinary performances of Shakespeare’s plays ever produced. What made them extraordinary? The fact that the actors on stage weren’t “playing” Shakespeare. They weren’t focused on a “style” of acting. They had created real, flesh and blood, people who were simply speaking to each other in their mother tongue. Not “Shakespearean” language.
Actor John Douglas Thompson (who recently starred as Othello in NYC) said he prized “the actor’s ability to make antique language sound contemporary, just like they are speaking to us right now in an everyday conversation. It still contains meaning and urgency, but it’s delivered in such a way that our contemporary ears say, ‘Oh, he’s speaking to me.’ ” This is achieved, Mr. Thompson said, when actors bring “a certain amount of irreverence to the text.” He doesn’t mean improvising, of course, but that actors can stiffen up when they “follow the iambic pentameter religiously. When you follow rules like that rigidly, you can become a rigid performer.”
I have spent countless hours I will sadly never get back watching productions in which the actors were entirely focused on what they believed was the intended way to perform Shakespeare. Wooden, lumbering acting, speaking lines purely for effect, and in ways that made me question if any of them had any clue as to what they were talking about. Confusion reigned.
“Tastes in acting, as in everything else, certainly vary, but a great Shakespearean performance is easy to spot. You know one when you see one, although it’s probably more accurate to say that you know one when you don’t see one: when the language no longer feels remote, when the humanity of the actor and the character seem indivisible, when the emotion being expressed is no longer veiled by poetic phrasing but revealed by it, creating a shock of recognition in your own heart.” – Charles Isherwood, New York Times
Whenever I find myself watching actors who have accepted that they are in one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces but aren’t limiting themselves to playing in a Shakepearean manner…well…I’m in “Shakespearean” heaven. I marvel at the degree to which Shakespeare created characters who aren’t simply theatrical constructs but emotional, physical and psychological people. And I find it almost criminal not to approach his characters with the same degree of care and consideration that he so clearly did. It’s hard for me to imagine that he’d go to the trouble of creating multidimensional characters to be satisfied with actors coming along and making them one dimensional.
Tim Carroll, who recently directed productions of “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” on Broadway said this of his star Mark Rylance (who won his third Tony award for his performance in “Twelfth Night”), “I have seen Mr. Rylance as Hamlet, Richard II, and the Duke in “Measure for Measure” among other roles, I have always marveled at how he imbues these various characters with a quality I can only call soulfulness, a sense that their interior landscapes are being revealed to us moment by moment. Shakespeare’s characters can seem remote in more studied or stilted performances, but Mr. Rylance always seems to be breathing the same air we do.”
And that my friends, is the point. To approach Shakespeare like one would any world with living beings and create a world pulsating with life! To be or not…I say without hesitation…to be!
Selected scenes and monologues are assigned to each actor and together we thoroughly break down the material, line by line, imagine the significance of each word, each phrase, each expression, in relation to the specific characters being created. Research time and place so as to better, and more securely, place the characters. Lesson one; Know thyself.
We will work with, but not limit ourselves to, imabic pentametor. A standard line of iambic pentameter is five iambic feet in a row: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
The tick-TOCK rhythm of iambic pentameter can be heard in the opening line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12: When I do count the clock that tells the time
Yes, words possess meaning, but to simply “speak the speech” and trust that the words will do all of the work is to deny our characters their relationships with the words they’re speaking. We may all use the same words but our relationships with them can differ wildly. The word “love” for instance creates a wide variety of feelings in people depending on the individual’s specific, very “personal”, relationship with love.
The goal is to create characters imbued with “…soulfulness…” who seem “…to be breathing the same air we do.”