Shakespearean voices

Cicely Berry

I’ve written several times about how much I love hearing Shakespeare spoken well, but what exactly does that mean? There are many aspects to speaking Shakespeare, and theatre companies now employ specialist voice coaches to help actors deal with the challenges. I’ve been to several sessions where professional voice coaches give ordinary people a glimpse into the sort of training stage actors undertake, and it always surprises me, as a person who normally sits in a theatre listening, how very physical a skill it is.

Cicely Berry was the first voice coach to work as a permanent part of a theatre company, and she’s written several books about her work with the RSC. She stresses the need for actors to find their own voice rather than falling back on accepted norms.  In this interview she comments that the directors she worked with in the 1970s all had very different approaches to speaking the text: Trevor Nunn was interested in emotion, Terry Hands wanted actors to speak loudly and fast, and John Barton wanted to wring every nuance and reference from the lines. Berry links the physical requirements of speaking (not just about volume) to the need to find the meaning of the words, describing it as “making meaning”.

Even before she began her work directors who were not themselves actors took an interest in speaking that went beyond elocution. Listen to Peter Hall, “iambic fundamentalist” and founder of the RSC in the sixties, being interviewed about Shakespeare and Pinter.

Lyn Darnley

Lyn Darnley is the RSC’s current Head of Text, Voice and Artist Development, a job title which indicates the complexity and scope of the role. She’s very interested in the physicality of speech:  “Spoken language is primarily a vibration capable of physically impacting upon us in the same way music does. So, Shakespeare’s language conveys much more than its literal meaning because it’s layered with sound, dynamic, explosion – language is actually very violent. Sometimes actors need to find that violence in the language”.

The stress on individuality results in hearing far more regional accents in the theatre than you would have done years ago. Sometimes, though, actors are called on to adopt specific accents. For the RSC, in 2011 The Merchant of Venice was set in the USA so all actors had to sound right, and this year the African Julius Caesar has been set very specifically in Kenya.

What though did Shakespeare originally sound like? The Globe Theatre among others has experimented with this along with other original practises like all-male productions. Modern Received Pronunciation (RP) is far from that Shakespeare spoke, though it remains the easiest for most people to understand. David and Ben Crystal have done massive amounts of work on Original Pronunciation, and have recently released a great CD of recordings showing how Shakespearean language sounded.

Ben Crystal as Hamlet

Hearing familiar speeches delivered in this unfamiliar accent, you begin to hear unexpected rhymes, different stresses and, certainly, a warmth and openness of vowel sounds that modern English doesn’t have. You can’t help trying to locate the accent: a few years ago there was a theory that some American accents were closer to Original Pronunciation than English ones, but to me, West Country and Irish accents dominate the pronunciation of the Crystals’ recording.

For a different sort of experience, have a look and a listen to Valerie Pye’s blog, Hearing Shakespeare. Valerie’s an American actor, director and voice coach with a special interest in Shakespeare, and on her site she writes about how she approaches Shakespeare’s speeches, including a recording of her performing them. I particularly liked the two versions of Constance’s speech grieving for her son from King John, completely different in mood, which she posted on 9 July under the title “have I reason to be fond of grief”.

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