Performing Shakespeare – No Definitive Rule

The Guardian’s ‘Secret Actor’ column – while entertaining – is sometimes a dispiriting read for someone who wants to enter the profession.

This week featured a self-important “Bardmeister” who vaingloriously lectures younger actors in a rehearsal for a Shakespeare production on the definitive way to perform a speech: “Some of you younger actors may not be familiar with the rhythm required to perform Shakespeare as it should be performed, so this is how it should sound …” At this point, he extends his arm masterfully and clicks his thumb and fingers rhythmically, all the while saying (and I’m trying to get this right): “Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka.”

Although the Secret Actor is clearly ridiculing his buffoonery, it does momentarily strike fear into the drama school candidate that this style of Shakespearean delivery is the rule – with Hitlerian adherence to iambic pentameter and said in the clipped and constipated style of a 1950s newsreader.

However, this is clearly not what an audition panel at drama school are looking for; they don’t want to see a recitation but a living, breathing and believable human being. If Rory Kinnear followed said Bardmeister’s advice, I sincerely doubt Othello would have got the rave reviews it did. The first thing that people say about the production is how accessible the actors made the language and how “it didn’t feel like [they] were listening to Shakespeare at all.”

Audition Doctor sessions do not focus on which beats are stressed or unstressed and Tilly would never instruct you on how any speech should sound – they focus instead on truly understanding the meaning of the speech. The words that end up stressed are those that you have picked organically that best serve your character’s intentions. There is no categorical law on how to say Shakespeare at Audition Doctor; Tilly focuses on finding the emotion and thinking behind the words and working out the technical beats only happens if a line isn’t sitting well with you. But there is no rule.

Last week Rebecca Front commented: “When I look at other people acting I don’t like to see the cogs whirring. That annoys me. I want to see a real person in a real situation.” Although in Audition Doctor lessons , Tilly will sometimes point out technical aspects of your acting (such as voice or breathing problems that you may be having), they aren’t about examining the techniques that Shakespeare uses in the manner of a detached intellectual. Audition Doctor sessions are about being real in a real situation, which is the only thing that drama schools are looking for.

Performing Shakespeare

It’s surprising how often drama school applicants commiserate with each other when they find out that other people are doing the same Shakespeare speeches as them at an audition. The chances of any new material from a man who has been dead for nearly 400 years is slim, so the likelihood of someone doing the same speech as you is statistically quite high. Securing a place isn’t based on the originality of your choice of speeches but your originality of thought and approach.

When interviewed in Fourth Wall magazine, Oliver Ford Davis talked of how there was no fixed way of performing Shakespeare and gave advice that would stand any drama school applicant in excellent stead: “One of the difficult things is we approach it with preconceptions and labels…I think with the big Shakespeare parts, don’t try and fit into a mould, don’t say, ‘This is how Cleopatra should be, how Rosalind should be.’ The audience don’t come to see Shakespeare’s Rosalind, they come to see your Rosalind. You might as well go for broke and say ‘I’ve got to find as much of Rosalind as I can in me and then I will do my Rosalind, and it will be like nobody else’s. Don’t be frightened of it. It’s a magnificent, magnificent thing to drive, to gain control of but you must bring yourself to it. I think Shakespeare, because he was an actor and because he knew his acting company so well, he actually leaves quite a lot of it to you, sort of saying, ‘I haven’t proscribed how this character should be played.’”

Another common plaintive cry is “I just wish I knew what they were looking for.” In recalls, the audition panel don’t just want to see how you take direction but also how receptive you are to your fellow actors. The improvisation exercises and other games that are played aren’t just what one panel flippantly called “a bit of fun for you all”, but an opportunity for them to scrutinise whether you are capable of doing what Alison Steadman advised all actors this week – “ To look and listen. As an actor, all we are doing is pretending to be other people. Look and listen: always listen. Listen, listen, listen all the time.”

At Audition Doctor, there is thankfully never any opportunity to play someone else’s interpretation of a Shakespeare character as Tilly is meticulous in questioning every single choice you make in your speech. Sessions at Audition Doctor will often entail making sure that your intentions behind every thought is clear by “listening” to the text, which ensures that your performance is truthful. The focus that Audition Doctor places on how your character is trying to affect the person he/she is talking to is invaluable. If you are unsure as to how you are trying to affect a fictional character, the real human beings sitting on the panel will undoubtedly also be left unconvinced.

Why Shakespeare?

Acting on stage requires a startling amount of both physical and mental exertion.  To be a stage actor is to run a nightly marathon. As Ian McKellen attests: “I’m increasingly feeling that theatre is a young person’s game, it takes a lot of energy and concentration – two, three hours on stage – and that’s physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.” Or maybe it’s because there is something oddly primal about an actor standing on stage and the audience are subconsciously reminded of the age-old history of entertainment, from Music hall right back to Elizabethan England and beyond. There were no green screens or special effects to beguile the viewer then; it was the words you uttered and how you spoke them that captivated. Only when you have stood on stage can you truly call yourself an entertainer – the actor’s fundamental job description.

There have been a string of interviews this week with actors acknowledging theatre’s utmost importance in the development of the actor. On the Andrew Marr Show, Patricia Hodge said: “Theatre is the real learning ground and you bring that to the screen”, while Lesley Manville in the Guardian spoke of the stage being “the ultimate test; I like watching established screen actors on stage to see if they can really do it.”

It isn’t just the simple fact of treading the boards that lends gravitas to the actor; acting in a Shakespeare play appears to be the ultimate test. It is only when an actor has cut their teeth on the Bard that they truly cut the mustard. Lenny Henry’s Othello in 2011 was the defining moment when he proved that he could entertain as a different kind of performer.

Othello is at the National again with two actors who have stellar film and TV careers – Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester. However, in an interview for the Guardian, they spoke of how acting for theatre requires hard graft and how it continuously exercises the performer’s acting muscles – both literally and metaphorically – which can grow weak if not used.

“I get antsy if a year goes by without doing a play,” says Kinnear, who emphasises the sheer physical effort of stage acting. “I don’t go to the gym, so this is my way of trying to live longer.”

“If you’re doing nothing but film,” says Lester, “part of you gets soft – your speed of thinking, the amount you have to learn, your physicality, your voice, your diaphragm. When I step back on stage I have to re-engage all those muscles, especially with Shakespeare. You have to make the audience believe this is a real person speaking, not someone standing there reciting poetry. It’s quite an ask.”

The Guardian journalist questioned the actors whether they could offer anything new to a play that has been seen recently and countless times. Lester replied: “People’s preconceptions are based on generalities, our job is to be very specific, and in that specificity to make it real, to make it live again.”

This is what Audition Doctor excels at – making a character live. Drama schools and casting directors aren’t interested in “performances”, they want to see you transform into a wholly believable other being.

Shakespeare forms the basis of many acting courses and to “not do Shakespeare” puts you at a huge disadvantage if you want to go to drama school. Audition Doctor sessions give you the space to unlock the language where Tilly ensures that it becomes a springboard instead of a barrier in your acting. Audition Doctor gives you the gift of making you realise that Ian McKellen was right: “The verse is about giving instructions to the actor as to how to say the part and if you know how to say it then you’ll probably know how to feel it.”