| Kate Buffery as Rosalind, 1992
Speaking Shakespeare By Patsy Rodenburg, Methuen, £ 19.99
Imagine being a beautiful boy in your early teens. Then imagine spending the most formative years of your life as a boy-actor in early modern London, playing a series of extraordinary women created especially for you by a devilishly intelligent man whose imagination stops at nothing. Juliet, Titania, Portia, Beatrice, Rosalind, Gertrude, Viola, Cressida, Isabella, Desdemona, Cor- delia, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Volumnia, Hermione. What kind of evolution would such a career demand of you' What would it require, not only of your empathy, articulacy, memory and sexuality, but also physically, of your muscles, nerves, lungs, vocal chords, ears, eyes, mouth, hands, neck, shoulders, chest and spine' What is the human cost of making Shakespeare’s words your life’s work'
Patsy Rodenburg’s Speaking Shakespeare is about the contemporary Shakespearean actor as a “complete human athlete”. Rodenburg is one of the world’s foremost voice and acting coaches. As head of the voice departments of the Royal National Theatre and the Guildhall School of Speech and Drama in London, she has worked with such eminent actors as Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Fiona Shaw and Antony Sher. She also thanks modern British directors like Deborah Warner and Trevor Nunn for “conversation and insights”. This book is a practical guide on how to begin to speak and understand Shakespeare, taking its user through the foundation work that an actor should ideally do before even entering a rehearsal space and facing a director. With its wealth of experience, learning and hard thinking, it is a valuable and entertaining supplement to an academic study of the plays and poems. And for those who have nothing to do with the stage or have drifted away from academia but not from Shakespeare’s living art, Rodenburg’s book will be a rich and illuminating human document. It will show them, without jargon or pedantry, how to speak, listen, look, learn and indeed live in the brilliant light of Shakespeare’s linguistic intelligence.
Speaking Shakespeare takes those who enter Shakespeare “blind and craftless” through a four-part journey. First comes the “body work”. This is a course of exercises designed to make the body ready for and open to being the “vessel for the text”. It aims to strengthen and extend the breath capacity, to free the voice and place it “forward and out”. The actor also learns to free and control his speech muscles so that he can use the “spring” of Shakespeare’s iambic to move with ease through the obstacles Shakespeare deliberately creates within his words. (Try saying quickly, as Paulina has to in The Winter’s Tale, “What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me'”) Rodenburg’s goal here is to create in the actor “a state of readiness”. This state is “a place of survival”, of poise, presence and vivid alertness. It will eventually embed itself in his “muscle memory” and remain constant through him as he acts. Readiness makes you look out at the world, not away from it. It also makes you a profoundly sensitive listener: “To listen attentively is also to be gracious, compassionate and interested in humanity. If Shakespeare’s work, in which these virtues shine through above all others, is anything to go by, he must have been an extraordinary listener.”
The second part teaches the actor to pay close attention to “the givens” of Shakespeare’s text. He will have to recognize and then cull from the structures and forms of the language, from Shakespeare’s endless audacity with every mastered convention, the acting notes and stage-directions that would help him realize the vital energy of these plays, across differences of time and place. There are long and detailed discussions of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and scenic forms, of the physical nature of his words, the inward as well as forward momentum of his “line” (“a precisely calibrated journey of thought and emotion”), the nature of his irony and playfulness. This knowledge of form is not just an “intellectual awareness”, but one that must be fully incorporated in the body and voice of the actor. Rodenburg suggests a fascinating exercise: to actually “walk the journey” of a long speech. As you speak, say, Lady Macbeth’s “Glamis thou art” speech in I.v, keep walking and changing direction every time you find a turn in the thought, to feel how Shakespeare’s characters “rarely stand still in their thinking. They are always changing as they speak.”
This section concentrates the actor’s attention on the marrow of Shakespeare’s writing, and urges him to approach it with trust and with respect for the fact that “Shakespeare knows what he is doing”. This is why Shakespeare is most brilliantly queer when he is, as it were, played straight.
If the “givens” lead the actor and his audience forward through the chaos of experience, then the next part — “the imaginative” — connects him “vertically to the depths of language”. The exercises in this section take him through a deeper exploration of the concreteness of Shakespeare’s words and images, freeing his emotional connection to the word, so that the language can be animated with “specific, felt, imaginative experience”. Rodenburg makes compassion — “an opening of the actor’s imaginative landscape” — a life’s work. To enter your character’s world, to see and understand beyond yourself, entails much more than generalized “emoting”. It becomes “a real connection to a known human being”, be he, as Keats would say, an Imogen or an Iago.
The work done in the first three parts is put into practice in the final section through detailed analyses of eleven long speeches and two complete scenes. Here we are thrown into the deepest end of Shakespeare’s multitudinous sea: Isabella being asked by her brother to save his life by sleeping with Angelo; Edgar preparing to turn into Poor Tom; Iago wondering whether Othello has cuckolded him; the Macbeths killing Duncan; a cross-dressed Viola bringing her first embassage of love from (her secretly beloved) Orsino to a veiled Olivia, who then begins to fall in love with Viola instead.
For Rodenburg, these are all quintessentially Shakespearean moments of heightened experience, like those “minutes, days and nights in all our lives that we will remember on our deathbeds or in our dreams”. On the stage, these are moments when we most intensely claim Shakespeare’s language as our own, “etched in the body, heart, mind and spirit”: “Language fully owned not only reflects a character’s transformation: it has itself the power to transform. There is a summoning power in words: it is dangerous to say what we mean because it will occur. Powerful words and ideas create the thing itself. Ask with clarity and passion, and you will receive.”