A third more opulent

Guest blogger Robert Stagg writes…

what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters’?

(King Lear Folio I, i, 85-6)

In speaking, the actor playing Lear – let alone Cordelia – must consider not only “what” to say but how to say it. In offering “A third more opulent than your sisters’”, does he emphasise “more” or “opulent”? – that is to say, does Lear think Cordelia will be allured by sheer wealth or sororal competition? Two different stress-routes are offered through the lines.

Two months ago, I was experiencing another problem of stress. I was writing a 10,000-word Master’s dissertation while rehearsing to play Lear in a psychology experiment. Audiences would see two different versions of King Lear I, i and I, ii. One version presented an affable Lear ruined by Cordelia’s refusal to join in his joke. The other showed the audience a king leering at his daughter, managing the family succession with a thin-faced relish. The affable Lear stressed a “more opulent” third in a playful manner; the second Lear laid emphasis on “opulent”, his eyes shining at the spoken riches.

An actor’s decision to place stress on “opulent” seems to accord with expectations of an iambic line; the first syllable of “opulent” (“op”) acquires stress if we are to read the line iambically. But the “o” of “opulent” is helped and enabled by the previous “o” in “more”. There is almost an elision or slur between the o’s. So stressing “opulent” comes with the permission of, and certainly not at the expense of, “more” – an auxiliary disruption of the iambic pattern.

Shakespeare, then, does not exactly give advice to the players (as Peter Hall’s book title, drawing on Hamlet, misleadingly promises). Here, Shakespeare does the opposite; he plays with the iambic advice of the line, makes it more difficult than counting syllables on fingers. Instead, the players are given a possibility or possibilities. From this small matter of stress – “more” or “opulent”? – comes an impression of Lear’s attitude to Cordelia and, with it, our attitude towards her. Does he think her greedy or competitive, and how so? Does his voice command our confidence in that judgement, or judgements? In a stutter, or a stumble, or a stress, worlds of possibility loop out from individual lines – like the parallel worlds or universes of modern physics – and create a staging of the play. The actor cannot play all the worlds at once; but he can hear a glimpse of its aspects from the stresses and strains of Shakespeare’s lines.

Robert Stagg

Teach young babes

Guest blogger, Judith Siefring, writes…

Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks

Othello, IV, ii

Like so many of us, I love reading and watching Shakespeare. And like many book-loving parents, I perhaps think a little too much about how to pass on my favourite works to my children. I’m a digital editor at the Bodleian and having had the good fortune to work on the Shakespeare Quartos Archive in 2009, when my son was only two years old, I pondered the question of when to introduce a child to Shakespeare rather earlier than most!

I would often sit at my laptop surrounded by different editions of Hamlet, while my son played happily on the floor beside me. I have a treasured photograph of him absorbed in a paperback Hamlet; any secret desires I may have had to circulate it as evidence of my son’s incipient genius were scuppered by the fact that the book is upside down.

When my son was four, I decided to dip our toes together into Shakespeare in performance by taking him to the wonderful Shakespeare4Kidz production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Any doubts I may have had about whether it is possible to make Shakespeare truly appealing for kids were quickly dispelled by a theatre full of children in hysterics at the antics of Puck and company. Well over a year later, my son still talks about “the funny fairy guy”. I must confess, too, to feeling just a tiny bit smug when my boy pointed excitedly at a theatre poster recently at a crowded traffic crossing and bellowed, “Look Mummy – Hamlet!!

Now with the fantastic Sprint for Shakespeare initiative for inspiration, the time might be right to get to work on my two-year-old daughter…

 Judith Siefring

Hooked Kids

Guest blogger, Angie Johnson, writes…

Once I was on holiday with my daughters near Arundel Castle where I was delighted to see advertised a production of The Tempest that was to play in the grounds.  As I was on holiday, I had no baby sitters available so we all went along. My girls were 2½ and 4 years old, but I figured, as it was outside, they could totter about if they got bored. I needn’t have worried — they loved every minute of it.

At first they were impressed by the antics of the colourful characters strutting on the stage — BUT then they got caught up in the rhythm of the lines, and became truly entranced by the show.  The very young love rhythm, yet I noticed how some of the older audience members struggled with it.  They could not give in to the magic of the iambic pentameter!

My girls are now in their mid 20s — love Shakespeare — and their favourite play is The Tempest.

It is never too early to get your kids hooked on the Bard!

Angie Johnson

Shakespeare on Radio

We are delighted to share a guest post from a former Chief Producer Radio Drama at the BBC, Martin Jenkins, who writes…

Budget and time restraints present real challenges for radio directors who have to rehearse and record some 30 minutes of a Shakespeare play during each studio day.  Pre-preparation is vital.  Various versions of the text will be studied.  Some additional verse may be required so that listeners know where a scene is set and who is speaking. I remember when I was directing Peggy Ashcroft as Queen Margaret in 1977 (a role she had first played with the RSC in 1963) she came to a handful of lines she didn’t recognise. “I wonder why John [Barton] cut these out – they’re rather good.”  I opted to keep quiet.

Casting is crucial.  In all radio drama, it is essential to utilize a wide range of voices and accents so listeners can distinguish between the various characters.  The director’s nightmare is to realise at the readthrough that Hamlet and Horatio sound identical.

Owing to the limited rehearsal/recording time, BBC Radio can often assemble stunning casts, all of whom enter into the spirit of the recording with the “big names” also taking part in crowd scenes with great gusto.

With such limited rehearsal time, a director needs to create an open working environment during which ideas are discussed and actors brought to performance pitch in a remarkably short space of time. Many clearly relish this immediacy and sense of “danger”.  At the same time, the director is shaping the emotional course of the scene whilst also carefully blocking the action. Radio is far from a static medium. Actors rarely, if ever, stand around microphones, reading.  A great deal of physical energy and movement is required and it is my privilege to have witnessed some truly remarkable performances in radio studios.

Throughout the studio sessions, I strive to ensure the language has a freshness and vitality, hopefully sounding as if it is being spoken for the first time. During actual recordings, I am in the cubicle listening intently to the journey of the play, as well as to the journey of each of the characters. I have to be sure that character and plot development are clear to the listener and, most importantly, that they are being drawn into Shakespeare’s world: “On your imaginary forces work.” (Henry V, I, Prologue)

Shakespeare can work brilliantly on radio. With no visual distractions, the listener has a unique relationship with the verse. They can eavesdrop, especially during soliloquies. They can experience characters thinking aloud and sharing their innermost thoughts.  Because of this closeness, a mis-stressed word or misplaced inflection will jar and hinder understanding of the character’s thought processes.  Sometimes in the theatre, one feels performances have “settled” and that lines are being “recited” rather than “thought”.  Recited lines on radio work against audience involvement.

Throughout a recording, my role is to focus on listening, not watching, the actors. If something doesn’t work then my notes have to be (hopefully) clear and concise.  When it does work – when you hear actors in total harmony with the sense, pitch and energy of the language – everything makes sense and the lines feel as fresh as the day they were written.

Martin Jenkins
Former BBC Chief Producer Radio Drama; founding Artistic Director of the Liverpool Everyman; former assistant director and actor with the RSC

Shakespeare Abroad

We’re grateful to Peter Parkinson for our second guest blog post. He writes…

A spectacular feature on the island of Cyprus is the restored Roman amphitheatre of Curium, some dozen miles west of Limassol. Carved out of the hillside and looking outwards high above the sea, its restoration was begun little more than half a century ago. The theatre is idyllic but, of an evening when the darkness falls and there is a performance, the effect is truly magical.

Some 50 years ago, a British sergeant working in the (UK-administered) Western Sovereign Base Area, spotted the potential of a theatre in ruins. And so began the annual production of Shakespeare. The first play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the cast coming mainly from amateur companies associated with the British Forces. But because the venture was intended as a joint British/Cypriot affair, locals were also drafted in, and the proceeds went to Cypriot charities.

I was fortunate to have been in five productions, from 1973 to 1977. My first appearance was in Hamlet. I was new to the island and unused to acting. The director that year was a British schoolmaster and he it was who cajoled me into the part of Fortinbras. I was later promoted to Player King and I will never forget my first entrance. Not only was I a tiro who had some pretty dramatic stuff to deliver, but it was also before an audience of 2,000. My feelings were a mix of terror and bewilderment.

My daughter, not yet four, had already announced herself and amused the audience. When the Ghost coaxed Hamlet on to the battlements, her small but clear voice rang out: “Don’t go, Hamlet! Don’t go!”

Two other memories. One involved a large beetle lurching and scratching a path towards my ear as I lay on the stone stage. Hamlet, spotting the danger, put in an unscheduled move and crushed it beneath his heel. So decisive, I thought, and so uncharacteristic of Hamlet. Then there was the incident of the snake that decided to share the stage-side bunker with the lady prompt.

I remember too we had a Cypriot Laertes who addressed his adversary as “Noble Omelette” but very dramatically, as one would expect of a Greek. Another recollection is of our script discussion as to whether we should omit the potentially controversial line: “striking short at Greeks”.

In 1974 there was the failed coup against Makarios, followed by the Turkish invasion. These dramatic events occurred a month after our production of Twelfth Night. We did wonder, in all the confusion, whether the tradition could survive the island’s partition and the mass of real life tragedies all around us. But come the summer of 1975 we were up and running again with The Merry Wives of Windsor. Audience numbers were understandably down, but Makarios’s Vice President, Glavkos Clerides, honoured us with his presence, making us feel that the decision to carry on regardless had been right.

Last summer in Paris, I met a group of Cypriot tourists and asked whether the performances still happened. They hastened to assure me they did, and I discovered this year that the production was The Merchant of Venice, billed as the 49th in the sequence.

Peter Parkinson

Champions Visit

Today we were delighted to welcome great friends of Sprint for Shakespeare to the Bodleian’s Conservation Workshop. Vanessa Redgrave

Nicole Gilroy, Margo Annett, Thelma Holt and Vanessa Redgrave explore the First FolioVanessa Redgrave, Thelma Holt and Margo Annett visited the First Folio in its temporary home, accompanied by Richard Ovenden, Associate Director of the Bodleian. Nicole Gilroy and the team of conservators, Arthur Green, Andrew Honey, and Julie Sommerfeldt, explained details of the book’s history, and the work they are carrying out.

Maximilian Gill, Jessica Norman, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Neumark Jones, Jordan Waller, and Ruby Thomas with the First FolioWe were lucky enough to be joined by the cast and creatives of Oxford University Dramatic Society‘s Much Ado About Nothing (produced by Thelma Holt). Aidan Grounds (Producer), Maximilian Gill (Director), Jordan Waller (Benedick), Ruby Thomas (Beatrice), Jeremy Neumark Jones (Claudio), and Jessica Norman (Hero) chatted to Vanessa Redgrave before filming part of Act 1, Scene 1 with the BBC Oxford television crew:

What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Vanessa Redgrave and Jeremy SternJeremy Stern conducted interviews with Richard Ovenden and Vanessa Redgrave: if you are local to the Oxford area, watch the 6.30 news on BBC1 tonight to see more!

We’re enormously grateful to Vanessa Redgrave and Thelma Holt for all the support they are lending our campaign. It was a joy to be able to show them and our other guests our work underway.

Much Ado About Nothing opens at the Bodleian on 7 August 2012, before going on tour to Stratford-upon-Avon (The Dell), London (Southwark Playhouse), Guildford (Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre), and Tokyo (Saitama Arts Theatre). Tickets for the Oxford run are available from the Oxford Playhouse.