Sunday, September 06, 2009

Playing Shakespeare - Set Speeches and Soliloquy

Disc two only had two episodes--the first I talked about briefly in last Sunday's post, it was how to play Shylock...interesting but pale when compared to the second workshop on disc two, Set Speeches and Soliloquy. Here are the notes I took whilst watching.

The job of the actor, of course, is to hold the attention of the audience by telling a story. This is easier to do with dialogue because you have the natural tension between two or more actors conversing, learning, interacting, discovering, debating. In Shakespeare's set speeches and soliloquys, the actor's job is the same but it is hard because the actor must interact with the audience. In a way, I think John Barton, the director who leads the workshops, is saying that set speeches/soliloquys can become like dialogue with the audience being the silent other participant in the dialogue.

Barton says that speeches and soliloquys can easily allow the play to lose the story momentum when the actor generalizes the emotion instead of keeping it fresh and discovering it as the text unfolds.

Sinead Cusack led the examples by delivering Portia's Mercy speech--Barton used this example to show how the initial dialogue to a speech should be used to trigger the emotion so that the speech is delivered as a response to provocation, with the thoughts being explored in real time, and resolved as if for the first time.

I also loved seeing Barbara Leigh-Hunt as deposed Queen Margaret in RIII telling current Queen Elizabeth what the future holds for her. The point Barton made with this example was how it's easy and dangerous for an actor to treat a speech as rhetoric and then lose the sense of the text in the rhythm of the words.

Patrick Stewart as Titus was exceptionally good--not just because I don't like the play and avoid it when possible, and so it was a treat to actually hear good things about it. Here Barton talked about how an actor can use the words to cope with and express the emotion. He had Stewart deliver the speech twice--first with raw emotion in which the words were completely lost and the meaning of them irrelevant, and the second time with Stewart trying to convey the emotion behind each image, and so giving a deeper sense of the horrific feeling that Titus was subject to.

Tony Church as the Archbishop of Canterbury in HV delivered the speech justifying HV's claim to the throne of France, and demonstrated Barton's point that an actor needs to juggle seriousness with comedy, varying the tempo in order to hold the audience's attention.

Barton then moved on to soliloquy and stressed that to be successful an actor must let the emotion displayed arise out of the situation itself, tell the internal story, and be spontaneous, as "if these words were being spoken for the first time."

Jane Lapotaire did a terrific job delivering a soliloquy from Troilus and Cressida. The first time, Barton asked her to talk to herself, and Barton used this to show how the speech easily got stuck on one note, Cressida's vanity. When she talked to the audience in the second delivery, it was much easier to follow her thought process and understand her as a character.

The other highlights of the soliloquy section were Judi Dench as Viola highlighting both pain and comedy of her situation (i.e., discovering that Olivia was in love with her, while she is in love with Orsino) and Michael Pennington as Hamlet delivering the To Be speech. Both were terrific and I feel priviledged to see both, even if only in a workshop setting.

Barton's final parting advice? Don't be too solemn and you must share the text with the audience.

While looking for an appropriate image for this post, I stumbled across Hamlet - A User's Guide, by Michael Pennington. As if I don't have enough to read already, but I couldn't resist and it's on my Amazon list now!

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating Jane, not the least because I saw many of the actors actually play the roles you discuss here. Pat Stewart's Titus was not bad , but he was in a really awful production that simply didn't work, so it's sort of got lost in history. Pennington was a very good Hamlet but the role I thought he really brought to life was that of the Duke in 'Measure for Measure'. Now there is a play that's worth talking about. Once I've got this terms texts out of the way we should consider that as a group read.