Michael Croome (Romeo) and Flloyd Kennedy (Juliet) rehearsing for Full Circle Theatre’s production of Ben Power’s “A Tender Thing”
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on”, says Prospero, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I have a good friend, a very experienced Shakespearean actor, who would happily change that to “made of”, claiming that otherwise nobody understands what it means. I disagree, for more reasons than I care to enumerate. But I will say this, we ARE such stuff as dreams are made on, we have imaginations, we thrive on metaphors and fables, fiction and mystery.
We constantly adjust the way we use words; we invent new words and new ways of using old words. We hear someone speaking words we’ve never heard before, and we figure out for ourselves what they might mean long before it occurs to ask us to ask for clarification. Of course, this often leads to misunderstandings. It’s why two people sitting in an audience will come away with very different ideas about what a particular performance might be about.
This brings me back to Shakespeare. There is a very good reason why many, many people believe that his language is obscure, obtuse and difficult. It’s because their experience of Shakespeare is that of hearing it spoken in a manner that is obscure, obtuse and difficult. Those of us who have a different experience of Shakespeare can argue till we are blue in our faces that it isn’t Shakespeare that’s the problem, but until you hear his language spoken by someone who actually knows what they are doing with it, you probably won’t believe us.
So what is that “knowing what you are doing” when it comes to performing Shakespeare? What is the secret, the mystical truth that will blow it apart and make it accessible? I can tell you this for nothing: it’s not about leaping about the stage (or screen), creating astonishing visual images with the actors’ bodies, or with outrageously expensive sets and costumes – although I don’t mind if you do that too. But that will not make the text any more easy to understand, although it might keep the audience entertained while the text rumbles incomprehensibly on.
No, the answer is a lot cheaper than that. It lies within the actors’ gift. The actors’ task is take the time and trouble to understand exactly what they are saying – not ‘sort of’, or ‘kind of’, or even ‘understand the gist of’ what they are saying, but specifically and precisely KNOW why they choose those exact words to express themselves in that situation at that moment. In other words, Shakespearean language functions the same way that any language functions. It exists as a means of self expression for the person speaking it.
In Full Circle Theatre’s forthcoming production of “A Tender Thing” (a reworking, an adapted version of Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet”), I play Juliet, a woman in her 70s, in the year 2013, who is married to her childhood sweetheart who happens to be called Romeo. I have the fabulous task, as Juliet, of telling my Romeo the story of Queen Mab, who gallops through the night, through people’s brains, causing them to have dreams and – more often than not – nightmares. Romeo is not in a good mood, and he asks me to give him “Peace! Thou talkst of nothing.” (So he uses the old way of speaking to a loved one, saying “thou” instead of “you”, and “talkst” instead of “talk”. Not much translation needed there.)
As Juliet, I respond with the words: “True! I talk of dreams”. How long did it take you to make the connection between his “nothing” and my “dreams”? What precisely am I saying? That dreams are the same as nothing, they are not real, they do not exist. Did you think there must be more to it than that? Did you, just for a moment, assume that it had to be more than that, because Shakespeare Is Difficult? Believe me, he ain’t. But as long as people believe he is, he will be. It’s a bit like that voice exercise, the lip trill. Keep on saying you can’t do it, and you never will do it.
So here’s my challenge. Come along to the Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, sometime between 9th and 18th May, and catch a performance of this production. Stick around afterwords and bail me up when I come out of the dressing room, and tell me whether or not you found the language difficult to understand. Call me an optimist, but I like to think you’ll understand exactly why, and how, by the end of the play, “our little life is rounded with a sleep”.
I’ve also written about this production at Thunder’s Mouth Theatre, and you can keep up to date with production details at Full Circle Theatre’s Facebook Page.
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