People have become quite exercised of late that actors are ignoring the rhythm of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare and that this is something of a problem. Michael Billington further examined this statement in an article in The Guardian today. This is a really useful article which asks some very interesting questions. The idea that the RSC was going to create, ‘a Shakespeare “gym” in Stratford-upon-Avon to ensure, in the words of its artistic director Gregory Doran, “Everyone has the iambic pentameter in their bloodstream.”‘ is a pretty funny idea. (I imagine pentameter press-ups, and caesura stretches…)
The point is in Shakespeare’s day the language pretty much carried EVERYTHING; deep character psychology, description of place, general atmosphere, told the story and on and on. People had a different more magical relationship to language than we do now. That is what people should be focussing on. The loss of the rhythm is something, that we cannot feel the rhythm in the language; but I abhorred Peter Hall’s slavish concern (mentioned in Billington’s Article) with metre and even punctuation. You have only to look at the various Arden Editions of any Shakespeare play to realise that where you put a comma or a semi-colon is up for discussion, not a sacrosanct thing to take you back to the real meaning of the words. This rigid, tedious and over-intellectualised exploration becomes another prison for the actor, not a form on which to ride and express. That,I think, is part of the reason why many actors have moved away from the rhythm. They feel instinctively it denies them an authenticity rather than a form that can help them create. I actually destroyed Peter Hall’s book rather than give it away, I thought it so damaging for young actors. This does not mean I do not think the rhythm is relevant but it needs to be correctly placed within what is important.
There are of course, trends. When I was training in the 70s as an actor, there was a deep suspicion of anything too ‘poetic’, a real reaction away from Olivier and Gielgud. There was a feeling that the character and the language were kind of separate; There was the story and there was the beautiful poetry which we had to appreciate but it was not the same as the character. This made for either flat verse speaking (making the language ‘speak for itself’ which for me is like that other 70s acting maxim ‘do nothing’ which meant precisely that); or it made for a stylised way of speaking. It all depended on the kind of actor you were.
Michael Billington talks about great actors ‘flouting the rules’ of iambic pentameter and isolating a word or phrase, rather than sticking slavishly to the metre. That is as it should be; the rhythm is a score but not to be played slavishly or it becomes this ridiculous Shakespearean canter through the text, which we are supposed to believe is wonderful. Billington says “Like a jazz trumpeter, an actor has to know the rules in order to bend them.” This is for me, absolutely spot-on
What people have to do is yes, be aware of the rhythm but, more importantly, exercise to really get inside the imagery and the language using body as well as voice to make that happen at least in the workshop/rehearsal . To use the language fully and to trust that it can do it; that used well, it is magic. Above all they need to be sensitive to sound and to the metaphor which tells us so much more than creating some flowery language. …the language is not something to get over so we can explore the character; it tells us how the character’s mind works. That, for instance, was why Andrew Scott’s HAMLET which I saw on tv last year was so disappointing (and he is an actor I admire) because his delivery was not based on a habitation of the text.
I have just finished writing a book about Shakespeare, ‘What Country Friends, Is This?’ which tackles a lot of these issues of language in a practical way through the Michael Chekhov technique; it is something I feel passionate about. It is to be published by Nick Hern Books on Shakespeare’s birthday.