Taking the fear out of Shakespeare

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Andrie Morris talks to playwright and Shakespeare expert, Jennie Buckman and Jatinder Verma, Artistic Director of Tara Arts about working with Shakespeare. If you find Shakespeare’s language difficult, what’s the best way to approach it?

First she paid a visit to the Globe Theatre on London’s Southbank, where a rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet was in progress…..

Andrie Morris: The stage is set for Shakespeare’s tale of star-cross’d lovers: Romeo and Juliet. There’s Mercutio dressed as Batman, and some other characters in fancy dress… Elvis, and Marge from The Simpsons ….

The challenge for these actors, in this open air theatre, is to fill this cavernous space. The Globe can seat and stand up to fifteen hundred people, so actors have to speak clearly AND maintain all the rhythm and sense of Shakespeare’s language.

Although this is a rehearsal, this production really brings Shakespeare to life… it’s colourful and vibrant…there’s even a bit of street dance. It’s modern, but they’ve stayed faithful to the language in the play.

Many of us have bad memories of reading Shakespeare for the first time. Maybe you feel that nothing would move you to try again. Or perhaps now you wish you’d tried a bit harder. The truth is, a lot of people struggle with Shakespeare – even professional actors. And when they need help, they turn to an expert, like Acting coach and Shakespeare enthusiast, Jennie Buckman

Jennie Buckman: People tell me, and I have actors tell me this: I’m no good at Shakespeare, I can’t do Shakespeare. People even tell me, I actually don’t like Shakespeare. But whenever I say to people, what do you think that means? I promise you, nine times out of ten, what they think it means, is exactly what it means.

Jennie reads from Shakespeare’s King John, Act III

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief?

JB: I really think it helps to read it out, and actually enjoy the feeling of the words in your mouth. And sometimes you won’t understand the words – to hell with it – we don’t all understand every word. But mostly you will get it if you stop thinking you’re too stupid. That’s the worst thing; people think they’re too stupid: they’re not.

AM: Jennie should know, because she’s coached people at all levels of ability during her thirty-year career. She’s been Head of Acting at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. And she’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in the UK. Now she teaches privately, at her London home.

We’re in her kitchen, where one of her students is giving us his Richard III

Hamza (reading from Richard III)

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph

My name is Hamza. At the moment I’m working on the first speech in Richard III. I’m an actor, but I’ve not had very much training. Most of my training has been on film sets and in fringe theatre productions. And it was great fun and I loved it , I’ve always loved Shakespeare.

AM: So what can you do to get a better understanding of Shakespeare? Jennie Buckman has some useful, practical advice:

JB: I would always suggest reading it out aloud if you can bear to and actually for starters obey the punctuation. You’ve got the iambic which is a heartbeat. There are sort of five beats in a line. It’s ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. And some people get so panicked by the fact it’s in blank verse that they put it into prose and they just say it any old way.

JB, talking to Hamza: Alright, just try it one more time

Hamza: But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

JB: A line ending isn’t the end, there’s more to come, so you’ve got to be physical in the way of making sure your breath and your voice literally carry the words, they’ve got to do the words justice

Hamza: To strut before a wanton ambling nymph…

JB: sorry just to pick it up again…’ I that am rudely stamped, and want meaning lack love’s majesty…’

JB: If there is a sentence which goes on for twenty one lines or whatever, and Shakespeare does do that, and you think, my goodness gracious, how can I get to the end of this? That’s because what the character has to say is terribly complicated. The emotions are difficult, the facts are difficult and so it takes twenty-one lines. He’s also got sentences that are one word long

AM: To help students understand how the language works, Jennie uses a range of teaching techniques. One of them is something she calls the “What Exercise”. (Jennie exp lains)

JB: OK, talking about line endings, if there’s punctuation and you’ve got a good copy, use it, because life is far too short – use the punctuation. But if you just ignore the line endings, then you’re just doing prose.. you lose the heartbeat and the rhythm and actually the spontaneity. So if I ask you, “what?” after “majesty”, you keep your thought going, you keep your breath going and you answer it in your own way with the beginning of the next line, let’s see what happens, yeah? [Hamza] I, that am rudely stamp’d and want love’s majesty [Jennie] what? [Hamza] To strut before a wanton ambling nymph [Jennie] what? [Hamza] I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time[Jennie] what? …Where, I should say. [Hamza] Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

AM: We’ll catch up with Hamza again later. Already, he’s starting to discover that reading and performing Shakespeare requires more than physical energy, it’s a mental exercise too. The way you think about the text will influence how you say it.

Jatinder Verma: Once one starts seeing the verse as a particular type of structure which has breakages and so forth, but is very neat and very clear… it’s a little bit like a mask.

AM: Jatinder Verma is Artistic Director of Tara Arts, a British theatre company highly praised for its diverse approaches to Shakespeare.

JV: The job of the actor is to approach the mask.. to fill the mask. The verse gives every direction to the actor If you follow its rules

Jennie Buckman reading from The Tempest:

Abhorred slave,
Which any print of goodness wilt not take,
Being capable of all ill! I pitied thee,
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other

AM: Jennie’s reading from The Tempest, Shakespeare’s story about identity and exile – key themes, for Tara Arts in their 2007 production. Shakespeare’s works are open to interpretation, and that’s why they have something to offer every kind of audience. Jatinder Verma again.

JV: My first experience of seeing Shakespeare was in Nairobi in Kenya and it was a version of Hamlet which was done in Hindi. Shakespeare’s very aware of when someone doesn’t do their duty, or does the wrong duty and the world begins to turn with tragic consequences in some cases. And that seems to me to be something which is deeply Indian. Indian society still is extremely hierarchical.

And I suppose that’s another way of saying that Shakespeare is dealing with humans really, with all their foibles, their extreme contradictions and their beauty. And so each age a) recognises these humans, because I think those values go on through the centuries in whatever culture you’re in, but b) that each age has another set of experiences which it then brings to the text.

JB: Good old Lady Macbeth, I like her! ‘The raven himself is hoarse… ‘so now she calls on the spirits. ‘ Come ye spirits that tend on mortal thoughts… Make thick my blood’

JV: I must say, there’s something about that construction of language that I hadn’t appreciated beforehand, of how the very construction makes it enduring. His commas, his full stops give you a guide in terms of breathing. And in the process of that seemingly technical exercise actually what comes out is the character, the motivation, the story

JB: Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall.. so what she’s saying is… let me be male… nyum nyum nyum. Do you know what I mean? [laugh]

AM: Well I’m beginning to. But what does Jennie’s student make of all those chewy sounds? Here’s Hamza again, in the closing stages of Richard III

Hamza

This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul

[Jennie] very much better!…. [Hamza] I think it’s that change over from the first bit, which is performing… [Andrie] And as you perform it, I can see your physicality as you actually deliver the words… that makes an impact doesn’t it? [Hamza] Definitely, you can’t help but do it that way. [Andrie] Do you understand every word that you’re speaking? Is that important to the way you deliver the lines?[Hamza] Definitely, I mean I thought I did, to be honest, until I started working with Jennie and it turned out there’s lots that I didn’t get. I’d even learned a lot of it and I’ve had to unlearn it because I’ve learned it in a certain way and now I need to kind of re-do it and re-think it, particularly with the “What Exercise”.

JB: Now just talking about the language… there are lovely repetitions , “bruised arms”, “stern alarums”, “dreadful marches” – wonderful repetition which he uses as mock majestic, which I thought you brought out beautifully, and then you’ve got these wonderful “l’s” – “lascivious pleasing of a lute”. Shakespeare puts attitude in there, like it or not, by just saying those consonants. [Andrie] Do you feel that as you’re saying it? [Hamza]Definitely. You can taste it. I found that I’d complicated it a lot more than it actually needed to be and I think that the simplicity thing is definitely something you can’t beat.

AM: So, it sounds like Hamza is over his fear of Shakespeare, and I hope you feel inspired to read the plays and see them performed.

My thanks to all who’ve contributed to this podcast: The Globe Theatre in London; Jatinder Verma at Tara Arts, and Hamza. And special thank yous to Acting Coach Jennie Buckman and Tess Woodcraft at the Pod Academy.

Taking the Fear Out of Shakespeare was written, produced and presented by me, Andrie Morris. Thanks for listening.

The Raag Durga music used in this piece is from www.last.fm/music/+free-music-downloads/indian+classical

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