This is Peter's second blog entry for the 2005 production of The Winter's Tale, in which he talks about the sheep-shearing scene, original pronunciation and costume amongst other things.
Transcript of Podcast
Telling the story
This week we’ve carried on working through the play, concentrating on storytelling and the extent to which you reveal what's going on at each point in the story, really. When we did the read-through, John Dove (our Director or Master of Play) spoke about how important it was to treat the play like a thriller; you keep the audience on the edge of their seats (or on their toes if they’re standing in the yard), by telling the story in a series of zig-zags rather than straight line. The audience shouldn’t get ahead of you at every point in the story; instead they should think you’re going one way and then be surprised when you go the other. That happens all the time to a lot of the characters in The Winter's Tale: as a result of Leontes’ wild jealousy or Polixenes’ rage at Florizel and Perdita, lots of characters often find themselves in positions where they could take one of two options and we don’t know which option they’re going to take. So we’re concentrating on keeping that suspense going, which then lends the whole play a terrific amount of pace and energy. As we rehearse, John constantly asks ‘Now what if this happens? What if that happens?’ That gets us to think about the situation rather than trying to follow the character's psychology through the scene. Everything has to be led by events rather than psychology: as John says ‘If you are being led by the event, you are playing Shakespeare, if you’re led by the psychology, you’re playing Chekov.’ I think that's quite an interesting distinction.
Events take those unexpected turns in the scene where Polixenes and Camillo are at the sheep-shearing [IV.iv]. Polixenes unmasks himself and turns on Florizel and Perdita and the Old Shepherd, so people are thrown into completely alien situations. It happens to Camillo twice: in the first half of the play, he's thrown into turmoil by Leontes’ jealousy over Hermione and Polixenes, and then sixteen years later, he finds himself in a similar situation with another king… he finds himself having to make split second decisions about how best to act in everybody's interest. That's what we’ve been looking at today.
The Sheep-shearing is a very long and busy scene. I think of it almost as film sequence: you can imagine a steady-cam moving in amongst the action, focusing in on one thing and then zooming away to another… you go over to Autolycus and the ballad scene, and then you go back and turn around and there's Polixenes and Camillo trying to work out what's happening with Florizel and Perdita, then on to something else. It's a whirlwind of a scene and very highly charged in terms of plot and emotion and comedy. It's important to be clear with the story with so much going on but you can be too logical and clear with the story; that's not necessarily the best way of telling it, it seems to me, and the scene isn’t written in that way. It doesn’t easily meander from one thing to the next; it jumps and lurches very deliberately, which eventually unsettles all the characters when the whole thing blows up and releases the next bit of the story (i.e. how is Camillo going to get Florizel and Perdita safely to Sicilia and reconcile them with Leontes and then Polixenes?). So although the sheep-shearing is a joyous occasion, it's not really a happy little pastoral scene – it's the springboard into the end of the play.
There isn’t much time to establish a relationship between Polixenes and Florizel because most of the time I’m on stage with him, my son thinks that I’m somebody else because I’m in disguise. I’ve been thinking a lot about the levels of disguise at the sheep-shearing. Although Florizel is disguised as Doricles the shepherd, I obviously recognize him as soon as I walk in, so he's not disguised to the point of being physically unrecognizable. Of course, he doesn’t need to be unrecognizable as he's not amongst people who know him as Florizel, whereas Camillo and I are disguised in a way that means that even my son doesn’t recognise me. Autolycus is in disguise in the scene as well, and to some extent so is Perdita – because she's a princess living the life of a shepherdess dressed as a goddess! All these different layers made me wonder about the implications of disguise: whether characters express themselves more freely in disguise, or is it when they remove their disguises that they become their true selves? Florizel says:
Why look you so upon me?
I am but sorry, not afeard; delay’d,
But nothing alt’red. What I was, I am
Basically he says ‘Just because I was pretending to be somebody else doesn’t mean I didn’t mean what I was saying’. It opens up a lot of questions.
Polixenes and Camillo are disguised in the normal sense of the word, to find out something more about what's going on. There comes a point at which the marriage of Florizel and Perdita is about to be contracted, with Polixenes and Camillo in disguise as the witnesses, when Polixenes reveals his identity. We haven’t quite worked out how to do that yet, but we all feel it has to be something very simple – in other words, the audience has to buy into the fact that because I’m wearing a different hat and a cloak, that makes me completely unrecognizable to Florizel. It's like the pair of glasses that make Superman unrecognizable as Clark Kent. I don’t think that's a problem for the audience because the events make it clear what's actually happening, the fact that Florizel doesn’t say ‘Oh dad, why are you here dressed like that?’
Shakespeare does most of the work for you. He tells you in one scene that Polixenes and Camillo will be disguised in the next scene, so when they appear again and nobody says ‘Oh, aren’t you the king?’ it's natural for the audience to go along with the idea that they’re in disguise and that nobody knows who they are. But of course the audience knows and that puts them in a very powerful position, because they think they can see what's going on, but in John's vision things don’t go quite the way they thought it might. So we’ve been playing with the different layers of illusion.
Ways of Working
We’re not really at the stage in rehearsals where we use props and actual disguises. We’re just trying to work through the movement of each scene in terms of story; how we get from one place to the next, emotionally rather than physically speaking. As John said, most of the time in Shakespeare, that journey is driven by events. It's a good rule of thumb, I think. Once we’ve done that, I’m sure we’ll get more involved with the detail of props and so on. Certainly the disguise will be something that John and Jenny [Tiramani, Master of Clothing] and I have some kind of say in. I had the idea that Polixenes and Camillo might be dressed as pilgrims because that would just mean a big cape with a hat, and Jenny has some shells (apparently that's what pilgrims used to wear as a badge of their pilgrimage). I thought that disguise had nice connotations of redemption and penitence too, so there's kind of a dramatic irony about it that ties in with the themes of the overall story.
I tried on a calico version of my costume this week and I’ve seen the fabric too; the hose will be made of beautiful black silk with gold embroidery (I always thought hose were stockings but they’re not, they’re like the trousers which are very big and puffed out) and the doublet is cream and gold, with golden ribbon tying the sleeves and the body together. It instantly says ‘This is the King’, which is marvellous because we can cover that up with something reasonably plain, then reveal all in the middle of the sheep-sheering where everybody's dressed in peasant clothes… that should make a huge statement about Polixenes’ status. There are lots of props in that scene too – apparently there's lots of food and wooden plates that get thrown around. A fantastic routine is being developed by two members of the company, to do with wooden plates and juggling, so I can’t wait to see that. There's also Autolycus with all his ballads… it's a very busy scene in terms of props: the sheep shearing is a very rich environment in the sense that it's a time of feasting and celebration.
We had a very good Voice class with Stewart [Pearce, Master of Voice] about finding your ‘note’, in other words finding the natural pitch at which your voice works in a relaxed and authoritative way. We lay on the floor of the attic above the stage and hummed a lot. The attic is a nice room; like the rest of the theatre, it's made of oak so it has a great warmth and resonance to it – very good for Voice. We also had a class with Glynn [MacDonald, Master of Movement] where she talked about Movement in terms of physical archetypes and elements. The elements are Earth, Air, Water and Fire and the archetypes are the King, the Warrior, the Lover and the Magician which are all reference points that tie in with the Elizabethan word view as well. They’re quite useful in terms of rooting your character at a particular moment. After that we rushed off for the launch of David Crystal's book Pronouncing Shakespeare because it's is all about the experience of performing Romeo and Juliet last year in Original Pronunciation. The cast of The Winter's Tale will be performing Troilus and Cressida in Original Pronunciation later on in the season, so I bought a copy of the book and I’ve been reading it avidly.
I think it's fantastic that we’re continuing the exploration of Original Pronunciation! I’m really looking forward to it. That was the other event of the week; we discovered what parts we’re going to play in Troilus and Cressida. I’m playing Pandarus, which I’m very, very excited about. Giles Block [Master of Play: Troilus and Cressida] had individual meetings with all of us and asked ‘What would you be interested in playing?’ I felt that I wanted to play something very different from Polixenes. There's an interesting contrast between the two because Pandarus speaks all in prose for a start (apart from a couple of points when he sings, which is quite nice), and also it's a very comic role. But it's a very interesting role too because he operates in that morally ambiguous heart of the play – I’m really looking forward to exploring all of that, particularly in ‘Original Pronunciation’ or ‘OP’ as we shall be henceforth calling it.
David Crystal's book is fantastic and he gave a talk on the day of the launch which actually answered a lot of questions that I had about the whole notion of trying to recreate something called ‘Original Pronunciation’ and whether that meant there was one kind of way in which we felt Shakespeareans spoke. David acknowledges that's probably not true; London then, as now, would have been a huge melting pot, and there would have been people from all over the British Isles and from further afield living there. That mix of accents and dialects would inform the way each of them spoke as well as other factors like their environment, and their age. Then, just as now, words change their pronunciation from one generation to next as a result of outside influences: the example David gives is that he would say ‘Shed-ule’ whereas his children would say ‘Sked-jule,’ which is an Americanism. But when David's talking to them, he will use ‘Sked-jule’ because we naturally find a common way of understanding each other – we adjust our pronunciation all the time and I think OP will be a fantastic way to explore that further.
I haven’t really heard OP yet, although David did a bit in his speech the other night. Actually it was quite comforting, because I thought it would be like learning a whole new language and but when he spoke it I realized ‘Oh, it's just like learning another accent or dialect’ as you would if you were doing a play set in Newcastle or Cornwall. OP is based on all sorts of evidence from spellings and rhymes in the texts to people's descriptions of the language of period (Ben Jonson, for example, was apparently was a great scholar of language and dialect). When you piece that all together, you end up with something that's obviously the ancestor of all the accents and dialects that we hear today, but you might hear something that you recognise from Geordie next to something you recognise from Cornwall. If you just listen to the Cornish sounds it would lead you to talk ‘like that, you know down West Country way’ [Zummerzet] – I think the challenge will be to listen more closely and hear the differences more accurately. Also, some of the vowel sounds in OP don’t really exist any more, whilst other sounds which exist today probably didn’t exist then: we’ll have to add some things and get rid of others. You can’t just follow the tune of it – you have to be a bit more precise. I can’t wait to get started.
Value of OP Exploration
I think this experiment makes you realise how precious we’ve become over speaking Shakespeare. That's another thing David writes about in the book – the way that, for generations, we’ve been very strict about pronouncing very syllable: you must end consonants and all that. It's very important to recognize that Shakespeare was writing in what was everyday speech, so presumably people were less precious about it – it was just a heightened version of the way they spoke.
We don’t know how social class affected the way people spoke back then. It may be that there were as many distinctions then as now. Perhaps outside the great metropolis of London, the Lord of the Manor would speak with an accent that was identifiably similar to the peasants that worked on his land but because of his education and so on, he may not have spoken with such a broad accent… but we don’t know for sure. Presumably there would have been a Court accent, and in the time of James I suppose that would have been Scottish rather than English because he was a Scottish King. So you’ve got all those influences affecting Shakespearean speech – there wasn’t a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way to do it.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.