This is James' fifth blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about original pronunciation, performing, and the upcoming performance in Hampton Court Palace.
Transcript of Podcast
Preparing for performances in Original Pronunciation
David Crystal [Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor] produced a phonetic script of Romeo and Juliet in Early Modern English, then our voice coach – Charmian Hoare – held our hands as we went through it. Initially I found this a very difficult exercise because so many of the vowel sounds and the heavy ‘r’ are similar to accents that one knows from elsewhere – there's bits of Northern Irish in it, bits of Southern Irish (which I find particularly difficult to avoid) and bits of West Country. One gets led down blind alleys. Normally when you’re learning an accent, one of the most important things is cracking the rhythm of the accent, whereas with the original pronunciation we don’t have a rhythm. As we don’t have the rhythm and there are vowel sounds which remind you of modern accents, you suddenly get into an Irish rhythm and feel that's successful; you aren’t consciously listening to yourself, and you think that you’re doing rather well until somebody tells you that you’re being Irish as opposed to Elizabethan. That evaporated during the rehearsals with Charmian. There is actually an element of freedom in the pronunciation too, because David Crystal said there would have been variants; he's quite happy to base OP on our own accents. For some reason, Bette [Bourne, the Nurse] is speaking with a kind of Geordie accent, and as John Paul [Connolly, Peter] comes from Northern Ireland, he has a very Irish sound. I can almost hear the northern accent in Simon Muller [Tybalt], and the RP [Received Pronunciation] accent is still there for those of us who are RP speakers.
I’ve found the performances in OP a really good exercise, for the same reasons Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] said he occasionally likes to do run-throughs in a different accent (especially once a play's up and going): it re-awakens your ear to the words that you’re saying. I’ve suddenly found words that maybe I’ve been neglecting. In this dialect ‘by’ and ‘my’ are shortened to ‘bi’ and ‘mi’ which means the word after them gains an added importance. That's a good reminder not to hit personal pronouns, but on occasion it suddenly changes a line. The ‘bi's suddenly re-awakened that for me, and I hope to keep that when we’ve finished OP.
Bizarrely, the Queen Mab speech is so much easier in this dialect than it is in RP. The West County ‘r’ makes it sound more rustic – that's probably a mistake, but it makes talking about things in the countryside like spider webs and fairy-tales much more believable. I feel believable saying this: it seems part of that world.
It's hard to explain what OP sounds like. Take my lines in Act three, scene one, for example:
Nay, and we had two such, we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other. Thou? Why thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou will quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes.
In OP, they sound something like this:
Nay, an’ we ‘ad two such, we shd ‘av nown shortly fo’ the own’d kill the ourr. Thou, why thou wilt koral with a man that ‘ath a hair more or a hair less in’is beard ‘an thou ‘ast, thou’lt karol with a man for crackin’ nuts ‘avin no thoer reason than baceasue thou ‘ast ‘azel eyes...
I think I forgot there's no ‘qu’ there: it should be Karellin’, karellin’... It's quite hard. The real difficulty – especially given that we haven’t had a huge amount of time to practice – is that, in order to make it sound natural, you have to speak at the same sort of pace that you would with a normal accent. I find that when we’re running at pace and I’m thinking about the sense of what I’m saying, the problem is less the accent than the words that are pronounced differently like ‘own’ [one], ‘nown’ [none], ‘karellin’ [quarrelling]. There's a whole raft of peculiar exceptions to rules which we have to bear in mind – for instance, ‘another’ is never ‘another’, it's ‘anourr’ – and they’re very easy to drop by the way whilst one concentrates on the sense.
Apparently the Elizabethans dropped lots of consonants as well, so actually the accent encourages you to go quite quickly. It's very interesting listening to David Crystal speak; though he drops a lot of consonants, he hits all of the consonants he chooses to use. I find that fascinating. I suppose his ear is very well attuned, and he's reading it off a phonetic script. Just listening to him on the tape I realised how many consonants he was using. He's much easier to understand than a lot of us are at the moment. I think sometimes you can get sloppy when you try to be natural. You shouldn’t be trying to be natural; you should be natural.
I’m not nervous about the actual performances in OP; I think it's going to be very amusing and very interesting. I suppose it's rather like when Bette comes on stage first dressed as a woman; there's always this kind of laughter as people adjust to the fact that there is a man dressed as a woman. That subsides very quickly, though, and they just accept him as a character. At the start of the OP performances, I think there’ll be people who are not really listening to what we’re saying, so much as how we’re saying it. I’m lucky to that extent – it's Stef [Rhys Meredith, Benvolio] that’ll suffer most I expect. That part of the scene [I.1], with Montague and then Romeo, is the first time we really get to listen to someone talking, as opposed to the fighting earlier on.
Generally, the show's fine. It has been slowing down enormously, which is very annoying. I don’t really know where the extra time is coming from. Tim gave a company note that we should generally pick up our entrances and exits, and speak entrance lines right on the back of other people… hopefully that will help. One of the funny things about the Globe is that it's possible find things in your relationship with the audience which you then try to repeat; the attempt to repeat a moment slows you down a bit. The first time, whatever happened was the result of focus: you had the focus and you did something with it. The second time, you have to get the same focus to repeat what you did, which slows you down. That's why it never works the second time. I hope I don’t do that too much. I’m fairly confident in my relationship with the audience now, so I like to stamp on their laughs quite a lot and like to have as prickly a relationship with them as I have with all the other characters.
As a whole the audiences seem to be enjoying it. They seem focused. I’m slightly frustrated at the moment (as I always am in this theatre) because there's always so much more to find; you’re always trying to find more, rather than slipping back into the habit of doing something fairly similar to what the things you’ve done before. It's easy to come off after a scene and realise that you were sailing along. Tom [Burke, Romeo] changed something the other night, he tried something very different at the end of the Mab speech and I was fairly slow that night… I didn’t react to him in any useful way, which was FEEBLE. I was very cross with myself.
Next: Hampton Court Palace
Rehearsing again for Original Pronunciation performances kind of brought the company back together, and the move to Hampton Court Palace should shake things up. We’re going to perform in the Great Hall for a week or so, and the whole play will have to be effectively re-blocked for that. I know from touring Twelfth Night in America that everything becomes more fleet as a result of playing it in different shapes. Actors tend not to like it, but I think we should do it much more often because it forces you to be the character in your head to a greater extent. It also makes you react to the other actors to work out what you’re going to do. I think it's good to go and do it in a different theatre, because if you go and do something similar as an exercise, often people will play in exactly the same way; it's ‘just an exercise’ and it doesn’t impinge upon the way they’re playing their part. We’ll have to change things for Hampton Court though, because the space is completely different.