This is Penny's eighth blog entry from the 2005 production of The Winter's Tale in which she talks about moving from The Winter's Tale to Troilus and Cressida, 'Original Pronunciation', and 'Modern Practices' amongst other things.
Transcript of Podcast
Work has started on our next play. We’ll be performing Troilus and Cressida in what's called ‘Original Pronunciation’ – a best guess at the accent that Shakespeare's actors might have used. Professor David Crystal helped the Romeo and Juliet cast with last season's OP experiment and he came to talk to us on the first day of Troilus rehearsals. Apparently this is the first time a production has been rehearsed in OP from the very beginning, so it's a bit daunting! Romeo and Juliet rehearsed in RP [Received Pronunciation] and then had a shorter OP rehearsal period during the run.
I’m playing Ulysses. He's high up within the ranks of the army and a manipulator, a thinking man. The OP accent, it seems to me, might sound more rural to modern ears. In Shakespeare's time, accents were more closely linked to geographical divides than class distinctions – the accent wouldn’t have had the rural association that perhaps it has today. I grew up in the country and I know rural accents can be the butt of jokes – today a strong rural accent might evoke stereotypes that won’t fit with Ulysses as a man of high status and intelligence. It will be interesting to see how a modern audience reacts.
I didn’t see the OP performances of Romeo and Juliet, but I heard about how liberating the actors found it. Unstressed little words are passed over in OP and I think that's absolutely right. Looking at some bits in Troilus and Cressida, if you try to give each little word its ‘proper value’ then the meter just doesn’t work. You can skip over some consonants in little words as we do in everyday speech and still understand what's being said. Hopefully that will make it all trip along. David Crystal said that the OP performances of Romeo and Juliet were about ten minutes shorter than performances in RP. But I think that's only to the good: get that story told.
First Ideas About Ulysses
It's very early days, but I can see that Ulysses is a great man. He's the brain power behind the Greeks. He comes up with a very funny plan to get Achilles fighting again. He suggests the Greek princes trick Achilles by telling him that everyone thinks Ajax is the best man in the army. Achilles will come out of his tent and fight to prove he's still the best of the Greeks.
There's the wonderful speech where Ulysses convinces Achilles that all the brave things he did in the past will be forgotten:
What, are my great deeds forgotten?
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes.
[Act 3, sc.3]
Basically Ulysses is saying to Achilles ‘You might have done lots of impressive things in the past but that doesn’t count for anything at present. You’ve got to keep it up, otherwise people just forget. The next shiny button is the best…’ Achilles falls for it completely. It's very funny and the fact that three girls (Yolanda, Haley Jane and I) are playing Agamemnon, Nestor and Ulysses will bring that out. They make such a funny little trio, and the thought of Roger Watkins [Ajax] saying to Haley Jane [Nestor] ‘Can I call you father?’ … it's just going to make my day!
I’m really looking forward to saying the lines, but I’ve got to understand them first. It's quite convoluted stuff and I’ve already come up against a little problem. Ulysses describes Achilles as ‘The sinew and the forehand of our host.’ What do you think that ‘host’ means? I have seen the play many times and every time that line is said, I think ‘host’ must mean the enemy camp – Trojans – so Achilles must be Trojan? I get confused… ‘But I thought he was Greek…’ Achilles is Greek and when Ulysses says ‘the great Achilles, whom opinion crowns/ The sinew and the forehand of our host,’ he means like host of angels – a crowd: our host, our people. That's what it means, but how can I convey that meaning? Today we do use ‘host’ in that context but it's not a word that springs to mind when these Greeks are perched on the edge of Troy. I think the only way to get that meaning across is to ignore the meter and stress ‘our’ rather than ‘host’. I asked Giles [Master of Play] if he’d like to change it to ‘troops’ but he wasn’t too keen!
So there are little things like that to work on. Troilus and Cressida is harder to understand than a lot of the Shakespeare I’ve done. Most of Ulysses’ big speeches are in verse. Unravelling the meaning will be stimulating; at first you might think ‘What?’ and then you begin to understand them. Eventually it seems so clear and that clarity is what you should be able to communicate to an audience. I tried out the ‘host’ speech on a young friend of mine who is 13. I was thrilled that he did understand it and we talked about ‘host’ afterwards. I shall take more bits to him and if he can understand it then I’ll know that I’m on the right track.
Now we’ve been through all the scenes to make sure that we know what we’re actually saying. I decided that I wasn’t going to do OP in our most recent rehearsal because I wanted to concentrate on what I was saying, and I found that OP was getting in the way of that: I was spending so much time on how to say the words that I wasn’t really getting to grips with what they meant. I had a session with Charmian, a wonderful dialect coach, and she helped me go through the phonetic script, translating the phonetic symbols into ‘sounds’. That's made things easier.
It's important that my interpretation of OP is such that the audience will be able to understand what I’m saying. That doesn’t mean that they must pick up every word immediately – after all, some of the words are not as we would say them now. I’ve got to be judicious in picking out words that are crucial to the meaning of the piece, and, if necessary, tweaking them towards RP. For instance, the way I said ‘power’ at one point made it unintelligible to a modern audience. As that word is really important for the sense of what I’m saying, I decided to make it a little bit more RP (I think I was going too far with the OP anyway and it didn’t have to be that unintelligible!) I got the impression that what I had to say was ‘poore’ rather than ‘power’. There's a midway which sounds more like the Irish ‘pore’.
David Crystal and Charmian are both very keen that the Original Pronunciation shouldn’t get in the way of the understanding of the piece; it should add to it and for the most part I think it does. There's one particular bit where I think OP really helps. Ulysses explains his cunning plan to stop Achilles being so proud:
What glory our Achilles shares from Hector,
Were he not proud, we all should share with him.
But he already is too insolent,
And we were better parch in Afric sun
Than in the pride and salt scorn of his eyes,
Should he scape Hector fair. If he were foiled,
Why then we did our main opinion crush
In taint of our best man. No, make a lott’ry,
And by device let blockish Ajax draw
The sort to fight with Hector; among ourselves
Give him allowance for the better man;
For that will physic the great Myrmidon,
Who broils in loud applause, and make him fall
His crest that prouder than blue Iris bends.
[Act 1, Scene 3]
That's not a very good rendering but it gives you an idea of what it sounds like. OP makes Ulysses less pompous. I’m hoping it makes him more accessible and easier to understand as a real person. Of course, Ulysses is a prince but I think what sets royalty apart in this day and age is not so much the way they behave as the way they’re treated. People who’ve met the Queen say that she's very normal and ordinary and nice. It's the way everyone around her behaves that makes her seem so different. The Grecian princes have been stuck in this war for seven years… that's a leveller of sorts, in terms of the way they behave together. I think what the audience want is to understand where each character is coming from; it's very human and very funny stuff. I think the OP helps draw that out.
The costumes and set for Troilus and Cressida won’t be Original Practices. It's been advertised as ‘minimal settings,’ and I think that will mean the production has a timeless look. It's set in a sort of No Man's Land, a bit like the First World War, but we’re certainly not saying ‘This is the First World War.’ We’re saying ‘This is the Trojan War and we’re wearing these clothes’. I’m not sure what I’ll be wearing yet – I imagine it will be a uniform of sorts.
As we start to put scenes on their feet, I’m finding different ways of standing; I’m playing a man again and there is a difference. I think physicality and the involvement in a situation is different for male characters. In the Trial scene of The Winter's Tale I play a woman and there's quite a lot of reacting there. The situation is different, but you behave differently because you have a different empathy with people onstage. This morning we rehearsed a scene with the long speeches of Nestor, Ulysses and Agamemnon and the way I reacted was totally different because Ulysses has a completely different attitude to the other people who are speaking. Agamemnon starts the scene off by saying ‘Why are you all so glum? Come on, we’ve got this war to fight. It's a test to see who's going to stand firm and who's going to be blown away. We’re the people who are going to stand firm.’ Ulysses is thinking ‘I’ve got some bad news for you. Things are not going that well. There's a reason for that and we’ve got to tackle the problem.’
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.