GROSSMAN: Good evening, and thank you for coming to tonights
WritersBloc program, "A Shakespearean Actor Prepares."
I am Andrea Grossman, the founder of WritersBloc. Most of you
know by now that WritersBloc is a non-profit literary series dedicated
to bringing to Los Angeles my favorite writers. Since Mr. Shakespeare
cannot be with us, weve got the next best thing: Michael
York, Samantha Eggar, Charlotte Cornwell, and two of my favorite
former UCLA professors, they will make you forget that the playwright
is not here tonight.
we get into tonights program, I would like to thank the
people who have made it possible. Thanks as always, to Cheryl
Rhodin and the board of directors of the Writers Guild of
America, West, for making the theatre available for us tonight.
Thanks to my volunteers, and to Debra Frankel. Also to Hillary
Mekendrick. I am so honored that these great actors agreed to
spend an evening with us, and thanks to Professors Ed Condren
and Michael Allen, who will bring Shakespeare into context. More
about them in a minute too.
for tonight. We all love watching Shakespeare. The language, the
action, the humor, the poetry his plays have it all. I
cant think of better poetry than some of the speeches from
Richard II, Henry V, King Lear, Macbeth or The
Tempest. I dont want to rattle on about that tonight.
These people on stage with me can do that much better than I possibly
could. So Im going to introduce you to them, and tell you
why I asked them here tonight.
York. Hes been my favorite guy in a million movies from
Cabaret to the Austin Powers series. Hes featured
in countless movies, and in his spare time, he wrote a book called
A Shakespearean Actor Prepares. Im going to concentrate
on his role as an author right now. Michael is the impetus for
tonights very special program. His book contains stories,
vignettes and illustrations about reading and understanding Shakespeare.
Its about how easy it is to overcome what we might see as
a language barrier of sorts; how the characters in the plays are
really completely informed by the details in the text, by the
sounds in the language, and the rhythms in the verse.
book provides us with a social and historical context for the
plays as well as what the audience of Shakespeares time
might have been expecting, hoping for, etc. The book isnt
just for scholars though. Its for those of us interested
in literature, Shakespeare and those who wonder what a modern-day
actor goes though in approaching a complex character, and therefore,
the deeper intent of the play. The book is accessible, and completely
free of boring literary criticism.
is joined by his colleagues Samantha Eggar and Charlotte Cornwell.
Samantha Eggar is internationally known for her work on stage
and film. American audiences got to know her well in her unforgettable
role in William Wylers The Collector. She has not
only starred in numerous Shakespeare roles in Oxford and in London
with talents such as Anthony Hopkins and Tony Richardson, but
she has appeared in so many films, from The Walking Stick
and The Collector, to the new film with Johnny Depp, The
Astronauts Wife. Im so honored to have her with
Cornwell has been one of the bright lights of the British theatre
for years. Shes been in so many leading female roles from
Shakespeare and other plays; she can hardly remember what they
are! From Rosalind in As You Like It, to Beatrice in Much
Ado About Nothing, Charlotte has been with both the Royal
Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre in London. You might
remember her as Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, with Ian
McKellen, which she played in London, New York, and here in Los
Angeles at Royce Hall. Shes also appeared in many films
and television roles way outside Shakespeare, from The Saint
to The Russia House, which, incidentally was written
by her brother; my absolutely favorite writer, John Le Carre.
here we have these three wonderful actors with so much Shakespeare
experience between them. Then there are the two other guys who
bring so much to the party too. Ed Condren was not only my great
Chaucer professor, he also taught a survey course which included
a few Shakespeare plays, and was therefore, the guy who made me
and scores of other English majors love reading the plays. Hes
been an extraordinarily popular professor in UCLAs distinguished
English department for ages.
only did he offer his own expertise tonight, but he also offered
the expertise of Michael Allen as well. Professor Michael Allen
is one of the treasures of the UCLA English Department
of course the other one is Professor Condren . . . He is internationally
respected for his scholarship and locally revered for making the
characters in the plays so thrilling, so bloody I will
never forget his Coriolanus, he made it so real.
heres what will happen tonight. Ed Condren will lead Michael
York, Samantha Eggar and Charlotte Cornwell in discussion about
the challenges facing the readers and actors of Shakespeare. Professor
Michael Allen will jump in when he feels like it. After the program,
Michael will sign copies of his wonderful book called A Shakepearian
Actor Prepares. If youre an actor, its a must.
If you like reading Shakespeare or going to his plays, its
a must again. If you like literature, its a real treat.
It is now my great pleasure to introduce Michael York, Samantha
Eggar, Charlotte Cornwell, Ed Condren and Michael Allen.
CONDREN: Well, thank you. When I was thinking about this evening,
I said to myself, "This will be a piece of cake. I lecture
to groups this size all the time no problem at all."
But now that I am here looking at you, I realize that there is
a very great difference. When I face most of my students, theyre
sitting there like they have much more important things they could
be doing. Nearly all the faces I am looking at right now suggest
that you know all there is to know, and you are waiting to see
what old friends have to say.
notice that there are at least two dichotomies here. Flanking
the actors on either side, the two Old Farts Academics
who say things like, "You do not pronounce that correctly
. . . None is a singular, dont . . ." and so on. I
am also the only one up here who speaks with an "American"
vocal pattern. The rest of them the four of them here
speak The Kings English. This is one reason why they have
been invited to interpret Shakespeare. Now, one of the problems
everyone faces, when they are looking at Shakespeare, is "Oh
my God, that language. Its intimidating. What are we going
to do with it? Im only an American, I havent got a
dialect, I dont know the way it should be done! No Oxbridge
in me at all."
asked Michael York to get us going this evening by demonstrating
with a wonderful single sentence by Bernard Levin, a distinguished
English critic, that in fact Shakespeare has been appropriated
by all of us. By common folk whom you might meet in the street.
Michael could you get us going?
YORK: This one sentence, is particularly effective on kids
who feel that Shakespeare has noting to do with them. Just listen:
you cannot understand my argument, and declare, "Its
Greek to me," you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim
to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare;
if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare;
if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father
to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin
air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to
budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have
played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower
of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted
your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play,
slept not a wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your
lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short
shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have
seen better days or lived in a fools paradise why,
be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion
that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare;
If you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage,
if you think it is high time and that that is the long and the
short of it, if you believe that the game is up and the truth
will out if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie
low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if
you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without
rhyme or reason, then to give the devil his due
if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your
head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance
and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if
you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate,
a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot,
then by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness sake! What
the dickens! But me no buts it is all one to me, for
you are quoting Shakespeare!
Levin, Enthusiasms (1983)
Wonderful, wonderful. It humbles all of us. To touch off the
first subject and that is: youve got this Shakespeare, who
is allegedly the greatest poet in the English language, and you
have this great dramatist. Theres a tension. How do we get
at this famous author? Do we do it through his poetry, through
his meaning? Or do we do it through his action? Im going
to throw that one out. Charlotte?
CORNWELL: Personally, for myself, I approach it through the
language. I make certain that I understand every single word,
because often, youll be reading a text and youll have
gotten a rather general gist of it, but you have to be absolutely
specific. And I have to be sure I know what each single word means.
And then I go with the feeling. His language is such emotional
language. Were all different, but thats how I do it.
EGGAR: Well I was very lucky to hear Charlotte say earlier
that she didnt take any notice of the pentameter, and I
thought, "Ooh, Im glad." Because I dont
think that I ever did either. I truly believe that Shakespeares
words are the emotion. He spells it out, and the audience understands
it. Its there for everybody. Its the words. All you
have to do is pay attention to the words. I think the more its
directed and the more one pays attention to it, I think the more
it has a life of its own.
An interesting point. I was playing Rosalind for a month,
and I cant remember now, but there were two lines in As
You Like It, and I said, "Can we cut this? Because nobody
will understand what this means I dont know
what this means." Trevor told me what it meant, and I said,
"Still, nobodys going to understand what this means."
And he said a very interesting thing. He said, "If you think
in your head hard enough what it means the audience will
get it. And thats absolutely true. People get it. Its
Thats dangerous! Ive thought some things about people
I hope they cant . . . Now, theres been a production
in town, of Romeo and Juliet, which I have not seen, but
Ive heard a lot about. It seems to be based on the premise
that if you take each line of Shakespeare, and you shut down the
noise at the end of the actual poetic line at the end of the text,
and then resume again with the next line, that youre doing
it correctly. Michael, what do you think?
No. This is something that we get into in the book. It goes back
to your original question, "How do we prepare?" The
setting out point for us doing this book is that
Shakespeare, whoever he was, whether he was a great Elizabethan
aristocrat of the Oxfordian tradition or the more conventional
Shakespearean candidate, whoever he was, he was writing plays
for actors to interpret. And within the text are keys as to how
he wanted them to be done. Hes very much on your side. Hes
writing box-office. We forget The Globe Theatre
we think of it as a cultural institution. It was something that
made money. It was generating income. And it was a very
expensive theatre to run.
we forget that these are box-office. Theres a tremendous
misunderstanding with Shakespeare. You have an end stop, you have
old-fashioned acting deals, and you have misunderstandings. And
clearly, our book was in a sense trying to help, to address some
of this. Trying to be a practical acting manual. Not a "how-to"
but more of a grammar of acting.
of the things you come to understand is that in Shakespeare, the
pauses come after every thought. If you go back to the first folio,
youll see it in the text. Its just commas and periods.
Editors have cleaned them up so it looks wonderful on the page,
but its not really much help to us. If you go back and see
the thick, dense language of the Elizabethan original, then you
begin to see whats at work.
Well lets bring the academy in, shall we? Michael Allen?
ALLEN: Id like to take up Michaels point about
money. Shakespeare made so much money, that he was able to retire
at about the age of 48, and then indulge in that most expensive
of all retired occupations, which is suing your neighbor. He
sued his neighbors over property issues. Whether the property
was on this side of the stream or that side of the stream, and
since the stream altered its bed every winter, the property issues
kept the lawyers going.
Id like to ask you. I had great trouble teaching Shakespeare
here in Los Angeles until the films came along, which made
things rather different. One of the reasons that I felt made it
so difficult was that nobody read the Bible any longer. The language
of the church, so often the language of sonorous and meaningful
thoughts and images that people of earlier generations are used
to, The Prayer Book and the King James Bible and so on, has disappeared.
The teenagers verbal ken I think that this has made
things much more difficult to get across, because they dont
have that point of reference. So I think that you have an extraordinary
task ahead of you, to keep Shakespeare verbally alive. Because
hes very good on film, where you see action and passion
and color and splash. But the words are becoming more difficult.
Thats a very good point. Weve lost the ability, this
oral tradition that Shakespeare was writing in. We forget. There
is the King James Bible. Theres this great fountain of words.
A mere 6,000 compared to the 30,000 that Shakespeare coined, so
you see you are dealing with this positive fountain. Just as the
King James Bible is to be read in churches, I believe categorically
that every Shakespeare play should be spoken in theatres! We had
lost it, but were getting back now to the Elizabethan theatre
concept. With the re-opening of the Globe Theatre in London for
example, you realize how much weve lost. When the theatres
were closed in 1642, we completely lost that knowledge. An actor
being able to command a crowd of 30,000 people. Persuading them
that a play taking place in daylight, that they were seeing darkness
and ghosts and whatever. Speaking with a precision and a clarity
and a speediness, because these plays, were convinced they
were done very fast, without an intermission. Romeo and Juliet
talks about "a two-hour traffic." I dont see
how you can do Hamlet in less than three. But certainly,
they were done very fast, and audiences had an ability to listen,
which weve also lost. Our oral acuteness has been degraded.
But there was an ability to listen while they were crunching hazelnuts!
Because the new excavations have uncovered the immense package
As a practical matter nowadays, what more closely approximates
that theatre you are talking about? You have two choices only.
Film, of a Shakesparian play, or a person in his room, reading
it and trying to understand and imagine the theatre? Because you
see, they just dont put on many Shakespearean plays anymore.
Yes, you can find them in university workshop productions and
so forth, but its not the kind of production that you would
find on Broadway. So what more closely approximates it? Is film
the only thing we have? Or in fact, should people be reading
I think the recent Shakespeare films, Richard III, which
was based on the production that I was in with Ian McKellen, and
the Romeo and Juliet movie, I thought they were both wonderful
movies. I can only really judge them through my own daughter,
who is now 19. I watched her respond to those movies and she loved
am slightly at odds with you (Professor Allen), because I dont
think that its difficult to get Shakespeare through to young
people. It depends so much on whos teaching it. I
mean what we were best at in school, depended so much on whether
we had an inspirational teacher.
what were seeing in the U.K., and Im sure its
the same here, is that the younger generation of teachers are
not all fired up about Shakespeare, and theyre not particularly
good teachers, based on my daughters experience, and shes
was in the public system. I dont agree the response
that Ive seen, with kids of all backgrounds when
they are either given a really exciting teacher or taken to a
really exciting production, they love it! And they want
more of it.
I completely agree, and it goes back to the emotion. Shakespeare
was not a propagandist of his own theories. He was so involved
with the actors, and we also have to remember the history of when
all this was happening. Also the language. Now in England, right
now, we dont speak like I do. I am a throwback! Id
get my head chopped off if I go back to England. You speak with
Essex-speak, which is estuary-speak, which is very similar to
the West Country language which is the closest to Elizabethan
language, which has the long "A" pronunciation. The
musicality of the line was also different.
many times when Shakespeare is done now, it is incorrect on so
many levels. Its incorrect on pronunciation, its incorrect
on the musicality of the line itself, and certainly the speed.
For someone to stand up and say, "To be . . . or not, to
be . . ." well, by that time, someone would have thrown an
orange! You had to get on with it! To get back to the truth
of how a production should be put on is through the children.
Because children always tell the truth. And thats why those
films are successful. Because these children come in with no parameters.
They are speaking the truth, and Shakespeare gave us the
Wonderfully put. Michael?
It has to be said: one of the great Shakespeare troupes in this
town is the Hobart Shakespeareans. Its this wonderful school
where every kid, from tiny tots all the way up they get
it, they get it immediately. Its no big deal. You mentioned
the films. Obviously, youre dealing in terms of spectacle.
In the theatre you cant. Surely, you can have your fights.
But Shakespeares operating on several levels. For your Joe
Blow citizen who crosses the Thames and pays his penny, stands
in the rain hell see a play about murders, ghosts,
revenge, battles. And equally, the person sitting next to him,
a more educated person lets say, is going to see an existential
discussion on "who are we, why are we here, what are we doing?"
So its operating on those levels. Sure, Shakespeare
box-office again hell give you the battles. But hes
more interested in why that battle happens, before and
film, I think youre dealing with spectacle. You can do these
battles, you can do these fights. And why not? Theyre very
exciting. Were talking about theatres. Were up here
on a proscenium stage. The strongest, emphatic place is upstage,
center. When you go back to the Elizabethan theatre, you return
the actor to the center of his cosmos. Hes downstage. You
dont have Hamlet come out and say, "Hello, my name
is Hamlet, and these are my ideas on life and death." No,
this is someone in torment, wanting to work this thing
out its active, and the speech is always that way.
The second half of the line is more important than the first.
So its always building, and moving and moving and going
up. Here is someone who, once he makes contact with the audience,
it not monstrous that this player here
in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
force his soul so to his own conceit,
and the audience is with him. Theres this contact. Too many
actors and Im sure youve seen it its
all going up into the roof. It makes no contact. Where in the
text Shakespeare is desperately trying to connect with you. Great
speeches are done to the sun, to the moon, to daggers, to whatever.
Theres always a focal point. So the Elizabethan theatre
has given us this renewed contact. You dont need the scenery,
its all there in the lines. Hes phenomenal. He does
it all for you, and its all there in the framework of the
is a wonderful quote from Bernard Shaw. Its practical: a
writer to an actor. It was a letter written to Ellen Terry, who
was playing at Irvings Lyceum. He wrote,
playing Shakespeare, play to the lines, through the
lines, on the lines, but never between the lines
there simply isnt time. You would not stick a five
bar rest into a Beethoven symphony to pick up your drumsticks.
Similarly, you must not stop the Shakespeare orchestra for business.
Nothing short of a procession or a fight should make anything
so extraordinary as a silence during a Shakespeare performance."
great. And from someone who was so rude about Shakespeare too.
We all love Bernard Shaw, but every time I hear his name, I only
hear, drumming into my ears, a famous line of his, which is, "Those
who can, do. Those who cant, teach!"
vs. Theatre. You all have some great credits on both sides. What
do you think? Which do you like? Lets say that your agent
calls and says, "I have two offers here. One is for a film,
and one is for the theatre." Samantha?
Its isnt a choice. Its the piece that you want
to do. Both have such strong merits. I mean nowadays, there are
all sorts of merit in every kind of performance.
What about this notion of the theatre as a living thing. Audiences
create the play as much as the actors do, or the director. Whereas
in film, youre locked in there. Is that true?
Personally, I would always do live theatre. I love it, because
I love the audience. And if you screw up one night, you can come
back until you finally get it right. Its such a treat. I
love film, and I love television. But the number of times Ive
walked onto a set and thought, "Theres only a number
of times before we have to get it." But in the theatre, you
can say, "Oh God!" And the next night you can fly! And
there is nothing like that feeling. It doesnt happen that
often, when you and the audience meet. Its like a drug,
theres nothing like it.
Tells us about some of the great roles in Shakespeare.
Well, I did Rosalind when I was 27, and I did that with Trevor
Nunn at the Allwich. It was wonderful, because youre playing
Shakespeares golden woman. Shes golden. Shes
funny and shes theres nothing like it. To contrast
that, and do say, an Arthur Miller A View from the Bridge,
which I did in the West End when that play works, on
those nights when the cast and the audience come together
its just so exciting. I couldnt live without it now.
Its funny, because I am here in Los Angeles to do a little
I dont mean to hog the platform, but theres a wonderful
story about Laurence Olivier that I actually witnessed. I was
in his company, the National Theatre in the golden days, when
he was leading it. He did a very memorable Othello, which
he put on film. Unfortunately, and this is a key thing I mention
in the book, he didnt bring it down. This is why its
wonderful to look at one thing and then the other. In the theatre,
you raise an arm. In a film, you raise an eyebrow to the same
effect. And unfortunately, the director on the film didnt
pull it down. His Iago was Frank Findley, who on stage, was absolutely
no competition for Olivier. On film, that tiny wonderful performance
of someone thinking leaps out at you.
in the theatre one night, there was that magical thing happened
that Charlotte described. The audience was thrilled, the hairs
were raising on the backs of their necks, and the actors too onstage.
And so, when the curtain closed, there was this thunderous burst
of applause from the audience, and also onstage. They clapped
as Olivier stormed all the way to his dressing room you
could hear him slam the door. Someone got up the courage
to go up and knock on the door and ask, "Larry, whats
the matter? Tonight was simply magical, sublime." Olivier
shouted back at the door, "Yes, I know I was! But I dont
know how I did it, so how can I do it again?"
there you have it. I guess that is why we go back. For the pleasure
of trying to refine . . .
I dont know whether anybody here saw Ian McKellens
Richard III, and then saw the movie. I think hes
a great actor, and hes a great friend of mine, so he wont
mind my saying, but I was slightly concerned when I heard he was
going to film it. I thought, "Jeez, hed better pull
that back, because its quite large." And I was absolutely
mesmerized when I saw it on the screen. He had transformed that
performance with all the intensity and all the brilliance;
he put it on that screen. I thought that that was one of the best
I have seen.
Lets segue into female roles. Now originally, they werent
played by women. Michael? Isnt that true?
Thats right. They werent played by women. As we all
know, they were played by boys until the Restoration in 1660,
when Charles II came back and said, "Where are all the actresses?"
And they said, "Well actually, we dont have actresses
here in England." And Charles said, "Well, Im
King now, and well have actresses." So they brought
over all his French mistresses and they began the tradition of
taking these roles!
you go through the canon of plays we dont have enough
evidence to do this really well, but there is tantalizing
evidence you can plot the growth and maturation of individual
actors. In one place, you can watch a play that has a part for
a promising young boy of 13, and then, when hes 14, you
give him a bit more, and then at 15, you can give him some really
great stuff. Then at 16, he could be a Cleopatra. Then, at 16
and-a-half, hes hit puberty (they hit puberty later then),
and his voice cracks, and Shakespeare says, "My goodness,
I dont have any actors who do women anymore, Ill have
to write them out of the plays." Until you watch another
young boy come along to play the girls parts. You
can actually graph the rise to puberty of individual actors.
Its interesting that you talk about Cleopatra, because
that is a role I would never want to play.
For me, I think it is such an extraordinary role, I feel that
there are very few actresses who are equipped to play it. I think
it requires so many elements coming together. I think its
an incredibly difficult role.
To think that a man originated it!
I know! When youre 12, you have a high voice which
makes it easier! But in the canon, I think that Cleopatra is
the most challenging role seldom achieved, really.
It is to women what Lear is to men perhaps?
I think Shakespeare takes advantage of the fact that very rarely
can he actually have his lovers physically making love. Romeo
and Juliet is one exception. But even there, shes up
on the balcony, and hes down here. So the words count for
everything. You totally have to seduce whomever with words. Then
too, Shakespeare loves a conflict, so you have this marvelous
battle of words. There is:
morrow, Kate, for thats your name I hear.
have you heard, but something hard of hearing:
call me Katherine, that do talk of me.
lie in faith, for you are called plain Kate . . .
theres this wonderful pensive logic which is a sort of a
substitute, that is dazzling.
Sir Michael, what happens when you have the Branagh film, and
you have Hamlet in bed with Ophelia doing the late 20th
I have a feeling that Shakespeare would have done exactly the
same had he had films at his disposal. The plays are like movie
scripts. The jump and skip from scene to scene, theyre fast,
theyre in close-up, theyre in long-shot. He provides
his own sound effects. Theyre positively cinematic. The
core speeches in Henry V are just listen to this.
Hes making his own movie script, hes providing the
dialogue, and hes added the sound effects:
entertain conjecture of a time,
creeping murmer and the poring dark
the wide vessel of the universe.
camp to camp, through the foul womb of night
hum of either army stilly sounds;
the fixed sentinels almost receive
secret whispers of each others watch.
answers fire, and through their paly flames
battle sees the others umbered face.
threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
the nights dull ear; and from the tents,
armourers accomplishing their knights,
busy hammers closing rivets up,
dreadful notes of preparation.
of their numbers, and secure in soul,
confident and over-lusty French
the low-rated English play at dice;
chide the cripple tardy-gaited night,
like a foul and ugly witch doth limp
country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll,
the third hour of drowsy morning name.
mean, you dont need your special effects guy to come in
and bang the clock its all there.
I think word-painting is very interesting because, I mean, people
of our generation were brought up on word-painting. But the kids
now are not word-painters. They are so used to visuals. Theyre
so used to everything being conveyed visually. They arent
able to appreciate it, as the older generation is able to do.
Its something that you have to actually train yourself to
do. "Dont look. Listen." And this is a big mountain
to climb. I mean, we take it for granted we all grew up
on radio. The incredible dramas inhabited entire worlds on the
radio. But kids never listen to radio. Unless its for the
stock market . . . Im wondering if this is a real shift
in our culture. From the old one where authority and imagination
was key, to a culture where everything is visible. You dont
want to listen to the President, you just want to come
and see him.
But you see, my understanding of what Michael just read,
that speech and what you just said I think that
kids in school dont know about that kind of writing.
When you tell them, they become fascinated by it.
Onomonopia and all the things that are used. Theyre just
not taught it properly.
Isnt one of the problems that we all four of us
have authoritative, and therefore authoritarian, accents? If we
assume a northern accent, and say,
be, orr not tew be; that iss tha qwes-chun?
some ways we become much more accessible than if we use The Kings
English. Doesnt The Kings English sometimes get in
the way of all this?
From the moment I came here in the late 60s, I was aware of this
strange conception in America. Americans thought that we Brits
had a lock on Shakespeare because of the way we sounded. I was
always at pains to remind them that as Samantha pointed
out that the accent of Shakespeares day with the
Devon "rrrr" crossed over with the settlers and it took
root in America. So if you want to hear and the key word
is hear (the Elizabethans said "That we shall
hear a play" not see one), if you want to hear
an "authentic" performance, see it here in America!
Dont go see it in Britain, where our accents have gone through
this lunatic sound change with our German kings and our whatever.
See it here in America, where you have preserved purity!
When I was in acting school in London, thirty years ago, it was
then that regional accents RADA and the other schools
had to get their students out of their regional accents. Thirty
years ago, when I was a student, I had a friend who came from
Oxfordshire and he taaalked like thaaat. Somehow, he was encouraged
to keep that, and hes a very successful actor. And I have
to say that if you go to a Royal Shakespeare Company production,
the regional accents are all there. Its wonderfully, wonderfully
rich. Mark Rymands did a wonderful Much Ado About Nothing,
and Benedick was from Northern Ireland, and it was wonderful.
In fact, I went with Ian McKellen. Ian just sat there at the end
and said, "I had the text completely re-opened for me."
Hearing Benedick spoken with a Belfast accent. Its changed
so much now.
We would be considered "posh."
I appreciate much of what you are saying. I wonder if we could
hear about your attitude toward critics. Do you read critics?
Well, I think that even if people lie, I think they do read the
critics. It depends on whether you read them the night after,
or whether you wait for "a while." They are a fact of
life. Touch wood I have been sort of lucky, and Im
sure everybody here has been lucky too. The worse thing about
critics today are the attacks that they personally make
on women especially, but maybe its also on men on
their physical bodies. I think that shouldnt be allowed.
Its outrageous. Youre quite entitled to talk about
the play and the playwright. But to physically attack someones
body is not correct.
Critics like to think that they keep acting "honest."
Do you think thats true?
But the critics are so dishonest most of them. For them
to talk about "honesty" I think, is rather unfair of
them. They are sort of a necessary irritation to me. I read them
only at the end of a run. Except on the one occasion I told you
about. I had recently been in a play at the Hampton Theatre Company.
The Hampton is a little theatre company, which hangs up all the
reviews outside. I came in one night, and there was this review
hanging there. Now, I had a line in the play what went,
will never park illegally.
the theatre in huge letters, it said, "Charlotte Cornwell
can make a sentence like Henry will never park illegally.
sound like the war-cry of Clytemnestra." I couldnt
say the line that night! I couldnt say it. There
was another critic who said that; "Cornwells Beatrice
could sour milk at 400 paces." After that, I gave up on reading
them. I only read them at the end.
Shakespeare of course, came in on the sharp end of critics. They
called him an upstart crow with shaksie. I think it was Brendan
Bayer who, on behalf of all playwrights and everyone this side
of the footlights, who summed it up. He said,
are like eunuchs in the harem. Theyre there every night.
They see it done every night. They see how it should
be done every night! But they cant do it themselves!
Thats true of academics as well!
Obviously, there are two or three ways of looking at this. Some
of the critics get in the cheep shots and the global kicks and
the insults. But you know, one of the most important critics that
Ive ever read, is Hamlet. In Act III, Scene II, he comes
to the actors and says,
the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly
on the tongue; but if you moth it as many of our players do,
I had as leif the town crier spoke my lines!
dont know how they thought about town cries back then, but
I suspect that they regarded them as people who could sour milk
at 400 paces!
do not saw the air too much with your hands thus, but use all
gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say,
whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance
that may give it smoothness.
a very powerful critique of the actors of his own time, essentially
calling for acting reform. Its very interesting. So how
do you cope with this arch-critic, in the heart of the
Youre absolutely right, Michael. Theres this extraordinary
thing, where theres this cheeky young prince telling these
professional actors how to do their job. But then you stand back
from this, and you take Hamlet, written for Richard Burbage.
This extraordinary actor who created all the roles. Behind Burbage,
theres Shakespeare, who is looking pleading, for
a new way of performing his plays. Much more natural, colloquial,
fast, light, musical. As opposed to the painted periwiged fellows,
who could tear a passion to tatters. You went round the
corner to the Fortune Theatre to see Edward Alains company
it be said that Shakespeare was a great reformer. He was writing
unprecedented plays. A new kind of drama that demanded a new kind
of actor. Its wonderful, and there, right in the middle
of Hamlet, in this one scene, you see it exemplified.
Hamlet is a conservative, yet he doesnt want to be one.
He likes the tearing of a passion to tatters.
"Let discretion be your tutor." Thats Shakespeare.
Hes willing to work with you.
But couldnt you read that another way? Isnt he just
railing against bad actors? To encourage bad actors
to become better actors?
Yes, but I do think it underscores the role of criticism.
Ive always entertained a fantasy that critics should always
come back toward the end of the run. One of the things that Ive
always found very difficult is when youve put together a
performance, and youve really put yourself into it. Then
they review you next to someone else who did it twelve, twenty
my experience, Ive watched opening nights, when the actors
are a bit nervous or whatever. And then you see that same performance
three months later, six months later a year later, because
in repertory in the Royal Shakespeare Company, you could be doing
a performance for 18 months, and that performance has grown and
become unrecognizable. Then you go back and read what the critics
said, and you think, "What was he watching?" So I have
this fantasy that they should be called back.
Do they come back?
I see! Well, lets open up the discussion to the audience.
Should we do that? Okay.
Yes, I am a theatre director, and I teach the Shakespeare plays
to kids, so I appreciate what you said on that. My experience
as a young person was reading it off of a page, which I thought
was completely boring! In my work with young people, I
have discovered that when I engage them with the text on a visceral
level, rather than having them reading it to figure out "What
does this mean?" we engage them on the level of "How
does this feel? What do the words say to you?" That its
not about, "Youre going to play Prospero, and youre
going to be this banished king." Because they dont
know what thats about. They may know what it is to have
grief, or loss, and they play that.
so what I propose is that we engage young people on a visceral
level, and not in a classroom reading out of a book, I apologize,
because that isnt what the plays were intended for. As Mr.
York says, they were intended to be heard. We hear a play,
not see a play. Some of the best Shakespeare that Ive seen
is not to be found on Broadway. Its to be found in the small
towns around the country, with people speaking from a very visceral
place and in their own dialects and their own accents. Ive
taught at the Hobart School, and its some of the most amazing
Shakespeare I have ever seen in my life.
Im going to interrupt. I was a student in Professor Allens
class. We had to read Coriolanus.
We did. And you walked us through the bloodiest parts do
you remember? That theres all this blood in there? Ill
never forget Coriolanus, because we sat there and this
man stood there and read Im objecting to the comment
about the classroom not being the place for Shakespeare, because
a classroom was the only place I would have read Coriolanus,
because it really does look pretty boring on paper. And then
all of the sudden, it turns out to be the bloodiest, most thrilling
thing in the world, and this man basically acted it out in front
of us, and we were just rifting out the door!
I was actually wounded at the counter . . .
When you as actors are preparing for a Shakespearean role, what
are some of the key things that you feel are the most important
in that process?
You mean in rehearsal or the night of performance?
When in performance, Ill require half an hour of silence
before I go on. In rehearsal, I try and throw out every inhibition
I have. I dont actually approach it any different than when
I am doing a contemporary play.
Charlotte mentioned this earlier. Before you go on, you have to
make sure you know what those words mean. I know that there have
been changes over the 400 years, but they havent changed
all that much. And the great thing about Shakespeare is that his
poetry is not highfalutin, like Christopher Marlow, whose poems
contain subconsciously and rather humorless poetic words. Shakespeare
is very simple. Yes, there are some things that change. We dont
hunt very much anymore, so we dont know a jess is,
and things like that. We dont have fardels.
you have to first set out to see what these words are, and what
theyre doing. Why he uses certain metaphors. Why prose and
not verse? All of these things. This is making your way into it.
You need a good text. The Arden is wonderful, but you cant
rehearse with it. The new Penguin, you can carry around with you.
goodness. In a movie, you know that youre not going to be
able to go back and do it again. It concentrates the mind wonderfully.
Youre always shooting the end of the movie first, and thats
great, because that means that you have to think your whole way
through it. "If I have a chance to this here, then I wont
do that there." It means you do your homework. And then you
hope for the best. A film has its organic life, its wonderful.
Its a challenge. Its never the same, its always
different. And its the same with a Shakespeare performance.
Its always different, because he is that kind of writer.
He is not demanding that you jump through a hoop and give a definitive
says, "Listen, lets do this. Ill give you this
situation, and some pretty good lines, but I need your
help. Join with me, and lets see where we end up."
Thats why the performance is always fresh, its always
different, its always relevant, and thats why we do
it today. Theres nothing old-fashioned or irrelevant about
him. Its completely fresh and its still box-office.
It seems to me that so often, performance is compromised or language
is compromised. When I see a performance, I think that I wanted
to hear it, and its gone, so I dont know. Is there
a compromise you make between the subtlety of the staging and
the understanding of the language?
This is a problem that we address. Shakespeare is a practical
playwright. He writes in twos. He loves this ambiguity.
He gives you two words, so that if somebody coughs, and you miss
it, hell give you another. Plays begin with a bag: Two lovers
come on quarreling Bam! Bam! Bam! Hes got your
attention. Then you settle down. . . Very, very practical. Hell
give the lead the fourth act off. If youre playing one of
the great roles, you get time off to catch your breath, so you
have something left for the Act V Finale!
of the problem is that we dont know how to listen anymore.
The French are much better.
Theres also a very basic actors note. If you intend
to be heard, you will be heard. That is a very basic its
But there is a problem. You see the full effect in the Branagh
film of Hamlet at four-and-a-half hours. Except for Macbeth
and The Comedy of Errors, all the other plays take
at least three, sometimes three-and-a-half hours. You have an
extraordinary problem. Here is our very greatest dramatist writing
scripts that are a third too long for the available playing time.
He speaks of two hours of traffic on the stage and three hours
of traffic somewhere between two and three hours
but virtually none of his plays can be reasonably performed
in under three-and-a-half to four hours. And this is a problem.
did he, from the beginning, anticipate that people would cut it?
Or that there would be different versions in different places?
Or did he just, out of exuberance of spirit, write more than the
actors could possible deal with, and that it would remain perpetually
fascinating? There seems to me to be no single way out of this
amazing problem. The texts are a third too long except
for The Comedy of Errors.
I would like to ask a question about the synergy between the actor
and the director. I am a self-confessed Academic, so lets
get that out of the way! Over the last two nights, I watched Oliviers
Shylock, and the PBS Shylock with Warren Mitchell, and its
like barely watching the same play. What interests me, is that
Jonathan Miller, as producer and director, talks about having
spent weeks convincing Larry not to use a nose, and about giving
up the Semitic overbite that Larry had spent thousands and thousands
of pounds on dentures. What, in the final production, is the input
of the directors and what is the actors? How much
will a director let you get away with? How much will a director
insist on his point of view, and where does the twain meet?
Having worked with Jonathan Miller, I can tell you that Jonathan
likes to play all the parts himself. So that probably explains
that one. Hes a wonderful director. Hes a terribly
exciting person. If you are working for a director that you have
worked with before, its wonderful, because then, you develop
a kind of shorthand you know exactly what that person wants,
because you have this intense relationship.
I think that it can be a rather sad experience. It depends
on how flexible both of you are prepared to be. Sometimes when,
and Im sure that I had my part in it, there are times when
Im having a miserable time because of what the director
has wanted to impose what he or she has wanted to do. Or they
havent given me the freedom that I felt I wanted or needed.
For me, it tends to be potluck, unless its someone Ive
worked with a lot.
Mr. York, how did it work with Franco Zeffirelli?
It worked very well! I think that the reason why it worked
was that Zeffirelli has this extraordinary ability to bring out
the Italian quality of the Italian plays. At the same time, working
with Anglo-Saxons, we were able to tamp down his slightly operatic
excess. We were able to achieve a balance. Of course with Zeffirelli,
youre dealing with an incredible visual eye. I dont
know if any of you have seem his films of Romeo and Juliet
or The Taming of the Shrew, but all of those extras
that you saw in the picture, were photographed beforehand and
arranged in his camera like an old master. It wasnt accidental.
So visually, youre dealing with something superb. But the
key thing was also to reminding you that the words are doing everything
for you. Shakespeares words are even supplying the pictures,
and this is what every director I dont care if you
do Romeo and Juliet on motorbikes or a swimming pool or
whatever you need to be hearing those words.
this country there is a great acting tradition based on Stanislavsky.
Stanislavsky has been badly translated and misunderstood. Lee
Strasberg took Stanislavsky and made a "Method" out
of it, and then he changed his mind . . . This "emotional
recollection" is totally useless for Shakespeare.
So we find ourselves working with directors who are cracking the
whip and my technique is to say, "I absolutely love your
idea, and then you just get on with it.
I wonder if Professor Allen could recount a 16th Century
conception of "patience," and what that means. Because
when you say, "To be or not to be" the idea of "patience"
is to take action or not to take action. Many people think the
line is about suicide, which is a 20th Century concept
of the word. So a lot of what gets in the way is not having an
understanding of a 16th Century definition of the words
that we use today and how they have changed.
Lets ask Michael Allen. Has the concept of "patience"
changed from the 16th Century to now?
Im a little at a loss for that one. I do think that its
an interesting question. To go back to what Michael York was saying
about Shakespeare being "direct" and "accessible"
well, he is. But hes also an incredible eruditionist, where
you have him using extraordinary words like "incarnidine"
and so on. Hes responsible for actually bringing bring into
the English language thousands of new words. One of the
reasons the Elizabethans loved him was that he was a wordsmith.
They went to hear highfalutin, orotund, rhetorically dazzling,
and totally unintelligible material mixed in with this direct,
"Oh my God, I understood that!" Its an
amazing shift of registers from the immediate to the, "My
God! Where did that come from?"
still hang on to the Elizabethan sense of the word "patience"
when we go to the "patients" ward of the hospital.
Where people suffer.
When you are playing a villain, is it any different than when
you are playing one of Shakespeares Heroes? Getting into
the mind of the character.
Thats a very good question. Youve hit on a key Shakespearean
thing here. There are always the mighty opposites. Its very
difficult and very dangerous to take a moral stand. If you look
at Lady Macbeth as a monster, or Richard II as a good king . .
. Usually they have both going on inside them. Theres this
tremendous duality that runs throughout his writing. Even the
way the verse is structured, it often takes on the sonnet form.
This is a wonderful exercise to learn Shakespeare. You have on
the one hand "A" therefore "B" and therefore,
the conclusion "C" thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
the same way, the characters are always the mighty opposites.
Hamlet he can be a bloody villain, and he can act too.
Othello. This majestic, noble, prince-like warrior, is also a
barbaric slaughterer, worse than Caliban. And thats whats
so fascinating! If you want to be Prospero, you also have to be
Caliban. The villains are always interesting, because
well, the Devil has the best tunes. These villains are so human,
even Iago, they have this malignity for a motivation. This is
what makes then human, because Shakespeare is fascinated with
what makes people tick. And he has the same preoccupations as
we have. How we cant sleep at night and how do we fall in
love and so on.
Not only does the Devil have all the best tunes, but we recognize
them in the mirror every morning!
What do you think of Harold Blooms theory regarding Shakespeare
as being the inventor of the "human being" at
least in literature?
Well, there actually were human beings before Shakespeare.
This is an Academic game that weve been playing for a half-century.
When do we see the emergence of modern consciousness or the modern
notion of autonomy? Did it start off with Nietzsche, and then
you go back to Milton, and then you go back to Shakespeare? Then
Chaucer, and back to Sophocles, and now we have definite proof,
that it was a Frenchman in a Cro-Magnon wig!
When you are performing Shakespeare, you say that the action is
in the words. Should we simply stand and deliver? Or do we break
up monologues and scenes, or should there also be action to accompany
When you talk about standing, the first play I ever did was A
Midsummer Nights Dream, directed by Tony Richardson,
at the Royal Court. Tony told me to play Titania like Brigette
Bardot. I thought about that, and then I thought, "Why not?"
We rehearsed at a theatre called the Comedy Theatre, and he made
us all lie on the ground. Every time we had to move, we had to
roll over the other actor! So there are many ways to do Shakespeare!
I have a question about emotional recall. When you are playing
Lady Macbeth, and you have to play "the act" could you
talk about the emotional preparation?
You mean, if youve never killed a person, how can you play
this murder scene? Isnt it Stanislavsky who said, "Yes,
but youve killed a fly."
This is a key point. Who of us have met our dead fathers
ghost? What emotional recall are we to use for that? Chorus says,
imaginative forces at work
he is talking to the actors as well as to the audience. My book
has a nod to Stanislavsky in the title, A Shakespearean Actor
Prepares. Deliberately, because Stanislavsky, like Shakespeare,
was a reformer, dealing with the horrendous acting of his era.
Trying to get these runaway Russian actors, these turgid, unnaturalistic
actors and putting bridles on them just the way Shakespeare
would do it. Codifying acting. I think the key to this is that
what Stanislavsky wrote doesnt work for Shakespeare, because
there is no subtext. Someone comes on and says, "I am going
to dissemble." Hes quite honest and quite open. In
Chekhov, someone says, "I cant find my galoshes,"
and it means that, "I hate my life in provincial wherever."
One last question.
I wanted to ask the panel; theres very strong evidence to
suggest that William Shakespeare never wrote any of the plays
attributed to him. Some of the most recent stories center around
a certain Earl of Oxford, who lived in Shakespeares time,
when it was not proper for a member of the aristocracy to be indulging
in the arts. The Earl of Oxford had many of the experiences the
"so-called Shakespeare" wrote about. How much truth
does the panel feel there is in any of this?
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that Shakespeare wrote the
plays, and no evidence that Oxford wrote them. Oxford had
the misfortune of dying halfway through the canon, so that means
that he could have written everything up through and including
Hamlet, and after that, you have to find somebody else
who wrote everything from Hamlet on. Unless you
have a conspiracy theory! Once you have a conspiracy theory, we
could be here until the cows come home.
actually know an awful lot about Shakespeare, but unfortunately,
what we know about him are his gas bills, his litigation, the
property disputes, the amount of money he loaned Stratfordians
at the same rate as Shylock charged. What we dont have is
the wonderful, poetic, colorful memoirs that say, "I read
Coldridge, and then I went Nietzsche, and then eventually I ended
up as Shakespeare."
There is something profoundly wrong with that. Why dont
we have those papers? What we have are four, crude signatures.
And all this supposition that he probably was educated in the
Stratford grammar school, because Shakespeare was educated there
it doesnt add up. Actors over the generations, Orson
Welles, Mark Twain, think there is something fundamentally wrong
here. Yes, he was someone writing for the theatre, and for my
money, the Earl of Oxford fits the bill exactly! A great
aristocratic prince, someone who was a genius, his early
writing is indistinguishable from the "so-called early"
writings of Shakespeare, his metamorphoses, which is a key
all these things.
Youre quite right to go with Oxford. Hes the best
candidate, because you cant go with any other, like Marlow,
because youve got existing works, which are totally incompatible
with Shakespeare! The great thing about Oxford is that theres
I couldnt give a toss who wrote what! I was fortunate enough
to know, later in his life, Graham Greene. After he died, a biography
appeared, which I thought was quite horrible, actually. And I
thought, "What does it matter? Read the mans books,
and you will learn everything there is to know about the man
in those books." You will learn all there is to know about
whoever wrote those plays when you read the canon. We dont
need to know who wrote it.
Andrea? I hope you are taking notes for another WritersBloc on
what we were just about to go into here. How appropriate then,
to listen to some actual words from Shakespeare. What is this
This is Prospero. From The Tempest.
revels now are ended. These our actors.
I foretold you, were all spirits, and
melted into air, into thin air,
like the baseless fabric of this vision
cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
solemn temples, the great globe itself,
all which we inherit, shall dissolve,
like the insubstantial pageant faded
not a rack behind. We are such stuff
dreams are made on; and our little life
rounded with a sleep.
and edited by Kurt Wahlner