Thou Art Alive: Not Liking Shakespeare
Andrew didn’t like Shakespeare.
“Well,” he said, “when I say I don’t like Shakespeare, I don’t mean I don’t like Shakespeare, I mean I wish I did like Shakespeare. I just can’t get on with him. All that thee-ing and thou-ing. Men in tights. Complicated words.”
It sounded to me like Andrew had never met Shakespeare. I invited him to come over. We could hang out. Have a chat with the man himself. Andrew was naturally amused and not at all sceptical. He thought I had lost my mind, but he said he’d put the paramedics on speed-dial and be over that afternoon. I cracked the lid on a new bottle of single malt while Will and I looked out some of his favourite scenes involving two actors.
Andrew arrived. Sadly, I had to tell him, Shakespeare had been called away. Andrew rolled his eyes.
“Are you persisting with this daft idea of Shakespeare still being alive?”
Will just stepped out, I insisted. He was sorry not to meet you. But he left us a couple of pieces to try. They’re marvelous. Look. The ink’s barely dry on this one. Oh and Will said he was sorry to hear you had a problem with him. He hoped these scenes might change your mind. (Actually the pages weren’t written in ink but poor Will hasn’t got his head round our new technology. I mean he still thinks a tablet is a little personal writing slate, about the size of a roof-tile, with a layer of wax on it that you write on with a bone stylus… which in a way is all it is. Plus ça change…etc.) I had been trying to tell Will how easy it is nowadays to access his plays on a tablet and how we didn’t have to print reams and reams of paper to give all the actors a copy of the script. But Will said they didn’t do that in his day anyway so the idea wasn’t that new.
“So how did Shakespeare’s actors get their scripts?” asked Andrew. I said we’d get to that. I wanted him to know how much Will had been looking forward to hearing his Juliet.
“I’m a forty year old man!” Andrew protested.
I know. Juliet plays really well when a forty year old man does it. Mind you what Will’s really excited about is that women are playing his male roles more and more. Of course what he’s most looking forward to is the day completely random and gender-blind casting really takes off. He loves that it doesn’t have to be all men and boys, like it was in his time. Everybody can play anybody. He loved my Hamlet and as for Meg’s Polonius and Sheila’s Prince Arthur, not to mention Danielle’s Prospero. He said it was thrilling. I asked him what he thought about Dr.Who being played by a woman but he said that was probably one of those later collaborative concoctions so he couldn’t possibly comment. But then he said ‘But what about Michelle’s Terry’s Henry V!’ Will’s so delighted about The Globe, by the way. I told him about the struggle Sam Wannamaker had had getting it built. Will sympathised. He knows all about rebuilding old wooden theatres. ‘They’ve built it facing the wrong way round mind you … but Michelle Terry, eh? An actor as the director! That’s more like it.’ Will wonders if she’ll be writing plays too, because that’s what he did, so if they really want to be authentic … but anyway, Andrew, to get back to why we’re here, it was Richard’s Juliet that Will particularly enjoyed and Richard’s a lot older than you, so a forty year old man playing a timeless young female romantic lead is nothing. I suggested we should read the scenes Shakespeare had left for us and definitely do the balcony scene. It’s a favourite of Will’s. He said it brought a tear to his eye when he was writing it, but he fills up every time he hears it.
“I haven’t prepared the part of Juliet!” protested Andrew.
That’s OK. We’re just going to cold read.
“I’m hopeless at that!” Andrew squealed. “I have to prepare my lines for ages in advance.”
I tried to reassure him we were just having a look at some scenes. It wasn’t an audition. It wasn’t an exam. It was just a bit of fun to show him how the website worked. If he got something wrong that was OK. But anyway, I said, I know you can cold read. I’ve heard you before.
“Ah, but that wasn’t Shakespeare.”
I think you might be pleasantly surprised how clear and simple Shakespeare’s language can be. Can we just try?
“OK. So long as it’s not a test and you won’t laugh if I make a mess of it.”
I promise. Besides, we won’t look at Juliet first.
“Oh good. That would be a stretch.”
We’ll look at Audrey in As You Like It.”
“Who?” Andrew was not familiar with Audrey, or the play.
“I don’t know anything about As You Like It!”
“Look, you don’t have to be some sort of expert to read Shakespeare you know. You don’t have to have a PhD to understand him.”
“Don’t you? I always feel as if I don’t know enough about it all, if I’m honest.”
Audrey would be a great part for you, Andrew, I said. And you’d be a great Feste, or a Touchstone, or Lear’s Fool, or what about Cordelia, or Sir Andrew Agucheek?
I had asked Andrew to bring along a laptop or a tablet or a smartphone for our reading. Not knowing why, or thinking he had misheard me, he had arrived with a great heavy tome of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, a handful of Penguin editions of Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and The Tempest, and an old battered copy of a script of Measure for Measure he had hung on to since drama college. Will would have been flattered to see this person who claimed not to like him having all these examples of his work on his bookshelves. But we don’t need all those, I said. That’s so last century. I switched on my iPad, fired up my smart phone and turned on a laptop for good measure. This is the latest thing. Mind you, I added, here’s the part I want you to look at first, handing him a little wooden contraption I had made for him; a neat pair of wooden sticks with a scroll of paper wrapped around it.
“What’s this?” asked Andrew.
–Audrey's role 1o-
That’s your “role,” I said. It has your lines and your cues written on it. You can turn the rods and see each line in turn.
It’s a lo-tech version of what we can do online today. In some ways it’s superior because you can read it in daylight and it won’t run out of power but then again it doesn’t let you switch parts at the click of a mouse and do all sorts of other amazing things and it doesn’t contain the entire canon of Shakespeare’s works or weigh as much as that doorstop of a thing you brought. I mean a website weighs as much, effectively, as your smartphone does. We called up Players-Shakespeare.com and clicked on As You Like It. It’s easy to find the part you want. We chose the parts and cues format for Audrey in Act 3, Scene 3 [Click on the following link to see Audrey’s part in ‘Parts and Cues ]. I said I would read the other parts by choosing the full script format. That way I could read Touchstone and Jaques. We started the scene, Andrew tackling that fetchingly raw creature of womanhood, Audrey. All he had to do was wait for his cue (written in red) listening out for them as I spoke the other lines. [And here’s a link to Audrey’s other main scene, Act Five Scene 1, again in Parts and Cues].
“That was easy,” said Andrew. “What a great character. I love her.”
How did you like only having her lines and cues and not the whole play in your hands?
“It was a bit weird. But not difficult. I mean I didn’t know when the cue was going to come. And if you did that in a performance how would you know where to stand? What if you didn’t hear your cue? How would you know who was going to say it? What if you were looking at the wrong person…”
Andrew’s questions came flooding out. But his next question was the one I was waiting for. “Can we do another?”
We read the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet. [Here’s a link to the Balcony Scene] Twice. The first time, I read Juliet and he read Romeo. Then we swapped roles and read the scene again just to prove how different it was with different actors and yet satisfyingly the same. Andrew loved playing Juliet, finding her, seeing her from the inside as it were, a much more savvy creature than he had thought. We turned to her solo scene where she takes the poison. I had shivers running down my spine as Andrew read, and we discussed how well the verse works and why. It’s the diving in and doing it that matters most; not being intimidated by the words on the page but getting them off it, reading them aloud, finding how they feel and sound. Andrew was encouraged by how easy it was to access a role and see it through a cue script, instead of reading all the other lines as well as your own.
“It really makes you listen!” he exclaimed.
To cut a long story short, Andrew and I read for two hours from plays he had never seen before, King John being a particular hit. He left in a buoyant mood, confident that Shakespeare wasn’t so hard; just a little misunderstood. Andrew texted me later that evening. “Eliza, thanks so much for today. Could we do another few hours next week? Maybe a few more scenes. I’d like to. xx”
Shakespeare, whisky glass in hand, read Andrew’s text over my shoulder. It’s a pity you missed Andrew’s Juliet today, I told him, but you were with us in spirit, as I topped up his tumbler.
‘And you say you can read all my texts on that wee tiny thing?’ said Will, his voice slightly slurred, his breath nicely malty.
Will, we look you up on Wikipedia, watch videos of your plays, interviews about you, buy and sell books about you…
‘They set up this world wide web thing just for me?’
It’s not all about you. I mean you’re a genius and all that but it’s not all about you. Anyway what were you working on today?
‘I don’t work,’ said Will. ‘I don’t have to. My plays are what keep me going.’
It is a shame you died when you did, I said, wistfully.
‘Because I might have written more plays?’
You’re so popular. You made another friend today. Andrew will be back, with bells on.
‘Ah yes. It takes a real star for the clown roles.’
Andrew thinks I think you’re actually alive, Will. Imagine if you were. Just think of the royalties. Will? His chair was empty as was his glass on the table. There was no bottle. Andrew and I had had tea. Fancy that.
You can find scenes for two here: Playreadings for 2 players
You can see another post like this at: Playreading Report: Professional Actors playreading session, May 11th 2017