Reimagining Shakespeare

One of the highlights of our last production, The Tempest, was the posting of a review by Ludlow poet Steve Griffiths on Facebook. It was inspirational. He loved our modern approach to Shakespeare’s words, verse and characterisation and it was a delightful surprise to receive Steve’s words.

Here are a few extracts from his review.

“The phrase that occurs to me is ‘freshly reimagined’ but that doesn’t tell the half of it”

Shakespeare’s stories and text provide huge opportunities for re-interpretation, for radically different settings to those originally envisaged in terms of time period or location. The plots and characters are big, dramatic and flexible enough to allow this, and a reason why he is still so relevant.

To us, re-imagining means paring down, presenting the characters as they really are with a modern impulse. As a result, our productions are not really set. We use little in the way of physical set and props.

Shakespeare is often deadened by too many fripperies – set, costumes, props, endless cast members to fill all the roles including the smallest boy or messenger. The fripperies become the means of the production and the characterisation and acting come second.

Our island in The Tempest was represented by a circle of astro-turf where much of the action took place – it suggested the location. Little was done to show the different parts of the island except the presence of the particular characters. The setting really was Ludlow Brewery, the building made from the former train shed and the high ceiling, open centre, stairs and balconies.

Together with the astro-turf, the actors used many parts of the building, so the whole unadorned place became the island, without the need for painted flats, curtains, bits of machinery, sand or anything. It was then in the hands of the actors.

“The mixture of professional and amateur actors really understand how the verse moves; they are plugged into how Shakespeare can sound natural and contemporary, making it more accessible, and the poetry more vivid and penetrative”

We aim to speak Shakespeare as if it were natural language - to own it, rather than adopt it in an “actory” way. We want to make it sound like it comes from a modern human being. However it has to be clear and precise without gabbling, mumbling or laziness, and that is a challenge. The actor Mark Rylance is superb at this; he has an uncanny way of making Shakespeare everyday, yet never diminishing its impact. His Richard III at the Globe a few years ago was masterfully naturalistic.

Spoken properly with sufficient energy of intention and emotional reality, Shakespeare can sound relevant, immediate and as though it matters. It takes hard work: getting the mouth and brain working together in a seamless way; honouring the punctuation rules and keeping the momentum of thought going to the full stop. Breath control and support are essential in allowing the voice to work this through.

This is alongside listening to and relating to the other actors in the scene. It is essential to build a team of actors who respond to each other, where the energy is maintained, carried, fizzes and glides from actor to actor.

“The humour and pathos won’t be forgotten, and the wielding of Shakespeare’s language as an immediate instrument”

Shakespeare is words - lots of them - spoken by characters with muscular thoughts and feelings, who set out who they are and what they want. Their moral dilemmas are directly exposed to the audience in their words.

Every time a Shakespeare character speaks he or she is verbalising a thought or intention, and responding to a stimulus from another character, or a situation. The key is the link between instantaneous thought and speech.

When someone asks you a question, your brain is capable of delivering a multitude of answers and ways of answering. The answer can be composed and chosen or instinctive and reactive. As the actor knows what’s coming (should do from the script) all these response types are available. A key component of good acting is to speak as if the choice is made in the instant and the lines are spoken as if for the first time.

Make sure what is being said is clearly enunciated and energised but bring the spontaneous and instinctive reality to the interaction. Mix that up with physicalisation and characterisation, practice it over and over again, bring it all together with the thrill of a real audience and you can make Shakespeare immediate and contemporary.

It is hugely satisfying working with Shakespeare’s words and sentences. Getting your mouth round them and using the breath to keep the thought going is thrilling and empowering – particularly when you’re in the moment and thinking as the character.

With robust wielding, much of his language can be brought to life for modern audiences. Some of it has to be cut and his long winded scenes and plots trimmed. However, he is much easier to connect with than say his contemporary Ben Johnson and he offers compelling emotional reality for the actor to make their own.

Some wielding going on by Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo


Steve Griffiths

Our reviewer Steve Griffiths is a superb Ludlow poet who has recently published a collection called Late Love Poems. They are profoud and moving.

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