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Performing Shakespeare

An interview with Ben Crystal

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Ben Crystal

Ben Crystal

Photo © Scott Wishart

Ben Crystal is the author of Shakespeare on Toast (published by Icon Books), a new book that dispels the myth that Shakespeare is difficult. Here, he shares his thoughts about performing Shakespeare and reveals his top tips for first-time actors.

About.com: Is performing Shakespeare difficult?

Ben Crystal: Well, yes ... and so it should be! These plays are over 400 years old. They contain cultural gags and references that are completely obscure to us. But they’re also hard to perform because Shakespeare was so darned good at tapping into the human heart – so, as an actor you can’t allow yourself to hold back. If you can’t go to the depths of your soul, explore the extremes of yourself, go to the bad place as Othello or Macbeth, then you shouldn’t be on the stage.

You have to think about the big speeches in Shakespeare as the most important things the character has ever said; they need to be spoken with your chest cut open, your heart bare, and with tremendous passion. You need to tear the words from the sky. If you don’t feel like you’ve run a marathon when you’re done, you’re not doing it right. It takes courage to open yourself up to an audience like that, letting them see your insides without desperately trying to show them – it takes practice.

About.com: What’s your advice to someone performing Shakespeare for the first time?

Ben Crystal: Don’t treat it lightly, but don’t treat it too seriously either. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s similar to the notion of having to act truthfully in a big space, which many actors struggle with. It’s a tricky balance, and Shakespeare asks you to deal with these huge ideas and emotions which all too often lead you into “over-acting” – stay away from big gestures and over-the-top characterizations.

A lot of what you need to know is on the page already. So it is tricky, and you have to work at it, but it’s also the best fun in the world. Enjoy it. Learn your lines so well you can go running or do the washing up while saying them. Only once they’re a deep part of you, can you start playing. A lot of people take Shakespeare’s plays far too seriously, and forget that important word: “play”. It’s a game, so enjoy it! You can’t “play” with your fellow actors if you’re trying to remember your lines.

About.com: Has Shakespeare left clues to actors in the text?

Ben Crystal: Yes, I think so. So does Peter Hall, Patrick Tucker, and a fair few others. Whether or not he actually did is always going to be up for debate. Going back to an original text like the First Folio will help. It’s the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, edited by two of his leading actors. They would have wanted to create a book on how to perform their colleague’s plays, not how to read them - 80% of Elizabethans couldn’t read! So the First Folio is as close to Shakespeare’s intended scripts as we can possibly get.

When modern editors of the plays are making a new edition, they go back to the First Folio and remove capitalized letters, change spellings and switch speeches between characters because they’re looking at the plays from a literary point of view, not a dramatic one. Bearing in mind that Shakespeare’s company would perform a new play every day, they simply wouldn’t have had much time to rehearse. Therefore, the theory goes that much of the stage direction is written into the text. Indeed, it is possible to work out where to stand, how fast to speak, and what your character’s state of mind is, all from the text.

About.com: How important is it to understand iambic pentameter before performing?

Ben Crystal: That depends on how much you respect the writer you’re working with. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in that particular rhythmical style, so to ignore it would be foolish. Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of our English language and of our bodies – a line of that poetry has the same rhythm as our heartbeat. A line of iambic pentameter fills the human lung perfectly, so it’s the rhythm of speech. One could say that it’s a very human sounding rhythm and Shakespeare used it to explore what it is to be human.

On a slightly less abstract note, iambic pentameter is a line of poetry with ten syllables, and all the even-numbered syllables have a slightly stronger stress. That’s a direction by itself – the stronger stresses usually fall on the important words.

About.com: So what about lines with less than ten syllables?

Ben Crystal: Well, either Shakespeare couldn’t count and was an idiot - or he was a genius and knew what he was doing. When there are less than ten syllables in a line, he’s giving the actor room to think. If the meter changes at any point, it’s a direction from Shakespeare to his actors about the character they’re playing. It sounds quite complicated, but actually, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s incredibly straightforward. Shakespeare knew that his actors would have had this rhythm flowing through their veins, and so would his audience. If he broke the rhythm, they’d feel it.

To not understand iambic pentameter as an actor is to not understand 80% of the style Shakespeare wrote in, and the same amount again of what makes his writing so terrific.

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal is published by Icon Books.

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