Monday, 2 November 2015

Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare The Globe, London 2004

This is the write up I've been dreading. I have visions of my lecturers wielding their red pens as I cower in a corner explaining that this isn't an essay it's just a blog!

So, Romeo and Juliet, I don't think there are many people who do not know the story of the star crossed lovers, hence I thought I would look into this play a bit more deeply, especially as Tom did two versions of this play during its run!

Shakespeare is nearly always performed in Received Pronunciation (RP), however, this production was tackled in both RP and Original Pronunciation (OP). Whilst I understood the gist of OP, I didn't know too much about it, nor what concerns it would bring to the acting fraternity whilst trying to produce a theatre production. I therefore read Pronouncing Shakespeare by David Crystal, a delightful book which tells the background of how Shakespeare's Globe produced Romeo and Juliet in its original Shakespearian pronunciation.

It is an interesting journey reading about how the actors reacted to the news about the production and the difficulties encountered trying this "new" language. It would most certainly be enlightening discussing this project with the actors involved in it!

I think Romeo and Juliet must be Shakespeare's most well known tragedy. It centres around two feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, and it was one of the most popular of his plays during Shakespeare's lifetime. What many people do not know about the play, is that Shakespeare borrowed many elements of the story from various traditional love stories, even the names Montague and Capulet are believed to be borrowed from Dante's Divine Comedy.

The play is set in the Italian town of Verona, and the audience is witness to fighting in the streets between the two feuding families. From the very start the audience is aware of the strength of feeling between the warring families.

Paris, a relative of the ruling Prince of Verona, ask Capulet for the hand of his daughter, Juliet, in marriage. Juliet at the time is about 13 years old, and Capulet asks Paris to wait for two years, but in the meantime invites him to a family ball which is being planned. Whilst Capulet has asked Paris to wait for two years, Juliet's mother and nurse are both of he opinion that Juliet should marry Paris.

We are then introduced to a rather disconsolate Romeo talking to his cousin Benvolio. Romeo is infatuated with Capulet's niece Rosaline, but she is not interested in Romeo. Benvolio tells Romeo to go to the Capulet ball in order that he may meet Rosaline, but instead Romeo encounters Juliet and immediately falls in love with her instead!

Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, realises that Romeo has sneaked into the ball and tries to kill him, however, Capulet intervenes and Romeo leaves the ball, only to sneak into the family orchard. From here he can hear Juliet on her balcony declaring her undying love for him, so Romeo makes himself known to Juliet and they vow that despite the family differences they will be married. In fact, Romeo enlists the help of his friend Friar Laurence, and the couple are wed secretly the very next day!

Tybalt is still incensed that he hasn't had retribution on Romeo, and therefore challenges him to a duel. Romeo can not accept, because now that he has married Juliet, he considers that Tybalt is now his relative, so Romeo's friend Mercutio, who is not happy with either party, decides he will accept the duel on behalf of Romeo. Of course Mercutio is killed in the duel, Romeo is devastated and therefore kills Tybalt! The Prince of Verona exiles Romeo from Verona and states that should Romeo return he will be executed.

Romeo spends one night with Juliet before leaving Verona. Juliet starts to grieve for Romeo and her father misunderstanding the situation decides that Paris and Juliet should be married. Juliet refuses to marry, so her father threatens to disown her and her mother rebuffs her. Juliet has no-one to turn to but the person who knows her secret, Friar Laurence. He suggests that upon her wedding night, Juliet drinks a potion which will make her appear dead for a couple of days. He promises that he will send word to Romeo of the plan.

Juliet therefore drinks the potion as planned and her family thinking she is dead, lay her in the family vault. As with all good plans, there is always an element that can go wrong, and in this case the messenger does not reach Romeo; instead he hears that Juliet is dead, he is inconsolable and so he heads to the nearest apothecary to purchase some poison.

Romeo then heads off to the vault where Juliet is lying so he can be with her in death. Paris is at the vault mourning Juliet's passing, and he thinks that Romeo is going to plunder the vault. The pair draw swords and Romeo kills Paris, he then drinks the poison to be with his Juliet. After his death Juliet wakes up and finding Romeo dead beside her, grabs his dagger and plunges it into her chest. The two families and the Prince of Verona visit the vault and discover the three dead bodies. Friar Laurence recounts Romeo and Juliet's story to the families, who finally decide to end their violent feud.

I would imagine that learning Shakespeare's lines is difficult enough, but to be informed that you were required to perform the same play in two forms of English must have struck the actors with some form of terror! So it was interesting to read the book Pronouncing Shakespeare - David Crystal which covers the events surrounding The Globe Theatre's experiment to bring the sound of Early Modern English (EME) back to the theatre!

It is interesting that the first question of concern was whether or not a modern audience would be able to understand the language. As the book progresses through the experimental journey it was interesting to discover that EME is not too dissimilar to many dialects that exist to this day. London in Shakespeare's era was just as diverse linguistically then as it is now, so the actors would have to be incredibly good at doing accents both accurately and consistently. Obviously though, if an actor needs to learn an accent now, he can go to a voice coach and have a plethora of materials at his finger tips to listen to. EME would be harder to learn as there is no real way of actually knowing how people sounded, a lot is down to imagination and interpretation.

David's book explains how linguistic scholars have tackled EME and how by gathering information from various sources, you can conceive several plans to allow actors to learn how to read the play in OP.  The initial question was whether the entire play could be transcribed in a way that the actors would find easy to understand, read and learn. The only way to accurately describe the sounds of EME would be to write everything in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) however, learning IPA is a long process, and there was not sufficient time to train the actors. Re-spelling the words was an option considered, so station would become stayshun, but this was rejected because there are a number of words in EME that have strange vowel sounds to which we do not have an equivalent in our modern alphabet!

The timeframe for doing this experiment was very tight and the actors only had four weeks to rehearse, so the full transcription idea was shelved and instead it was decided that only unusual words would be transcribed into IPA. However, reading through this book shows not just the difficulties with how to transcribe the script, but also the nuances of language, even down to how formally the language should be spoken.

EME was a more casual language than the RP of the Shakespeare that we are used to, so the speech should trip of the tongue, constants dropped at the end of words and vowels omitted from the middle of words. (Think frien(d)s or Greg'ry, "and" becomes 'n' as in fish 'n' chips). The challenge for the production was to get this more relaxed style into the play, without making the upper classes of Romeo and Juliet's families sounding uneducated to a modern audience!

It is a fascinating book to read and highlights the amount of thought and work that went into ultimately only three productions in OP. It was interesting reading about the history of EME, but this is not a book about linguistics and pronouncing EME in general, it is about the Romeo and Juliet experiment in particular, and all the other facets to getting the production to stage. It was interesting to note that actors with strong accents, such as Scottish, found it easier to pick up on a rolling "r" sound, because that is natural to their normal accent, whereas someone who has grown up with the harsh sounds of RP found it much harder to soften the sound, without it taking on an almost comedic quality.

It was enchanting to hear that the performances were well received by the audiences who were lucky enough to watch the productions, and to hear that afterwards a number of actors were wistful about returning to performing Romeo and Juliet in the standard RP. I'm not sure if this experiment has, or ever will be performed in OP again, it would be shame if it wasn't, but perhaps from an actors point of view I can understand why perhaps it would not be a popular concept!

N.b. I can't really leave this post without a Tom anecdote from the book!

David Crystal wrote "Listening to tape recordings can do strange things to your state of mind. Tom Burke (Romeo) said that one night, during the rehearsal period, he put his tape recorder on as he fell asleep. This is a recognised technique, actually, used in some methods of foreign language teaching: 'learn while sleeping', goes the slogan. The only thing was, it gave him nightmares! Queen Mab on the rampage again. He saw himself on stage, surrounded by the cast, all haranguing him in OP. And every one of them had my face!"

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