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The Green Room Theatre Books

Sunday 2nd December 2007
Feature | LOVE OF LANGUAGE 'DISCONNECTED'? | Actors Speaking

Book: Actors Speaking
Editor: Lyn Haill
Introduction: Peter Gill
Publisher: Oberon Books
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Written by Norman Tozer

Over the past few years I've needed to give a lot of thought to actors' speech in the theatre, especially to the heightened speech of our classics. 'Why can't I hear?' 'Why don't they speak properly?' are common recurring complaints. Not a recent problem, you realise. As many of these comments come from people of a certain age you might think it's because they're going deaf but I have picked up written references to audiences having difficulties going back at least 150 years – and, for that matter, Shakespeare also had his thoughts on the issue. In our times most of the complaints on speech centre on the speaking of 'classics' and the difficulties of understanding and dealing generally with heightened speech.

Many minds have wrestled with these issues and so I should not have been surprised that more able and experienced brains have been travelling along similar lines. But I was rather taken aback to see, in the new book Actors Speaking, that these issues have been clearly delineated and developed by director Peter Gill in his introduction.

Whilst the apparent reason for the book is a series of transcriptions of interviews with the great, popular and experienced actors of 20 years ago, I find the substance to be in Gill's introduction.

"It seemed that the essential connection between acting and speaking was being lost," he comments at the start, and that "….there was a lack of feeling for speech itself…". He then goes on to survey most of the influences on speech in the theatre over the past century which might be responsible for our present situation: theatrical ("the working patterns of actors have so changed"), political ("most artistic directors… are being increasingly turned into government apparatchiks as they struggle to reach targets entirely beside the main purpose"), economic ("subsidies since 1979 have come with what amounts to censorship"), racial, social and educational ("the drama school curriculums whirl about on the periphery of things and those in charge resolutely refuse to address this elephant in their room").

When in the UK, the tone of voice, the way it is produced and how words are pronounced are still so tied to our pervasive ideas of class that it will be difficult to make changes. However, Gill warns that speaking in our theatre must "reform, radically change, or sink into irrelevance".

And yet, impressed as I am by his analysis and commentary, there may be fertile ground for change. I think I saw several signs of hope recently, just within a couple of days. We may be ignoring a long-time trait of British life. Our comedy has always been verbal. Ken Dodd (and the Newcastle comics) still get laughs with a surreal use of verbal imagery – heightened speech? The recent William Poel event for actors, Speaking English Classic Drama was over-subscribed to the power of three. Travelling by bus from the National the journey was enlivened by a Rasta man whose use of heightened speech exhibited the Caribbean love of words and their rhythms (as does Rap). The excellent new play produced by Paines Plough – Crazy Love by Che Walker – is, at the least, written in heightened language but not necessarily poetic. But, as importantly, was performed by three fine young actresses vocally capable of doing it full justice.

A swallow may not make a summer but three in as many days might indicate a Spring.

Norman Tozer © 2007

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