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Speaking Shakespeare

July 25, 2008

I've been engaged in a lively email discussion over the last few days with Robert Hurwitt, theatre critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, about how actors approach Shakespeare's verse.

The debate was sparked by our very different reactions to British thespian (and 22-year Royal Shakespeare Company veteran) Roger Rees' Shakespeare-infused solo show, What You Will.

Here's an extract of what I wrote about Rees' way of delivering Shakespeare's verse in my review for SF Weekly (which won't come out till next Wednesday):

"Rees has been living with Shakespeare's language for so long, that he seems to forget that people need to decipher the words in order to keep up with him. The actor monotonously barrels his way through Hamlet's soliloquies with little care for the iambic rhythm, coming across more like dog race commentator than a tragic hero. This misplaced casualness bleeds into other parts of the actor's performance. Rees' habit of peppering his speech with "uh"s and "uhm"s, is perhaps intended to make the Bard more approachable. But this tick mainly distracts."

Hurwitt disagrees with me. He liked Rees' delivery. Here's an extract from his review, which appeared in the Chron a couple of days ago:

"The Shakespeare speeches (and one sonnet) are delivered with mastery...He more than does justice to speeches ranging from the "muse of fire" from "Henry V," Macbeth's dagger vision and Hamlet's "To be" and "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquies (Rees holds the Stratford-Upon-Avon record for playing Hamlet) to both a smitten adolescent Romeo and garrulous old Nurse from "Romeo and Juliet." But it's the way he sets up these passages that distinguishes "Will" as much as his trippingly-on-the-tongue delivery."

I guess we like our soliloquies delivered in different ways. Said Mr. H, in an email: "I thought there were wonderful subtleties and nuances and interesting interpretations in his speeches. And I rather like his way with the meter much better than the Peter Hall full-stop method."

"I don't much like Hall's way of speaking Shakespeare either," I responded. "I guess Rees and he are at opposite ends of the spectrum and to be honest I don't think either approach works. I like my soliloquies to sound like poetry, but poetry that flows so organically that it almost sounds like a 'conversation.'"

It's a good thing that us critics don't see eye to eye on everything. The world would be a dull place if we did.

In other news, a white-bearded Florida man by the name of Tom Grizzard just won an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, a highlight of a festival that ended Sunday honoring the late Nobel Prize-winning author. Here's a piece about the competition from USA Today.


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