Embodying Shakespeare: How to feel your way into his roles
A very good and experienced actor is reading a Shakespeare speech for the first time, in the rehearsal room. The speech sounds slow and clipped. There are a lot of pauses, and some hesitation.
Eventually, they get to the end. Silence in the room. The actor looks worried, daunted by the seemingly insurmountable task ahead.
I am not. I trust them. I know how it should sound like, and how to get them there. And I know what comes next.
In English, “rehearsal” comes from the old French, and means “to repeat aloud.” In French, rehearsals are also still called “répétitions”, from the verb “to repeat.”
I’ve never liked it. It makes it sounds like all we are meant to do is go through the words, again and again, until we are very dizzy and under the illusion that we have somehow understood the play because it is now echoing relentlessly in our heads.
In German however, rehearsals are called “Probe” – from the verb “to try.”
Now, that’s more like it.
Because we do need to try. We need to try many different things – flavours, textures, sounds, gestures, breadths, breaths – until we find “it.” Something real that wants to come through the play through us, the people in the room, at that moment in time.
I’m not worried, because I know the actor will never have to endure speaking the speech in that disheartening way again. We will try something else, instead. Something radically different.
We will start with the body.
Starting with the body is very important when playing Shakespeare for two main reasons that emerged very clearly for me, through years of practice.
One: too often, we approach Shakespeare by charging at it with our brains, our heads, like bulls in an arena. We have been told and told that Shakespeare is complicated, so we want to be the ones who will deal the first blow. We become blind, enraged and frustrated when the text does not want to yield to our heroic efforts, and eventually, we become tired. And defeated. What the audience sees when listening to Shakespeare that comes from the head is painful and uncomfortable to watch, because it is painful and uncomfortable to play. Everyone can tell that they should be entertained, but no one is.
Two: Shakespeare’s world was far more sensual than our own. The body was omnipresent, and the “very faculty of eyes and ears” (Hamlet, 2.2.563) a leitmotiv for his writing. People fall in love at first sight (“Did my heart love til now? Forswear it, sight! / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night” (Romeo & Juliet, 1.5.52-53)), they fight bloody battles (“the honourable captain there / drops bloody sweat from his war-wearied limbs” (HVI-1, 4.4.17-18)), they drink sack in taverns (any Falstaff scene), they stop to smell the roses that “by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo & Juliet, 2.2.44). Compared to Elizabethan England, we now live in very sanitized environments and barely use our bodies anymore, as very few of us do work that involves moving and exercising our limbs.
So, the next step in our “Probe” is to unearth a couple of elements from the text – just enough for the actor to know what they are saying and to grasp the speech in a firmer way. We might go through word families, or repetitions, or sounds, or verbs, depending on what appears in the speech and what will be most useful for the actor to act.
If it is a speech written in verse, we will count the iambic pentameter, and note when it is irregular – that is when it does not fit the standard di/dum di/dum di/dum di/dum di/dum. Now, these are the interesting lines. The juicy lines.
These tell you when your heart skips a beat, or when you’re taking a pause. It is vital to know when these happen and so that you can figure out why they do. An irregularity means an emotional change, just as we naturally stop breathing when we tense or breathe faster when something excites us. Not to worry if your character only speaks in regular verse: this can be just as interesting, depending on the context or the play.
Having found our key words, sounds and heart beats, we can set the speech aside. That’s when the fun begins.
My movement practice owes a lot to the teachings of Kath Burlinson, founder of the Authentic Artist Collective, and the wisdom and methods she gathered from artists Paul Oertel and Nancy Spanier. I am forever grateful to them and honoured to have been able to inspire myself from their artistry in order to build my own.
So, what happens next in the room is this: the actor moves to music. They only focus on a title I give them, based on the stakes of the scene and actions of the speech.
The actor moves, they do not dance. It is a very, very important distinction. This is natural, free-form, instinctive movement. You quite literally let your body do the work. It is a work of remembering.
Your body knows the way. It knows where experience lies. It knows where strength, where pain, where love, hate, jealousy, desire, betrayal, fellowship lie.
Of course, your body knows only where those lie for you. But the beauty of the work is that if you are honest, if you let your body reveal those in an open way, others will feel where they lie in their body, too. And they will feel with you. That magical communion that only happens in the theatre will happen, and we will feel with you.
So, let your body do the work. Let it show you the way.
You need to get out of your head, and if you truly let your body speak, that will eventually happen. You will reach a state that is more eloquent, and at the same time quieter. Suddenly, your heartbeat will be in your belly, in your legs, in your fingers, in your liver, in your tail, in your hair, in your eyebrows – in your body. You will pulse and pound in its rhythm. Your heartbeat will become a drum that everyone in the room can hear.
The trick is this, and it is a simple one: the more you awaken your body, the louder your heart will become.
And we will all hear it. The drum beat. It will resonate in all of us, intoxicatingly powerful. We will then share something real. It is a kind of trance during which time as we have constructed it stops.
And as the music stops, the actor goes to grab the sheet of paper with Shakespeare’s words on it.
But this time, this time the words pour out of them like thunder in a stormy night. The words are immediate, powerful, alive. Because the actor has become immediate, powerful, alive.
The energy that their body has gained and harnessed into love, or pain, or death, or desire, is transmitted to us – other bodies. And we can all feel it, and understand where it is coming from, without the need for explanation. Without the need for brains, or charging with our heads.
Shakespeare wrote from a place of feeling, of touch, of sight. He wrote because he was fighting for survival. The words are primal, musical, magical.
And they work best when we leave them alone, and revere them by offering up our body, our muscles, our breath to their service.
Shakespeare wrote “to hold the mirror up to nature” (Hamlet, 3.2.21-22). He wrote for an embodied actor who knew what a harsh winter was, from what kind of timber was made their playhouse, and what sweet and rank smells tore the air on London’s South Bank. He wrote for an audience who toiled in fisheries, who made their own food, their clothes, their remedies, and furniture.
That world and that energy is what we should strive to repeat, the best way we can.
Victoria Gartner is an award-nominated writer, director and teacher. Over the last ten years, she has written and directed work around Shakespeare’s life and times that has been produced in the UK, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. Victoria is the Artistic Director of Will & Co, which she founded in 2015. She is the writer and director of Bard in the Yard, which is now performed throughout the UK to great public and critical acclaim (The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent), with Dame Helen Mirren as a Godmother.