Macbeth in Original Pronunciation (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2014Tragedy

  • Eoin Price
  • 6 comments

Reviewed by Eoin Price

Nevada Repertory Company, "Hamlet"

Macbeth is a play by turns familiar and strange. It is one of the most quotable and quoted plays in Shakespeare’s canon and is performed regularly, by professional and amateur companies alike, yet it is a play which features witches and in which, it is said, horses, breaking loose from their stalls, eat each other. Strange, yet familiar, it became the latest play (after Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and eight others) to be staged in Original Pronunciation (OP) rather than the standard modern pronunciation, which, in practice, usually means Received Pronunciation (RP). Played under the auspices of Read Not Dead – a superb enterprise designed to promote the performance of rarely-performed plays from the English Renaissance – it was, perhaps, an unusual choice for the series: less Read Not Dead, more Said Not Dead; frequently performed but not spoken in this way since the seventeenth-century. Like other Read Not Dead shows, this was a staged reading in which the actors had their scripts with them on stage.

Professor David Crystal (who played the part of the Doctor) has championed OP for the last decade, arguing that it illuminates puns which may otherwise have been obscured and creates new assonances and rhythms which give lines a fresh impact. In the programme notes, much was made of how OP performance reintroduces lost rhymes such as the final couplet: ‘So thanks to all at once, and each to one,/Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone’ (5.11.40-1) where ‘one’ sounds like ‘own’. The Witches, the play’s great purveyors of rhyme, benefited most in this regard. So, ‘babe’ (4.1.30) sounded like ‘bab’ and rhymed with ‘drab’ (4.1.31) and most noticeably of all, ‘heath’ (1.1.6) sounded like ‘heth’ and rhymed with Macbeth. The heth/Macbeth rhyme certainly has much to recommend it and chimes well with many of other couplets, but there’s something attractive too about the slight discordancy to the modern half-rhyme. I wonder, despite the overflow of positive feeling towards OP, whether the original is always better (and, relatedly, whether we can be sure that what we are hearing is the original).

The interesting post-show discussion focused largely on how OP could clarify difficulties and ambiguities in the text, but this might not always be the case. For instance, OP sometimes requires the addition of an extra syllable, such as when words end with –ion like ‘construction’. This might render verse metrically regular which could, in modern pronunciation, sound irregular, but it might also do the opposite. So, Duncan’s famous line ‘There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face’ is not strictly iambic in OP. At times, then, OP might offer a tidier and tighter auditory experience, but this is not necessarily always the case.

Listening to OP is a strange experience and I felt myself moving through several different thoughts. I was tempted to say that not much actually changed since most of the pronunciation differences have little direct effect on the way a scene worked, but I was also alert to how strange it felt to hear familiar lines spoken differently. I don’t know whether I listened more attentively, but I listened differently, as if experiencing the play for the first time, wondering whether some new surprise would be thrown up by the pronunciation changes. I felt, then, like this was something unusual and my mind was always aware of the distinctions between the modern and the early modern: thus, I found the OP rendition of Banquo’s brilliant question ‘Or have we eaten on the insane root/That takes the raison prisoner?’ unduly amusing.

Many, of course, will have had a different experience. Mostly, audience members seemed to attest to finding the play newly comprehensible. In the Q&A session one non-native English speaker in the audience said she understood every line for the first time and Daiva Dominyka, a Lithuanian actress who played one of the Witches, said that OP was such a revelatory experience that now, for her, no other will do. I can’t quite share that conviction, but, certainly, I saw things differently and interestingly, because of this production. Pronunciation changes illuminated local detail in ways that I would not otherwise have imagined. There are probably lots of small examples I could have picked out – for instance, Macbeth wonders whether his ‘hate’ (rather than ‘heat’) oppressed brain is conjuring an imaginary dagger – but I will focus on three examples.

The most interesting pun, was on ‘fair’ and ‘fear’. According to David Crystal’s website, ‘fear’ had two pronunciations: the standard modern pronunciation being one, and ‘fair’ being the other. Mostly, the actors seemed to pronounce it in a way which accords with the modern standard, but during one speech, Macbeth said ‘fair’. This seems especially significant in a play determined to complicate the relationship between ‘fair’ and ‘foul’. I wonder, then, if the punning could be extended throughout the production. Would Banquo’s lines, ‘Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear/Things that do sound so fair?’ (1.3.49-50) be fascinatingly illuminated, or merely muddled, by this punning? Perhaps this is a possibility the cast already experimented with and chose to discard, but, for sure, an awareness of the possibility of a ‘fair/fear’ pun can have interesting ramifications for the play.

Elsewhere, I found that OP had an earthy quality not usually heard in modern RP productions. This was especially evident when Macduff finds out about the death of his wife. Here, ‘my’ became ‘me’ in phrases such as ‘me wife killed too?’ (4.3.214) and this allowed for a heart-felt expressiveness which the more precise RP does not always successfully transmit. Non-RP accents are often used for comic effect in modern productions, but OP helps to show the value of regional accents in the performance of tragic scenes (if any proof were needed). In this instance, Macduff sounded a bit Northern (to my, not necessarily especially well-tuned, Northern ear). At other times there seems to be a bit of Irish, but really, as David Crystal pointed out, what we heard was a variety of OP accents. Indeed, Ben Crystal assembled an international cast for just this purpose.

Plays, of course, consist of more than just language and this was a production which, like other Sam Wanamaker shows, made clever use of the balcony. Most notable of all was the decision to stage the post-killing discussion between Malcolm and Donalbain in the style of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, so that two conversations took place simultaneously. Here, Malcolm and Donalbain conspired on the stage while, on the balcony, Macbeth discussed the death of Duncan with Lennox, Ross, Banquo and Lady Macbeth. The effect was a carefully orchestrated chaos in which few words were distinct and it was impossible to follow both conversations. The theatre felt alive with the danger and panic of the situation and yet, ironically for a performance which did so much to promote the value of original pronunciation, this intelligent and successful staging was achieved by making language indecipherable.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse 2

Eoin Price

Author: Eoin Price

Eoin Price is Tutor in Renaissance Literature at Swansea University. He recently completed a PhD on public drama and political privacy in Renaissance England at The Shakespeare Institute. He has written for the Map of Early Modern London, The Year's Work in English Studies and Literature Compass, regularly reviews books and theatre for a range of journals, serves as the UK Theatre Review Editor for the Marlowe Society of America Newsletter and blogs about Renaissance drama at asidenotes.wordpress.com. You can follow Eoin on Twitter @eoin_price

COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this, Eoin. I’m really looking forward to hearing reactions, as there has been so little informed discussion of the impact (as opposed to the technique) of OP. There are indeed so many places where the OP provides options that actors and directors have to decide about. As you say, OP offers possibilities which have to be decided about, and if they work for the better, fine. There was so much accent variation at the time (as there is today) that there are an indefinite number of directions that a company can follow. The ‘-tion’ point you make is an example,. It isn’t that there was always an extra syllable. The crucial point is that such endings were pronounced ‘see-on’, and whether that final ‘on’ was given a stress or not depended on such things as its place in the verse line. So the line you mention could actually be given a regular reading. But this is precisely the sort of fascinating discussion that OP gives rise to.

    • Eoin Price
      • byEoin Price
      • on23 July 2014

      Thanks David, for your response. As I’ve said above, I’m finding it fascinating thinking about these different possibilities and choices. It’s an extremely interesting experience for an audience member and I look forward to seeing/hearing more from OP in the future, so that these kinds of discussions can continue.

    • bywilliam sutton
    • on23 July 2014

    Hi Eoin, Thanks for attending and I enjoyed your review of the show. Unfortunately those Banquo fair/foul lines were cut. And as far the metrical anomaly of the sien endings I’ve thought about that since first encountering them. During rehearsal for the OP songs and sonnets evening I verse nursed the nuts and bolts of each cast member’s sonnet. I found it is entirely possible to treat the ‘sien’ (passion fashion action addition etc) endings as a gliding diphthong rather than as clearly syllabic. Taking sonnet 20 (all feminine lines) as an example. We know the lines can be either 10 or 11 syllables long as regards the form. Therefore to shoe-horn in 12 is perversely contrary to the form and offensive to the ear. Seeing as their outward purpose was mellifluity one assumes (I know) the writer played with this tiny jolt to the ear’s hearing.

    FYI for the readers of the review it was Macduff Macbeth Ross and Lennox who started in the balcony with Lady M Banquo Fleance Malcolm and Donalbain on the deck. Then Ross moved down to the deck and Banquo moved up to the balcony. The ‘raison’ being to make sense of the two ‘Look to the lady’ lines by Macduff and Banquo when Lady M faints on the deck seperated in the folio text by 8 lines. The simultaneous conversations made them concurrent. BTW all information that is missed by the indecipherability of that moment is repeated in the next scene so little or no exposition is lost.

    I also agree we can never know if it is the ‘original’ accent. And I think that trying to provide some historical revisionist rendering of how they ‘must’ have sounded is pointless. However to render 16 actors of disparate accent into a cohesive 90% similar accent within an OP sound system is laudable. And as you noted it does innovatively illuminate the text.

    And all of us actors on that stage were aware of the danger of the overtly Irish (lip rounding the vowels) or Northern (flattening the vowels) soundings and doing our damndest to stay within the sound system given to us. And for only the second cast reading of the entire play together in that accent with the text as cut we achieved the result you reviewed. Many Thanks William.

    • Eoin Price
      • byEoin Price
      • on23 July 2014

      Hi William! Thanks for your informative response. As you may be able to tell, Original Pronunciation is new to me too (I couldn’t make the previous events) so I’m very much learning as I go along (partly thanks to the kinds of clarification and discussion you and David have offered in these comments. Thanks, too, for the staging correction: memory failed me!

      One thing I was conscious of (and may not have expressed clearly enough in the review) was that, although the acoustics are excellent in the SWP I wasn’t always clear what precise sounds I was hearing (e.g. did I hear a ‘sien’ or did I imagine it?) and it’s difficult to record that from memory. Hopefully I didn’t do too bad a job!

      As for the accents – I thought the cast did a great job here. I couldn’t have guessed the native accent of each actor. Sometimes, as you say, it sounds a bit Irish, sometimes Northern (or whatever). That may be in the ear of the beholder though; what sounded Northern to me may not have to someone else (David, can clarify this, I’m sure).

      Thanks again,

      Eoin

  2. Eoin Price
    • byEoin Price
    • on23 July 2014

    Hi William! Thanks for your informative response. As you may be able to tell, Original Pronunciation is new to me too (I couldn’t make the previous events) so I’m very much learning as I go along (partly thanks to the kinds of clarification and discussion you and David have offered in these comments. Thanks, too, for the staging correction: memory failed me!

    One thing I was conscious of (and may not have expressed clearly enough in the review) was that, although the acoustics are excellent in the SWP I wasn’t always clear what precise sounds I was hearing (e.g. did I hear a ‘sien’ or did I imagine it?) and it’s difficult to record that from memory. Hopefully I didn’t do too bad a job!

    As for the accents – I thought the cast did a great job here. I couldn’t have guessed the native accent of each actor. Sometimes, as you say, it sounds a bit Irish, sometimes Northern (or whatever). That may be in the ear of the beholder though; what sounded Northern to me may not have to someone else (David, can clarify this, I’m sure).

    Thanks again,

    Eoin

    • byJohn Cowan
    • on23 July 2014

    Shakespeare actually does pun on reason in another play, namely Henry IV Part I II:iv, where Falstaff says “Give you a reason on compulsion? If reasons were as plentiful as blackberries, I would give no man a reason upon compulsion, I.” The OP audience is meant to hear “If raisins were as plentiful as blackberries” as well.

    Of course, productions outside the UK, particularly in the U.S., may not be OP but they are not RP either. We Yanks are quite accustomed to Shakespearean tragedy in an American accent.

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