Interview with the Shakespeare Aloud Team at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
By Sara Marie Westh
When you visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the SBT for short, you first make your way through a twilit hallway snaking this way and that, and brimming with museum pieces relevant to Shakespeare’s life and afterlife, from performance videos over a number of portraits, to the Folio of 1623. Like the story of Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew this framing device sets the stage for your experience of the Birthplace, leaving you blinking as you emerge from the serpentine dimness into the gardens.
In these gardens – or on rainy days in the shelter of the café – you can have Shakespeare spoken to you by the SBT team of in-house actors. And while the exhibition clip of Dame Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth is absolutely stunning, there is something uniquely moving about the immediacy of acting happening in the same physical space you occupy, as phenomenology scholars will agree.
On a drizzling afternoon not so very long ago, I made my way from my snug office to the wind-swept gardens, to interview the actors huddled there in Elizabethan woollen cloaks.
Enter Players Rebecca Pratt and Louis Osborne.
Q: What is it like working in the gardens here at the SBT? You are quite literally surrounded by history here.
RP: It is lovely; it is a really nice garden and a nice place to be, especially when it is sunny. It can be a little bit awkward when the weather changes on us, but that is part of the work.
Q: Do you change passages according to the weather? Are there speeches that in your experience work better in sunlight or rain?
LO: No, I think people are generally quite contradictory: if it is really warm and sunny and you think “nice summer’s day”, they will be like “Some Macbeth, some Hamlet!” Then, when it is raining, like it is now, maybe they gravitate toward the happier plays. I think by and large they are indifferent.
RP: They ignore it, really, I think. I don’t think it really has much bearing.
Q: Have you had any people request original pronunciation?
RP: No. And that would be the answer as well: no.
Q: Do you link the pieces that you do with the buildings and gardens here?
RP: Yes. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, we place Juliet inside the house at the top window, while Romeo in the stone circle area of the garden. And for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have Helena and Demetrius moving around the environment, hiding behind things and dodging things, and such. But because we do move around a lot, the performances need to be able to pick up and relocate the stage space: we need to be able to do it anywhere. And that means that in terms of using the space as a site in itself, we cannot rely too heavily on a certain feature of the garden or the house.
Q: I know that you work in rotas, so sometimes there will be one of you, and sometimes four. That must impact on the performances as well?
RP: Yes – usually there is two or three. And then there is one when the other person goes on their break.
Q: So it would be fair to say you have to tailor your performances to accommodate this elasticity demanded by the ways the troupe on display keeps changing?
RP: Yes. We pick pieces based on what people ask for the most, and we do a lot of monologues because you can learn that on your own, in your own spare time, rather than having to arrange a rehearsal time, which can sometimes be quite tricky.
LO: Generally, we like to try to have something from every play if possible. But if it is an obscure play you would pick a monologue – normally a short monologue – so you can handle that request at any time, knowing that it will usually come at an unexpected time. The popular plays, on the other hand, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, even Much Ado About Nothing, are going to come up a lot, so we work on actual scenes, since they are constantly in demand.
Q: How did you become part of the Aloud team?
RP: I did an MA in Staging Shakespeare at Exeter University, applied for the job here, and then relocated.
LO: Similarly, I did an MA in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute here in Stratford upon Avon, and then just fell in love with Stratford, with the Shakespeare scene, so when I saw this job, I thought “that is a dream job – I would love that, if I can get it.”
Q: It looks gorgeous out here when the sun is shining, but less so in bad weather. Are you on during the winter months too, or just over summer?
LO: Generally, we go indoors as soon as it looks rainy or miserable. Normally we would be in the marble hall, but sometimes in the girls’ bedroom. But I think that summer definitely makes the job better. Partly it makes it easier for us to hold the audience; they are here, they are happy, and ask us for everything we have got, whereas when it is a bit more rainy and miserable, people will stick around for one or two performances, but they want to go inside and have some hot food and drink.
Q: Final question, since this is meant to be a quick interview: what are your favourite and least favourite passages to do?
RP: I detest the monologue I have got from Twelfth Night. “I left no ring with her”, because it does not work out of context, which makes it really confusing. And it is hard to switch on the required level of energy straight away. So that is probably my least favourite.
LO: Probably most things from Macbeth, for a similar reason: they are very, very intense, and it is hard to switch that on and perform it well. You will always be able to do it, to do the lines, but it is very different from the pieces you can jump right into. For example, I love doing the passages from Julius Caesar, because you can inhabit that role immediately, but it is really hard to get into the mentality of having just murdered a king, and being haunted by guilt. It is hard to switch that on quickly and get the audience to be with you. Normally they will follow you quite quickly and easily, but I find that Macbeth is always one of the hard ones.
RP: My favourites are the ones showing the back-and-forth between men and women: The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, because they tend to go down quite well, people find them quite funny.
LO: The Much Ado passage is without a doubt the most well-received piece on our repertoire: you can feel the audience warm to you. From line one they are all on board with you, they are all “yeah, what’s going on”. Nothing gets an audience on your side quicker than that.
Q: What is the first line of that piece?
RP: “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick; nobody marks you.” (1.1.108-9)
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.