Shakespeare’s Word Music

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This is a big season for Mariah Gale. She adds Juliet to her illustrious list of Shakespearian heroines she has played at Stratford. I had the pleasure of chairing a question and answer session with her the other day for a group of undergraduates from the University of Tennessee and Georgetown University. It is good to hear Mariah reflect on what she does and how she does it.

In the post-performance discussion the group had shared before she arrived we had hit upon her ability to be still as a performer. She does not rush headlong into a long speech, she simply starts at the beginning and allows it to unfold, like concentric circles made by a pebble in a deep pool. The text is where she likes to start and end as an actress. This is a rigorous and austere position and leads to a stripping away of all extraneous psychological baggage that an actor may bring to a part. I think the best actors live and breathe this ‘textual austerity’ in spades: Judi Dench, Harriet Walter, Jane Lapotaire, the list could go on, but wouldn’t be overly long. It requires an openness on the part of the player to the sensitive and sensual nuances of word and breath, and the feelings these might instil in both themselves and their audience. Mariah spoke quite freely of the ‘music’ of Shakespeare’s language, the beauty of it. These are not words close to the lips of contemporary performers, and I was curious to know more.

She spoke of how she tries regularly to meet up with text expert (might ‘texpert’ become a new word?), John Barton. As someone who has lived with Shakespeare’s words nearly all his life he is able to combine his own definite views of the plays with a playful and passionate interest in wanting actors to make Shakespeare’s language their own. I had been struck by Mariah’s delivery of Juliet’s great speech beginning, ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds’ (3.2.). In production, this speech can start the second half (as it did with Alexandra Gilbreath in Michael Boyd’s 2000 R.S.C. production). To place it immediately after the interval means the actor must arrest us, throw it at us, invite us to board the departing chariot. We might still be settling down, finishing our ice-creams, laughing after the gins and tonics. In the current production, the speech is part of a longish first half. Mariah speaks the first lines with calm assurance. Phaëton, who rashly wanted to drive the sun’s chariot and streaked across the sky (giving us the Milky Way), is, after all, galloping a long way off. We don’t have to see the horses; we hear them in the language, ‘gallop apace’, ‘gallop apace,’ ‘gallop apace.’ Mariah’s Juliet finds something sacred and internally profound in the image. Furthermore, she does not make the whole thirty-one lined speech into one pseudo-sexual climax, but finds within it a succession of moments, held in tension, which flow on from one another.

The music and its meaning are how she finds her way through Shakespeare. But not every director is interested in this approach. I happen to find it compelling, and enjoy keeping my Shakespearian ear to the ground so that I might hear the horses gallop and the music strike.

Mariah Gale will be taking part in this year’s Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival on Sunday 25 July in ‘Candles in the Wind’ (co-presented by Amnesty International), here at The Shakespeare Centre at 7.30pm (along with Richard Griffiths, Greg Hicks, and Jane Lapotaire). (01789) 204016. Don’t miss our conference on Shakespeare’s Women 11-12 September, or our exhibition on the same theme at The Shakespeare Centre until October.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • http://bloggingshakespeare.com Paul Edmondson

    Yes, it's a fine balance between word and movement, between silence and action.

  • http://bloggingshakespeare.com Paul Edmondson

    Yes, it's a fine balance between word and movement, between silence and action.

  • melissaleon

    I am looking forward to seeing Mariah perform, I have heard such great things. I'm gonna try to see it on Tuesday.

    I do love when actors can embrace the silence and pauses, it makes such a big impact on the audience. I always find it special when actors can take in the silence between words and phrases and create a specific environment for the viewer.

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