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Slickspeare: Slick, or a bit too Slick?

When did slickness become the keyword in Shakespeare (and other theatrical) reviews? Much rehearsal-room time and energy are given to drilling a smoothness, swiftness, yes a slickness into delivering Shakespeare, especially shorter lines and short line dialogue. Snappiness of pick-up and a slick connection from line to line is sought and drilled, polished, and both prized and praised. But might we be missing something in this enthusiasm for polished, gap-free connection?

I love the story Dame Judi Dench tells of working with Sir Peter Hall on Cleopatra at the National Theatre – it’s a valuable window into the rehearsal processes of the greats, and it’s great to find it’s the same as for the rest of us mortals! Dame Judi tells us: “Peter was a stickler for the verse, as one should be. He said, ‘… If you obey the caesura in the middle of the line, and somebody ends on a half-line, then you must answer exactly, so that it makes up the full line.’” As a result of this drive to complete the metrical line, during the rehearsal of one sequence, “Peter was there at the lectern hammering out he beat to get it right. We were the whole morning doing it, and at the end we finally came to the bit about ‘our royal lady’s dead’, and there was a pause, and Peter said, ‘Thank Christ!’”

Now, I’m a big fan of cue-bite (coming in sharp on your cue), and pace in delivery – of course I am, ploddy or pausy delivery is the end! But I also want poetry and music in my Shakespeare – and I’ll take that over polished slickness. Also, I want human moments to appear, and humans do not always come in slap on cue. Sometimes you need a moment to locate the right word, or let what has just been said hit you and provoke your next words – and that’s in real-world conversation. I have a strong suspicion, after years of performing from cues only, and watching others do the same, that Master Will might not have expected the drilled level of perfection that we seem to demand of his text – I’m not convinced that’s how he expected it to be delivered.

As you will know if you are familiar with our cue-based, no group rehearsal performances, Renaissance players did not rehearse together under a director as we expect to do today. They prepared alone, drilling their own lines and cues. They would have seen if they delivered a short line, or potentially had a short line being a speech, suggesting that they were picking up on the previous speaker’s unfinished meter. However, they did not drill for connected slickness, as we are frequently required to do.

It has been suggested to me that Renaissance actors were counting each other’s meter while listening for their cue. I think this is highly unlikely. There is just too much going on in the high-stakes on-stage performance environment for there to be brain cells available to count and calculate meter – no matter how excellent your mental maths are.

It is possible, when learning your part from cues, to build it into your own preparation that certain cues need to be bitten harder, but it’s not easy. There is inevitably, no matter how hard to listen, or drill, or prepare, a satellite delay. You’re listening for your cue, you think you hear it; you have to decide if you did hear it, and if you did, then you need to remember what you say next (no matter how well you drilled this, it takes time to recall), then it has to get to your mouth and come out in sound. That is a human response time – you can minimise it in your preparation, but it will still happen, And sometimes, what you’ve heard can catch you out emotionally, you may need to take it in, even for seconds, before you are prepared to speak. That’s normal, human reaction.

And Will knew it. He was not only a human, he was also an actor – he knew what happened in the mind of an actor on stage, acting under cue-based circumstances and without an extended, detailed group rehearsal process before performance. Natural gaps, breaths and pauses were expected, almost encouraged by this approach. Maybe we’re missing something – human moments where the actor and the audience can connect, even for micro-seconds.

So I suspect, and I suggest, that slickness is not the thing to aim for in delivering Shakespeare. I’m not advocating pausiness (Will forbid!) but human processing time.

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