So, that’s our question: What shakes your spear? We’ve decided to start this blog page to get our personal and collective spears shaking.
What shakes your spear is the smallest discovery on delivering 13 syllable lines, the imagery of ocean travel in a sonnet, a surprising moment in performance, an insight while studying a part, an inspiring portrayal you’ve seen, or that thing that bugs you about Shakespeare performances.
The thing that shakes my spear more than anything else (and unsurprisingly, there are quite a few shakers in my spear-quiver) is the hidden game-changer that is repeated cues. These apparently innocent, unsuspected textual landmines are only visible, and thus experienceable, when working from cued parts, like the Renaissance players who first spoke the words. Repeated cues are a major reason for my obsession with and dedication to this way of preparing and performing. Why? Because they blow my mind!
But what are they? They pretty much do what it says on the tin. There are occasions when, in a single speech or scene, a character may find themselves cued to speak the same line more than once. This requires the actor receiving the cue to react in the heart of that red hot on-stage in-performance moment, not often to decide how to handle the situation as there is frequently no time for decision-making. If they’ve managed to say all or part of their line already, and the cue comes again, how to handle that?
When I first stumbled across a cue repeat, like all of us trained in the polite turn-taking system of the post-Stanislavski rehearsal room (you do your bit and I’ll act waiting impatiently until you’ve finished) I thought it was a mistake, and set about eradicating it from the part I was working on by altering the amount of cue being given. A rough historical length for a professional actor’s cue is between two and four syllables – which could vary a cue from “my Lord” to “indeed my Lord”, and either is likely to get an actor’s attention anyway, as the word cuing them to speak is what they’re listening for.
However, repeated cues are sufficiently prevalent to be presumed deliberate and extremely exciting to experience in performance, so now I leave them to wreak whatever havoc they choose.
Repeats are truly madly deeply disconcerting to receive as an actor, as they are not part of our modern Shakespeare performance vocabulary. Nobody expects to be interrupted speaking the wonderful words of Will. The question I get asked is always: So which one is my cue? I say: All of them. You must at least attempt to say your line when you hear your cue – and if you are interrupted, you need to absorb that and make it part of the moment, because it was real, it happened.
For Renaissance actors preparing in isolation and often going on stage without any group run-through of the lines, a repeated cue would have required them to respond in that way: speak when they heard it. And playwrights of the time would have known this would happen in a first performance or run-through, so therefore I say it was deliberate, and expected to be kept in any future performance. Not smoothed out or “corrected”. It makes Shakespeare much more natural for me – that texture of interruption and frustration. We all have conversations like that, and it’s a very sophisticated feature of dialogue to get into any play – look at more recent writers still wrestling with it.
Plus, it’s a bit naughty: you know when you’re giving one and can enjoy the imminent discomfiture of your scene partner, but you can never know when one’s coming… Wicked Will, wicked!