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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Embodying Shakespeare

Last week, Royal Shakespeare Company Associate Director Owen Horsley led a workshop on Shakespeare’s history plays in conjunction with the RSC’s presentation of King and Country this season. Horsley was joined by company actors Alex Hassell and Leigh Quinn to guide participants through exercises in verse, text, and movement with the aim of building confidence in approaching classical text. We sent BAM's Humanities Intern Nora Tjossem to attend the workshop and learn more. Below, she reports on her findings.

Photo: Nora Tjossem

By Nora Tjossem

The jitters of working with the Royal Shakespeare Company evaporated when Leigh Quinn began a warmup called “Playstation.” Her distinctive golden curls bounced as she did a modified running man and propelled us through various moves: Jump up if you get a golden star! Drop to the ground and do a stationary army crawl to go under a bridge! Break into double-time running-in-place if you get a fireball!

The RSC workshop Embodying Shakespeare at Mark Morris Dance Center lasted three hours and felt like 30 minutes. Beginning with acting games (“Playstation” was augmented with other serious exercises such as “Clappy-Clappy Sametime”), actors Leigh Quinn and Alex Hassell joined forces with Associate Director Owen Horsley to lead a group of 25 through the process of approaching Shakespearean text.

The three company members are as smooth an ensemble offstage as they are on. Owen Horsley, associate director for the RSC’s King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings and a self-proclaimed geek for verse, took the helm, leading us through bits of text from each play in the Henriad—Richard II, Henry IV Part I & II, and Henry V—while Hassell and Quinn chimed in with their own advice and examples. They stressed that although the RSC is viewed as the preeminent Shakespeare company, there is no single “RSC way” of approaching text.

Paramount, however, was the emphasis given to ensemble mentality. For the first hour, we were given no text at all. Instead, Horsley directed the energy of the room as a whole, urging us to let go of the impulses that led us through the spaces as individual performers and to instead follow the forces in the room—the collective speed, spatial relationships, and focus.

He walked us through the space, literally measuring out feet to get a sense of the iambic pentameter—stepping through the room to the 10-beat line that many grade school students encountering Shakespeare learn and too easily forget when exploring a dense monologue or scene.
One, TWO, three, FOUR, five, SIX, seven, EIGHT, nine, TEN.
These steps were repeated over and over, the rhythm of a line of verse entering our bodies as we roamed the room; Hassell, Horsley, and Quinn chanting and marching right alongside us.

Then came the text, for which we were given some helpful tips:
- Take a look at the verse. Read these lines out loud with that stubborn iambic rhythm, walking as you do so. Watch for when your steps falter, and there seem to be extra syllables or misplaced stresses. These will be the spots to pay extra attention.
- Try out the vowels. Say the lines aloud using only the vowel sounds. What do you hear? Is it one long, lamenting “O” as in Lady Percy’s speech from Henry IV, Part II, begging her husband not to go to war?
- Likewise, the consonants. Perhaps there are a lot of hissing “S” sounds or clattering “K”s. What might it mean if your character is spitting out a number of consecutive consonants?
- Read only the last word of each line. What do you get from the list of these words through Richard II’s monologue—“speak; epitaphs; eyes; earth; wills...”—that could inform the rest of the text?
“Do it the fake way first, so then you can make it real,” Horsley said.

Hassell, who takes on the monolithic task of playing Prince Hal in both Henry IV, Part I & II and King Henry in the eponymous Henry V, is extraordinarily adept at lifting verse from the page and embodying it. “It’s all there in the verse,” he said. And while this could have been a flippant phrase, for the RSC it is demonstrably true. He adds no unnecessary flourish, takes on no extra weightiness in his voice, and never leans too far outward or inward in his portrayal of the roguish prince. Instead, he does the remarkable job of playing the text.

Alex Hassell in action. Photo: Stephanie Berger

As in ballet or music, the fundamentals are not to be learned once and discarded. Instead, the constant return to verse, meter, sounds, and arcs of thought and phrase all loop back into one another. In the center of our circle, Hassell worked his way through Prince Hal’s speech on his father’s deathbed, which is full of tricky twists and turns of thought midline, stomping through each line and chopping with his arms where each sentence ends. Using the full force of his body, he gave us a glimpse into how these fundamentals inform his performance around the corner at the BAM Harvey Theater through May 1.

“How do you make text the priority without holding it sacrosanct?” I asked Hassell, mid-iambic stomp through the studio.

“Well, I do think the text is sacred,” he grinned, “but lots and lots of practice.”

The next morning, as the BAM Education department led hundreds of high schoolers into the theater to see Henry V, I took my seat to watch the lights dim on Oliver Ford Davies, emerging as Chorus to introduce the play. Every shift of thought was grounded in the verse’s meter. Every character onstage was focused in relation to the others. Every revelation appeared for the first time.

“The text isn’t sacred, it’s modern,” Quinn had delightedly exclaimed.

And somehow, watching King and Country, it is both: sacred and modern, verse and prose, legendary and relatable. The RSC approaches the impossible, sublime task of being as great as the words themselves—of embodying Shakespeare.

The King and Country Cycle plays through May 1, and tickets are still available to Henry IV Parts I & II, as well as Henry V.

Nora Tjossem is BAM's Humanities Intern.

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