The Bard on the Hill

There’s this geezer on the hill last night with his dog and he’s shouting out, “Ons moar un tuh thuh braych”. An actor. Got to be. We get a lot of them on the hill. And more often than not I can’t understand a word they say. But this one I can understand. Us moles have a collective memory that goes back hundreds of years, and I swear our old dads would’ve understood everything he said.

And that is what Ben Crystal and his drama company is all about: how might they present Shakespeare’s works for the next generation of Bard-lovers, and whether exploring the kind of space he wrote for (like our modern Globe) helps; or indeed, speaking his works how they might have sounded four hundred years ago. Is that possible? It is if your dad is David Crystal, writer, editor, lecturer, broadcaster, writer of over a hundred books on language and almost certainly the world’s expert on the history and quirks of the English language.

“At school in Wales I developed a healthy dislike of Shakespeare in the classroom, but when I started acting it, it all made sense. At home I remember being surrounded by books in every room, and a playful fascination with words: we were always punning with language, as Dad was on the listen-out for the latest turn of phrase. He used to joke in his lectures that all four of his children were his data, so he was researching data as much as raising children. I suppose that was where the seed of the love of language was sown. I was raised in word, and the spoken word, at that.”

Ben went on to study English and Linguistics at Lancaster University, but found plenty of time for acting. He found that he preferred expressing his love of language not through reading or academia, but through the theatre. He went straight from university to study at Drama Studio in London. Before long he and his father had collaborated on what became a seminal work, Shakespeare’s Words. Ben’s first solo book was Shakespeare on Toast – Getting a Taste for the Bard. Then in 2010 Passion in Practice began. But before that came Complicité.

“When I was younger, I remember going to see a Shakespeare play with my father and at the interval asking, ‘That was great, but why aren’t they moving?’ Over the last fifty years audiences had become less happy with the beautifully enunciated, declamatory style of speaking Shakespeare. At the same time physical theatre was getting more popular over here, and one of the reasons for that was Complicité, a group of actors who had trained at Lecoq in Paris. They focused on the story that your body tells, as much as the story that the voice tells. There was a lot of clown work and a beautiful, very clear discipline, a ‘complicité’ between the actors.”

Ben spent as much time as he could with Complicité, developing his skills and slowly realising that the way they worked was very like the way Shakespeare’s company of actors once worked: “Shakespeare’s actors spent twenty years together, performing 340 days a year. They would start aged about twelve or so, and most spent the rest of their working lives with the same company. No actor in Shakespeare’s company would ever have had a full copy of the play. No one would have read the play from start to finish. They used cue-scripts. If you were playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, paper was expensive and writing out the play too time-consuming.

And you were dead halfway through the play so you didn’t need the whole thing. So you wrote out your cues of when to speak, and your lines, wrapped the paper round a stick and carried around your roll (rôle) with you. You hadn’t read the whole play, so you didn’t know what the other actors were going to say; there was no time to rehearse properly, so you were listening, and keenly. And you were improvising the staging and having to think very quickly – which made it different every night.”

Passion in Practice has proved that this style of rehearsal can work today. In 2015, and again in 2016, they performed Pericles: Recomposed, first with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Stockholm, and then at the Savannah Music Festival. Each time a different company of actors met and three days later performed the play in original pronunciation, off-the-book, with a chamber symphony orchestra live-scoring the music (which was Max Richter’s reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Recomposed). And they have now used this method all over the world.

But what about the original pronunciation? How can they be sure they’ve got it right? “Dad’s research takes us to about 90 per cent right. There are three sorts of evidence. First, rhymes. Two-thirds of the 154 sonnets don’t rhyme in most modern English accents, so this means that either Shakespeare was a very bad poet or our pronunciation has changed. ‘If this be error and upon me proved / I never writ, nor no man ever loved’ has to be either ‘prooved and looved’ or ‘pruhved and luved’. Second, they used to spell much more as they used to speak, so the spellings give us clues. And third, there were contemporary linguists like the playwright Ben Jonson who wrote lists of how the words were pronounced.”

Ben travels the world acting, teaching, producing, giving workshops. And he is passionate about what he does. He is convinced that we are letting young people down in our schools. He would love to change the way that Shakespeare is taught, to give young people the possibility of caring for and loving Shakespeare, instead of dismissing him as irrelevant.

Wherever he goes, Primrose Hill stays close to his heart. “On 1 August 2001 I walked across Regent’s Park with my Mum and over Primrose Hill for the first time. I can see it now. The Queen’s on the left. The yellow of the pet shop. The blue of the bookshop. The pink of the deli. It was like stepping into another time and another world. But it seems that gone are the times of the Bohemian art folk. They were here. Some still are. I was probably one of the last to come and I’m still clinging on. The place has changed so much. But wherever you look, and in each generation, it is the sense of community that keeps places alive. I realise that what doesn’t change dies, but I hope that the heart of this community doesn’t change. I’ve never taken Primrose Hill for granted. Every time I walk across the bridge, I feel a weight dropping away. It’s a magical place. No question

”And don’t forget that Shakespeare wrote about animals: horses, hawks and hounds for the lords and ladies, and the slithery things for all that’s nasty. ‘All the spells of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats light on you.’ And he had a soft spot for us moles. When Hamlet is speaking to his dad, or at least to the ghost of his dad, he says, “Well said, Old Mole! Canst work i’th’earth so fast? A worthy pioneer.” So he must have liked us. I suppose that geezer I heard on the hill is a bit of a mole, a pioneer.

Article by The Mole on the Hill
Photo by Scott Wishart