Kenneth Branagh on Verse Speaking in Shakespeare Plays

Kenneth Branagh is to be knighted today! In celebration, we are posting an excerpt of Actors Talk About Shakespeare by Mary Z. Maher on our blog. Maher spoke with Branagh about acting and Shakespeare.

In a conversation about actors memorizing lines, Kenneth Branagh said that he learned the role of Richard III while playing Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: “I can’t think of anyone on that set who didn’t have to hear me run my lines—from Harry Potter on upwards.” Shortly after acting that flamboyant loony, he performed Richard III onstage. Branagh is also the film director who created the twenty-first-century blueprint for putting Shakespeare onto film, having directed a half-dozen pictures in all.

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One of the continuing issues in acting Shakespeare is verse speaking. Everyone has theories, some voice coaches having honed the endeavor into complicated interlocking rules. Branagh has had a broad range of experience with both stage and film actors, and he has reached his own conclusions:

I resist fixing precepts about subjects like this. You develop what you can and you do what you can in any given situation. I think it is dangerous to declare that there is a set way of speaking the verse. However, there has to be a very sophisticated understanding of the line underlying the execution of it in performance. We are dealing with a language that is now over four hundred years old and which has particular challenges in its delivery and in what is required to understand it and then to convey that in performance. Once one starts to break it up and talk about verse speaking, when the ultimate aim is a delicate combination of truth and reality, one risks disintegrating something that should be integrated.

You cannot have the feeling that technical ability is separate. Discussing verse speaking by observing line endings—that is a tool on the way to achieving the proper marriage of language and characterization. The greatest exponents of verse speaking in Shakespearean acting have always been people with a perfect understanding of the rules of classical acting—people like Jacobi, Dench, McKellen—and they are also in a position to bend them.

Jacobi once said to me, “I always play fast and loose with the punctuation because we cannot be sure if it is correct on the page, and so the notion of a very dictatorial way of speaking the verse line does assume that we have a perfect playhouse copy of what’s intended. We know for certain that is not the case, so we can, in rehearsal, debate the merits of individual cases.”

Branagh hints that it is not folly to know what a phrase means ahead of one’s performance, but that it might be foolish to plan how it will come out of one’s mouth. The actor needs to understand (in the sense of fully comprehending) what he is about to say and, of course, his reasons for saying that dialogue. However, the actual speed, pitch, and quality of the vocal sounds get tempered by what his fellow actors feed him onstage:

Even the most scrupulously honest performance of certain lines, filled with the greatest integrity, cannot be totally controlled. The true issue is—is there an exciting tension in the theater between the actors? If Shakespeare has placed a wayward line in the middle of a highly charged atmosphere in order to change the direction and the tone of the scene, then the actors need to know that the goal is to allow the audience to sufficiently switch temperatures when the line comes up.

Adrian Noble told me about Gielgud doing Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech at a memorial service. He said Gielgud broke every single rule of verse speaking in that presentation, and he was absolutely brilliant. I think that supports the idea that in the hands of the very, very expert few, the capacity to make it mean exists without a set of hidebound rules.

Actors Talk About Shakespeare features personal interviews with a stellar collection of prominent American, Canadian, and British performers of Shakespeare onstage, including Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach, Zoe Caldwell, Martha Henry, William Hutt, Tony Church, Nicholas Pennell, and Geoff Hutchings. In conversations equivalent to a magician telling his secrets, Mary Z. Maher uncovers the actors’ process. The book speaks to theater patrons, to actors both novice and experienced, and to educators who teach Shakespeare. Each chapter profiles a career in context, using the actor’s words along with supporting research material. The result is a treasury of talents, tactics, and tales from veteran performers who return often to Shakespeare from careers in film and television.

Kevin Kline on Acting

For Kevin Kline’s birthday, we are posting an excerpt from Mary Z. Maher’s Actors Talk About Shakespeare (Limelight Editions). Maher interviewed the actor about his craft and about Shakespeare. For the full discussion with Kline, the book is available wherever books are sold, as well as in e-book format.

His function as an actor is not to fulfill expectations but to serve the play. The study of acting is a lifelong process. He loves to explore the craft, to talk about acting and all its allied skills: “I like variety,” is how he explains it. “You always try not to repeat yourself, but at the same time you can’t not do something just because you’ve done it before. Otherwise, you’ll end up not walking or talking.”

The key to Kline’s acting philosophy is the idea of the actor taking authorship: the actor creates his own role and the gestures and voices that flesh it out. In stage practice, the director is often a Svengali-like creature who has an “idea” of the character in his head; actors can be treated as meat on a meat hook that must do as the director says. Kline resists this notion and insists that the actor has a brain and uses his own resources in creating a character:

The author of the play is Shakespeare, but the actor has to own the character he is playing. Olivier aptly said you marry yourself to the character.

I can always tell when comic business has been imposed on actors as opposed to having been found in rehearsal. There’s an aura, this kind of visible odor if they’re not in tune with themselves when they are performing somebody else’s idea. Now, if the idea resonates, then it’s yours, you are now the author. If it doesn’t, it will always look or feel alien. 

You can steal from other actors? Of course. We’ve been stealing from the generations that have preceded us, especially when you play a classic part. You’ve confiscated it, appropriated it. If a line reading or piece of business is merely borrowed, that’s no good. You must make it yours. Occasionally you watch an actor and you think, there’s something wrong here. He’s imitating. He’s not playing from his own engine—something has been grafted onto this “machine” as Hamlet calls it.

I always get shivers when an actor comes in to audition and says, “Oh, I really want to play Macbeth. I have an idea about how to play him.”

Why bother? What’s the adventure? Where’s the discovery?

Kline emphasizes that ownership is a concept that has boundaries and can be mastered over time, as an acting career matures:

I think the best directors give an actor a note [a suggestion] with the implied proviso, “If this resonates for you.” If it doesn’t, then you must discard it. Otherwise, it will look like glop suddenly, which will take the actor and then the audience out of the flow.

Every actor has a different threshold. You say to yourself, am I really happy doing this work or am I just making a director happy? That takes a lifetime to find out.

I’ll give an idea a try. If it doesn’t work after a while, then I’m going to campaign for “Please, can we find another way—I’m giving up too much here and I’m losing something vital.” It’s a very interesting juncture in any area of work. To know when you’ve compromised yourself is a useful kind of self-knowledge.

Occasionally directors do take on the role of a marriage counselor. I usually prefer to work out our differences on our own, keeping it private and personal.

From ownership evolves responsibility. If an actor has been responsible for the generation of his character, then he will enter the rehearsal process with a positive, collaborative energy. There will be an “instinctive commitment where the acting will come alive in a much richer way.” Kline is not interested in the actor who comes into rehearsal and thinks, “I’ll simply do what the director tells me, collect my paycheck, and be on my way once the show is over.” A quality production depends on group effort, the process of discovery freely entered into: “I want to work with actors who have a personal connection to the production and to the role and to the theater—someone with a deeper purpose.”

 

Actors Talk About Shakespeare features personal interviews with a stellar collection of prominent American, Canadian, and British performers of Shakespeare onstage, including Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach, Zoe Caldwell, Martha Henry, William Hutt, Tony Church, Nicholas Pennell, and Geoff Hutchings. In conversations equivalent to a magician telling his secrets, Mary Z. Maher uncovers the actors’ process. The book speaks to theater patrons, to actors both novice and experienced, and to educators who teach Shakespeare. Each chapter profiles a career in context, using the actor’s words along with supporting research material. The result is a treasury of talents, tactics, and tales from veteran performers who return often to Shakespeare from careers in film and television.

Shakespeare’s Birthday: A Celebration of a Masterful Playwright

Guest Blogger: Mary Z. Maher is the author of Actors Talk About Shakespeare.

I write interview books about classical actors who perform Shakespeare.  Although there are dozens of joys in this line of work, there are also some occasional interview surprises. While talking with Kevin Kline about playing Falstaff, his cell phone rang and an intense conversation followed.  Afterwards, he quietly explained that he and his wife, Phoebe Cates Kline, had taken turns checking their child’s insulin levels in the middle of the night for years.  Kline then lifted his T-shirt and showed a plastic device attached to his chest that regulated insulin.  He said, “If I’m going to have to persuade my child into wearing a thing like that, I’d better darn well know how it feels.”  Wow, I thought.  That’s a step or two beyond method acting!  The Klines have for years dedicated their work and their considerable renown to research in juvenile diabetes.

Kenneth Branagh has a marvelous administrator who told me I could have exactly one hour with Mr. Branagh, as she delivered him to the hotel conference room in London where I would be interviewing him.  He was very busy that day.  Luckily, he moved into the interview mode quickly, not exactly imitating the tiger, but doing a splendid version of a university professor, complete with flowing Shavian sentences and gargantuan gestures as he paced and circled the room.  At the end of 60 minutes, I told him with deep regret that his time was up.  He looked at me rather startled and said, “WELL.  I’ll just go and have a pee, and then you can have all the time you want.”  He gave me a full three hours, completely in character and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Headed toward an interview in my very first book in the 1980s, I’d arranged to meet Ben Kingsley in the lobby of the Lyric Hammersmith, because we both assumed that it would be quiet and deserted on a Saturday morning.  Just as we sat down, a troupe of roughly 100 youngsters paraded into the theater, complete with instruments and shouting, ready for their morning workshop in musical theater.  My heart fell, but Sir Ben was unflappable.  He arranged the menu as a sound barrier around my tape recorder and then gave me an interview so complete I had only to add the punctuation when I wrote it into a chapter.  I was later told by a friend that he’d delivered that material at RSC workshops the summer he played Hamlet there, and she was so hoping that someone had recorded it for posterity.

Well, I did.  And I continue to do this in Actors Talk about Shakespeare, a book which reveals the actors’ process in preparing to perform Shakespeare.  The interviews are rich, mercurial, and quixotic but very revealing of the sparks of humanity that fuel that acting genius.

Actors Talk About Shakespeare

Bravo, Shakespeare. Even today, his plays challenge celebrated actors to hone their skills and electrify audiences. Imagine the process actors undergo to recreate these spellbinding roles on stage. In an interview with the author, Kevin Kline declared that playing Shakespeare “uses a different muscle group in your head.”

Actors Talk About Shakespeare features personal interviews with a stellar collection of prominent American, Canadian, and British performers of Shakespeare onstage, including Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach, Zoe Caldwell, Martha Henry, William Hutt, Tony Church, Nicholas Pennell, and Geoff Hutchings. In conversations equivalent to a magician telling his secrets, Mary Z. Maher uncovers the actors’ process. The book speaks to theater patrons, to actors both novice and experienced, and to educators who teach Shakespeare. Each chapter profiles a career in context, using the actor’s words along with supporting research material. The result is a treasury of talents, tactics, and tales from veteran performers who return often to Shakespeare from careers in film and television.