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.

* * *

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.


Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group, the trade book division of Hal Leonard Corporations, publishes books on the performing arts under the imprints Hal Leonard Books, Backbeat Books, Amadeus Press, and Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.

Posted on November 9, 2012, in Theatre and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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