April 6th, 2012

Changes In Acting Style

It happened in my lifetime; we went from Shakespeare as recitation to Shakespeare as conversation. I've been reading Coriolanus- and I wanted to get an inkling of how Olivier did it. No-one filmed him (shame) but I managed to find a little audio clip of him speaking the "I banish you" speech. It wouldn't be done this way now. It's all, "listen to me articulate, groove to my inflections, you thought I was going to shout there, but I dropped my voice instead". It presumes an audience that already knows the text- and it treats the big speech as if it were an aria. The star steps into the spotlight, time slows down, the other actors give him space to perform. It's profoundly anti-naturalistic.

I don't know exactly how Shakespeare's actors worked, but I'm sure it wasn't like this. The plays are big, wordy texts, designed to be performed in the open air, with an audience that wasn't going to catch every word and wasn't afraid to heckle. If you took them at Olivier's pace they'd last forever- which is why, when he came to film Hamlet he had to cut it by two thirds. 

The old actors held the text at arm's length- like Yorick's skull- and turned it to catch the light. Today's actors try to get inside it. They speak fast, they are less musical and sometimes they slight the poetry. There is certainly a loss. No modern actor can be the kind of godlike Shakespearean star Olivier was; the new style prohibits it, but the gains are all in the direction of naturalism, authenticity, drama. Shakespeare was writing entertainment (Coriolanus is all crowd scenes, battles and  nose to nose confrontation) he didn't think of himself as the Bard- and I'll swear he wrote the way he did- words, words, words- because he expected his actors to gabble.


Coriolanus is a thin play. Faced with the problem of making a tragic hero out of a stupid bully-boy, Shakespeare loads the dice against his man's antagonists by rendering them as characterless stereotypes of mean-spiritedness (the tribunes, Aufidius) and sheeplike inconstancy (the citizens). In his best plays, Shakespeare makes sure even the walk-on parts are worth the attention of a good actor. In Coriolanus most of the cast are cyphers. 

If Macbeth has too much imagination for politics, Coriolanus has too little. The one is soused in poetry and inwardness, the other never saw a butterfly he didn't want to mammock. This is a fast play, with no soliliquies to hold up the action.  We open on an uprising, proceed to a war and then straight into an election. I've never seen it acted, but I can imagine it's a thrill ride. 

What price honour if your fixation on it turns you into that least honoured thing- a traitor? What price patriotism when you hate the people who "are the city"? What price family values when they produce such brutes?  For all its action-packed swiftness, Coriolanus is a relentlessly bleak play.  Is there anything good to be said about these people, their institutions, their values?