Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

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.
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