Ben Crystal is what you’d call a ‘true believer’. His god and king is Shakespeare. His life’s work: to topple the stagnant orthodoxy built up around the Bard and recast our understanding of how his plays should be read and performed.
We meet at a boisterous pub in north London with his gorgeous dog Edie in tow, who spends most of the evening weaving in and out of the table legs and drawing coos from the regulars. The previous weekend I’d watched Ben’s Shakespeare Ensemble perform Macbeth in original pronunciation (OP), a production pulled together in 24 hours with actors hand-picked for their love of (Ben says “geekiness for”) traditional practices. That day I’d also bought and read his short guide to the Scottish Play- one in a series entitled ‘Springboard Shakespeare’.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Ben’s activity. To date, he has authored or co-authored nine books, produced a sell-out run of OP events in the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at the Globe with his production company, ‘Passion in Practice’, and masterminded a series of schools workshops with his education company ‘Shakespeare on Toast’.
I wanted to know more about this most barmy of Bardolators. He plays many parts: actor, author, producer, and educationalist, but the purpose of all this frenetic activity was a mystery to me. Over a couple of pints of Camden Pale Ale, I gradually found out.
Interestingly, Ben was not a Shakespeare fanatic from the womb- despite the fact that his dad, David Crystal, is one of the world’s foremost English linguists and a champion of Shakespeare in original pronunciation (OP). “I hated it in school,” he admits. In fact, Ben says one of the reasons he wrote the ‘Springboard Shakespeare’ series was to “give a gift back to my past self” because he wished he’d had something similar to interest him in the Bard when he was young.
Everything changed after he graduated acting school and got his first taste of performing Shakespeare, as Ariel in The Tempest. He describes it as a road to Damascus moment. “It just made sense- I was blind and then I could see!” he says.
Since then, he’s been on a journey to create Shakespeare that is both meaningful to him and today’s audiences through producing, writing, and teaching.
“There are a number of different experiments I’m finding myself exploring,” he says. “One of them is the hard metrical work and text work [that we find in the ‘Springboard Shakespeare’ series]. Then equally I want to create Shakespeare that is simple, that is exciting, that isn’t concept driven or style driven or any of that”.
Yes, it’s “fucking important”, as he says, to bring Shakespeare to new audiences using the allure of celebrities and modern stagecraft. But Ben also feels a responsibility to be provocative and try new ideas. “Whilst all that is out there, it’s important for me as a practitioner to imagine what I would want as an audience if I don’t want to go and see that type of Shakespeare and I want to see something a bit more stripped back”.
By ‘stripped back’, Ben’s talking about going all the way to the roots of Shakespeare, to how it would have been performed in the Elizabethan period. At the heart of this is getting actors and audiences alike to appreciate Shakespeare’s metre and the subtle interplay between prose, verse, and rhyming verse within each play.
So in one sense, he’s a dissident dramaturge- fighting back against the glamorisation of modern productions and the dumbing down of Shakespeare in education. In another, he’s a torchbearer for the old, old, old school.
I ask if the two aren’t mutually exclusive: if it’s possible to make Shakespeare accessible by using a vocabulary and method of acting that was last in fashion 400 years ago.
“The bulk of our audience, the bulk of the [Shakespeare] students, are brought up on YouTube,” he says, hands gliding through the air like pale birds as he elaborates the point. “The statistics for YouTube show that most people will switch off in the first 10-15 seconds. Our attention spans are advert-like. If I want to try and get a younger, generally switched-off-to-Shakespeare audience, it would be so tempting to fill [a production] with lights and sound and pretty projections and all sorts of innovation.”
But this is not the kind of Shakespeare Ben thinks the world needs right now. He believes we need to brush off all this surface distraction and engage the next generation with the unadulterated beauty of Shakespeare’s words in performance.
“Let’s try and boil down what we’re doing to core elements,” he says, listing them off on his fingers. “The [acting] space is beautiful enough. There is something engrossing about watching a group of actors who obviously enjoy each other’s company and the work that they doing. For want of a better word that is what we would probably call an ‘ensemble’, a group that know each other’s’ ‘voice’ as well as they know their master’s [Shakespeare].
“As a natural follow on from both of those things you find yourself starting to become expert craftspeople and storytellers. That’s what actors are: it is a tradition that essentially comes from making a warm place, sitting around passing on things that lift your heart”.
This is the key to good Shakespeare for Ben: creating an environment where the story of the play comes to life. Not through trickery or fancy multimedia, but through a troupe of actors so attuned to each other’s performances that they are as limbs on one body. Ben uses the metaphor of a tuning fork to describe the end goal of this method. Original pronunciation tunes the actors into the vocabulary of Shakespeare’s text. A space like the Globe helps to replicate the sound harmonics familiar to Shakespeare’s actors. Traditional costume and music immerse the actors in the mindset of their Elizabethan forebears. When all this is put together, actors and audience alike are in harmony with the tuning fork Shakespeare struck over 400 years ago.
It’s this kind of time travel that Ben is eager to achieve with his own ensemble. It’s a heart-warming experience, he says, to work with professionals who share his love for metre and OP. This feeling of fellowship produces better performances too as the actors start to understand and even anticipate each other’s actions. Little else is needed beyond such a troupe of actors and a true affinity for the text.
When it comes to directing, he approaches Shakespeare like a detective to a crime scene, finding discordant pieces of verse and passages written in jarring metre and trying to work out how they fit in the rhythm of the play.
“If I am speaking in regular prose that is going to require a different emotional commitment than if I was speaking in verse, than if I were speaking in rhyming verse, than if I suddenly break into a line of rhyming verse,” he explains. He leans forward and raises his voice- I can tell he’s getting excited talking about this.
“I ‘gin to be a-weary of the sun, And wish the estate o’ the world were now undone,” he rhymes, quoting Macbeth. “People don’t normally talk in rhyme! Why is he suddenly talking in rhyme, what does that tell you about his emotional state?” he shouts, hands in the air as though inviting an answer from the heavens.
Ben is fascinated by this sort of mystery, and clearly revels in attempting to solve them in performance. “You follow the text, the metre, the twists and turns of prose and whatnot, and you try and make it work off the page and if it’s still not working maybe it should be cut, or maybe you have to rethink the way you approach it. Maybe it’s not working because you’re being too reverential with it. Maybe it’s not working because once you’ve been careful with Shakespeare, then you have to take the gloves off and be rough with him too and start pushing him around a bit”.
This is the dissident dramaturge coming out to play. But messing around with the text is only one half of Ben’s game. He’s also keen to teach his ensemble, and the actors he coaches around the world, the richness that can be added to a performance through physical theatre. “As well as text work we practice a physical discipline I adapted from working with [the theatre company] Complicité 10 years ago. It’s a technique you get to do in your second year at [the drama school] Lecoq in Paris. Essentially it’s taking a stick for a walk around the room! I’ve been developing it to allow us to explore the physical and relationship world of the characters”.
Ben gets his actors to hold bamboo sticks between each other, using just their fingertips for grip, and act out their scenes without breaking the connection. “There’s a rigorous and constant focus on eye-contact and, you explore the vocabulary of movement [that exists between the characters],” he says. This helps achieve a deeper connection between actors and inculcates an understanding of the importance of position in conveying emotion and power relationships.
“Goodness knows if there’s a problem with a lot of modern Shakespeare, it’s that we as a society are incredibly tactile: there’s people touching kings all over the place and immediately their kingliness is reduced. [With this technique] you’re forced to keep up an intense dynamic contact but at a distance and you explore who leads, who follows, where does the power lie?” he explains.
This sort of rigorous work is meant to produce better actors and better performances. But Ben is candid about the fact that most audience members won’t notice the subtle shifts in stance and position between characters once the curtain’s raised, or cotton on to the fact a character suddenly moves from prose, to verse, and back to prose. That’s not the point, he says. “All of this work is the nine-tenths of the iceberg submerged underwater. You [the audience] don’t see all the work we’ve done, you only see the tip of it”.
It’s not just Ben experimenting with Shakespeare though. Production companies as far afield as Russia, India, and Brazil are exciting him with their unique takes on the Bard’s canon. He loves the fact that Shakespeare is a universal language that can be appreciated and adored by people of all cultures and backgrounds.
“Shakespeare is ‘teflonic’: he is made of Teflon,” he says, smiling broadly. “You can throw anything you like at him and all should be thrown at him! It should be experimented with promenade, with puppetry, and all the other different disciplines. You can go anywhere and start talking to people about Shakespeare and they’ll have something to say about it. All of these explorations are absolutely wonderful and I applaud them. All male companies, all female companies, whatever, I love it!”
In fact, he thinks we in the UK are lacking in boldness when it comes to creating Shakespeare for the 21st century. Our heritage- England’s heritage- is being adopted by more and more theatre groups based outside this sceptred isle who are less frightened of, as Ben says, pushing Shakespeare around. His favourite production of the last year was a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream produced by the Dmitry Krymov Lab, a Russian ensemble that turned Shakespearean conventions on their head to create a truly memorable performance. The key to their success? Time, says Ben.
“These people rehearse together sometimes for two years. Two years, man!” he laughs. “I mean you’re lucky if you get four weeks [together as an ensemble] in the fringe. If you’re really lucky you get six-to-twelve weeks at the RSC or the Globe. But at the end of two years of rehearsal these guys have gotten a tenth of the time Shakespeare’s [original King’s Men] had together. Each particular moment has been worked on and sculpted so beautifully- but they’re doing that to our heritage! Where is our Shakespeare ensemble?” he asks.
Answering that question is one aspect of Ben’s mission going forward. In the coming years, he hopes to secure a semi-permanent home for his group of actors where they can rehearse and work alongside each other all year round to try and replicate the symbiosis shared by the original King’s Men.
Alongside this, he will continue his workshops among theatre companies and schools with Shakespeare on Toast and continue working with his dad on new written projects- the latest of which is an illustrated Shakespeare dictionary due to be published in April.
It doesn’t sound like he’ll have much time to breathe over the next 18 months. And for what? What drives someone to devote their life to the world’s most famous playwright, someone who has been scrutinised and picked over so much over the last 400-odd years that surely there is scant little left to discover? Why would Ben follow in his father’s footsteps when there’s so much else to explore?
Ultimately, it turns out what makes him love the Bard so much isn’t that much different from why I love him, and why so, so many others love him too.
“He’s just daring to explore the fundamental questions of who we are, why we are, what are we doing here, what is love, why do we love each other, what happens when we die? We’re still asking those questions [even though] we can now send ships into fucking comets! It doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, what your colour is, what your creed is, you ask those same questions whether your rich or poor. If you take any of Shakespeare’s plays, at the heart of them there is something that will transform your life and make you think about the world in a different way”.
Amen to that.