This week London Editor Louie Woodall is in Stockholm with Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare ensemble ‘Passion in Practice’ to cover their unique production of Pericles in Original Pronunciation (OP) at the Berwaldhallen theatre. Here, he reports on their first full day in rehearsal
“We’re all re-translating our ways of doing a play [and] we’ve got to give ourselves time to let go of the old,” says Will Sutton, capturing the mood of his fellow ensemble members. No one has done Shakespeare quite like this before. Ensemble leader, Ben Crystal, is conducting a debrief of the afternoon’s first run-through. It’s the first time the actors have spoken their lines together; the first time they’ve rehearsed as an ensemble; the first time they’ve been off script. There are fifty hours to go until the performance.
This is no ordinary performance of Pericles. In fact, it’s a triple world-first. Not only is it the first contemporary production in OP, it’s the first to be underscored by an orchestra. Not just any orchestra, either- the Trondheim Soloists, with British solo violinist Daniel Hope. It is also, of course, the first to be put together in under 72 hours. It’s a heavy responsibility- and the clock is ticking.
Crystal’s approach is to replicate as close as possible the rehearsal practices of an Elizabethan theatrical troupe, like Shakespeare’s own King’s Men. The relentless churn of plays Shakespeare’s actors would have had to practice and perform meant they would rehearse off cue-scripts, learning only their own lines and the three words preceding them. This had the added benefit of saving the theatre company from having to spend too much on expensive paper!
As it was in 16th century London, so it is in Stockholm today. I join the ensemble in a spartan recording studio nestled in the offices of Sweden’s state radio station where the 13 actors are coming to the end of their first rehearsal together. It’s the first time they’ve heard each other’s speeches in full. This cue-script method injects a fresh energy into the process as each performer has to be alert to their scene partners. There’s no question of anyone switching off between lines.
“We’re constantly looking out for that [cue], waiting on that [cue],” says Anirudh Nair, playing Cerimon, Thaliard and Pander. “The challenge is not knowing how long passes in a scene before your next cue comes. I know what the cue is, but I don’t know how many characters speak in the middle, [or] how the story unfolds”.
This means that each actor has to be in a certain state of readiness, which actually makes the reactions and relationships between performers unfurl more naturally. “Because you’re literally hearing it for the first time, you don’t have to pretend to hear it for the first time,” says Nair.
The ensemble discuss their first run-through
The debrief following the run-through is an opportunity for the actors to share their personal thoughts on the rehearsal with the group and recommend next steps. Unlike the typical production, Crystal shies away from laying down a regimented rehearsal schedule, preferring to gauge the energy of his ensemble periodically throughout the day and adapting the itinerary accordingly. After a long day, the ensemble elect to run an OP drill to sharpen up their accents and conserve their energy for tomorrow’s twelve-hour session on the Berwaldhallen stage.
This turns out to be the most entertaining aspect of the day’s activity. The actors gather in a circle on the stage as David Crystal, Ben’s father and a world-leading professor of linguistics, directs them on the correct original pronunciation of the key words in the play. David explains that a number of the actors during the run-through mispronounced the ‘r’ sound throughout their speeches. In OP, it’s sounded ‘arr’, much more rounded and open than today’s iteration. As they practice the sound, the actors resemble nothing so much as a band of demented pirates, growling out their ‘arrs’ to the empty theatre. It’s a bizarre exercise, but a necessary one. After all, a slipped pronunciation can throw an entire section of rhymed verse into disarray, or worse- cause an actor to miss their cue.
And now there’s only 46 hours to go.