Rex Gibson shows how a collection of Shakespeare tapes demonstrates changes in speaking styles since the Sixties.
Philip Larkin famously declared that sexual intercourse began in 1963. Polygram's repackaging of Shakespeare audiotapes made 30 to 40 years ago demonstrates that other fractures of traditional decorum also took place in the liberating decade of the 1960s.
Actors' speaking style underwent radical change as once-scorned regional accents came into their own, and the whirligig of time brought in its revenges on received pronunciation. Out went the clipped vowels of upper-class English, in came a range of voices which brought the different emphases, hesitations and passions of demotic speech to the delivery of Shakespeare's heightened language.
Each Polygram pack comprises two audio cassettes and a breezily written 700-word essay, providing a plot summary and a helpful introduction to one or two distinctive features of Shakespeare's craftsmanship - for example, the integration of subplot and main plot in dramatic design.
Occasionally the style tips over into Pooterish bardolatory: "Listen to this play and marvel at the myriad human foibles he exposes - and think perhaps: in how many of them do we recognise our own?" Two tapes are Old Vic productions of Othello (1971) and Hamlet (1979). They contrast sharply with the remaining eight plays, recorded by the Marlowe Society of the University of Cambridge between 1959 and 1963.
These near-40-year-old Marlowes have now-famous actors in minor roles. Derek Jacobi is Ross; Ian Holm plays Verges and Eros; Corin Redgrave, Paris. Ian McKellen is Mardian, Lysander, and The Winter's Tale's Young Shepherd and First Gentleman. Trevor Nunn, current director of the Royal National Theatre, turns up as Starveling. As the Marlowe series progressed a few big names were drafted in: John Gielgud as Benedick, Peggy Ashcroft as Beatrice and Kate (Shrew).
The problems of audiotape performances are evident on the Marlowe tapes. The need to deliver a full script on two cassettes increases speed at the expense of dramatic effect, in which pausing is so important. In the statue scene in Winter's Tale, Leontes "O she's warm!", goes for little, as does Charmian's dying "Ah, soldier!" in Cleopatra's death scene.
The difference in performance styles pre- and post-1960s is remarkable. The 1979 Old Vic Hamlet (with Derek Jacobi) is vibrant and passionate. In contrast, the once-acclaimed Marlowe recordings, while crisply intelligible, are obviously studio performances. Concern for a certain kind of diction governs delivery. Famous actors and undergraduates alike speak with the voice beautiful. Old-style received pronunciation is dominant:
"mad" becomes "med", "fear", "feaah". Every word is chiselled out. The effect is public and declamatory, rather than personal and deeply felt.
Little sense of intimacy comes through. Emotional expression is often unconvincing. In Macbeth, characters seem to talk at, rather than with, each other. Juliet's "How if when I am laid into the tomb" exemplifies the style: exterior and enunciated rather than interior and experienced; more like a recitation than a young woman struggling desperately to keep fear at bay.
How might the tapes be used in schools? For older students, particularly those undertaking Theatre Studies, contrasting the passion and intensity of the Old Vic Hamlet with the measured precision of the Marlowes will reveal much about how Shakespeare speaking has changed.
A few minutes, juxtaposing the 1979 tape (or any video version) with a 1960s Marlowe, shows how what was once considered timeless Shakespeare is now evident as the fashionable way of speaking of the period.
As in all matters Shakespearian, teachers must consider how they should share their own evaluations of performance. For teachers, the Marlowes may evoke the same responses as watching old movies, but students should be encouraged to form their own judgments.
But check the packaging. My cassette labelled as the first half of Two Gentlemen of Verona contained Sonnets 1-78 (admirably spoken by Richard Pasco, 1984). The Sonnets cassette was also misleading, and Much Ado About Nothing turned up on sides 1 and 2 of A Midsummer Night's Dream.