Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Of Muffled Trumpets and Meaningless Legs: Shakespeare in Performance


By Edward Petherbridge.

Shakespeare wrote a part for a dog (that of Crab in The Two Gentlemen of Verona), whilst Laurence Olivier, in an essay on his production of Antony and Cleopatra with Vivien Leigh, tells a story from his boyhood about a cat whose premeditations and calculations helped illuminate the unfathomable part of Cleopatra:

I followed it up the tree and when for a second it seemed that I would achieve my purpose of catching her, she started to purr and rub herself against my outstretched hand in order to give me false confidence. I put my hand back on the branch to steady myself for a second, and the cat was down the tree and across the field before I knew what was happening.

This kind of cunning is patent in much of Cleopatra, in her buoyant variations of opposites according to Anthony’s moods, in varying degrees of subtlety and obviousness throughout the tragedy, and most blatantly in her pretended death; but on the whole it is the enigma that tells, the enigma that holds us.

This morning, attempting to marshal my thoughts about the Bard, I took our terrier for a walk, sat on a bench in the sun, and half concentrated on an essay called ‘Most Sweet Voice’, written in 1948 by the critic J. C. Trewin. Trewin spends three pages talking generally about the power (or lack of it) of speech in the theatre and rhapsodizing about his favourite voices with a most resourceful use of adjectival phrases. With one eye on the dog, I broke off to ‘hear’ the voices of some of Trewin’s actors whom I had known or seen on stage; I was seeing them again, too, or trying to imagine what a voice with ‘lift and sparkle … that holds something of a stream in sunlight’ might actually have sounded like. I was considering, straying from Shakespeare, whether ‘the noon-cannon boom’, used to describe the long-passed Aldwych farceur Robertson Hare’s habitual rendering of ‘Oh Calamity!’, wasn’t carrying hyperbole too far. Bean, meanwhile, was concentrating with even less focus than I, abandoning a stick I had thrown her in order to dodge a perfectly still pine cone, investigate an intriguing scent and chase a butterfly, all in the space of ten seconds. I suppose a voice that has ‘lift and sparkle’ and encapsulates ‘a stream in sunlight’ might, if the actor were also endowed with an expressive body, create something akin to the enchanting spectacle of my dog as she dealt with the plethora of fascinating choices life offered her this summer morning. There is something to be said for the butterfly mind, and certainly, in the rehearsal room, exploring a part by William Shakespeare presents one with a plethora of fascinating choices in sometimes equally rapid succession.

It is not only the spirit of enquiry, this febrile animal state (Bean dodging a lifeless pine cone), but the instinct for self-preservation (‘Take no prisoners’ a perfectly sweet actor advised me before a recent first night!) I have an abiding memory of Olivier febrile in the rehearsal room. He dried a lot in rehearsals of his TV Lear, but, of all scenes, he knew ‘Enter Lear, fantastically dressed with wild flowers’ very well and never dried on it. I was watching a run-through of the scene one morning; Leo Mckern, playing the blinded Gloucester with a bandage covering his eyes, was kneeling next to Olivier who was seated. As Olivier said:

For Gloucester’s bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got ’tween the lawful sheets

McKern, at the mention of his bastard son, simply and slowly drooped his head and Olivier immediately dried. ‘Oh, sorry’, he said. Take me back a few lines.’ He came at ‘For Gloucester’s bastard son / Was kinder …’ again, but by this time he had not only put his arm around Leo’s shoulder, but extended it so that his fist was under Leo’s chin. Nothing was said and Leo never did the move again.

* * *

In truth Shakespeare is a subject too giddyingly vast for me to contend with steadily here. And as  a working actor I have lit upon him so lightly and rarely that I doubt my credentials. However, I’m relying on the premise that you can tell things about the ocean from a few sample bucketsful or, to mix metaphors, learn something of its infinite mystery and appeal by going, as I did later today, to see a collection of John Singer Sargent’s seascapes, or even by looking at one of his small notebooks, no bigger than a postcard, open at a page with a single pencil sketch. So, standing somewhere between an old master and a collector of R&Gsamples, I proceed as best I can.

One can’t imagine a critic devoting three pages to the actor’s voice nowadays; as I’ve said, many of the voices extolled by Trewin were still to be heard throughout the 1960s, and on into the 80s and 90s. Some I remember from the Old Vic when in 1963 it became the home of the National Theatre: Gielgud’s ‘superb tenor’, described by Alec Guinness as ‘a silver trumpet muffled in silk’; Olivier’s, of course, still ‘the darting, searching, shifting blade’. Perhaps Celia Johnson’s porcelain-tea-set tones, made famous in the film of Brief Encounter, did not live up to Trewin’s ‘unfolding flower’, but Edith Evans’s ‘quivering drawl’ convinced Noël Coward, at the National’s first reading of Hay Fever in 1964, that she could, at seventy-six, play Juliet. He was to modify this opinion during subsequent tricky rehearsals in the very Old Vic rehearsal room in which Dame Edith had learned the Shakespearean ropes. In the season of 1925/26, having written to Lilian Baylis to ask if she could be of use, Evans said, ‘I was a given a long list of plays and the parts I was to study: Portia, Queen Margaret, Katherine, Rosalind, Cleopatra, Mariana in Measure for Measure, Beatrice, and the nurse in Romeo and Juliet’ – a formidable roll call for a veteran of West End long runs to cut her Shakespearean teeth on (she was, in fact, the first West End star to join Baylis’s illustrious company, having been rejected six years earlier).

The name of Lilian Baylis is a reminder that one can find nicely contradictory evidence to ‘prove’ that voice, even in Shakespeare, was not always the prime consideration. I was one year old when that legendary lady died. At twenty-two I worked with a veteran who had, as a young actress, auditioned for Baylis. Having done her speech, she was asked, ‘Are you religious, dear?’ To which the actress replied, ‘Well, I’m C of E.’ ‘That’s good, dear’, Miss Baylis said, ‘I like my girls to be religious and my boys to have nice legs.’

Legs were still a critical issue when I started to do Shakespeare. Doublet and long hose (tights) are virtually unknown now; I think almost the last major use of them was in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1967. There was the instance in 1984 of Antony Sher’s black silky tights in his famed Richard III, or perhaps more properly a full leotard. All the other chaps were in worthy foursquare woolly medieval costume, and it was clear that they should not have trusted for a minute this devious creature in sleek dancer’s spandex, dangerously adroit on his spindly black crutches, which served as sinister extensions of his arms and propelled him across the stage with the speed and athleticism of a malevolent Paralympic Richard, or in the words of the New York Times, ‘a manic pole-vaulter’.

I had worn tights for the first time in Coronation Year to play Slender in an amateur production of  The Merry Wives of Windsor at Bradford Civic Playhouse. There was no costume design to contemplate at the first reading. Some baskets of hired costumes arrived just in time for the dress rehearsal, and I put on my faded lime-green velvet doublet and hose and, novice though I was, quickly confirmed what had been obvious all along – that half the battle was to succeed in being ‘at home’, but more importantly in being the architect of one’s physical performance as well as conductor and instrumentalist of the vocal part. As Gielgud was to say in 1961, ‘You have to spin it Slender in Coronation Yearout of yourself, like a spider. It is the only way.’

You wouldn’t naturally look to Gielgud for lessons in how to act in tights. He certainly had good legs, though Ivor Brown, reviewing his Romeo in 1924, declared, ‘Mr Gielgud from the waist downward means absolutely nothing. He has the most meaningless legs imaginable.’ When Gielgud played Prospero in 1957, Kenneth Tynan dubbed him ‘the finest actor on earth, from the neck up.’ To return for a moment to feline analogies, Gielgud’s first drama teacher, Constance Benson, told him he walked ‘exactly like a cat with rickets.’ Perhaps the best lesson in the theatrical architecture of a part, in tights as it happens – the body as kinetic happening in time and space – is preserved on film: Olivier directed by himself and performing the opening soliloquy of Richard III. He was a borrower and mimic as well as a spinner and has acknowledged his Richard’s debt to the physiognomy of Walt Disney’s Big Bad Wolf of 1933 (said to be modelled on the Broadway producer Jed Harris whom Olivier loathed) and to the vocal imitations he had heard older actors give of the towering figure of the Victorian theatre, Henry Irving.

* * *

You might have thought it would be difficult to avoid speaking Shakespeare’s verse ‘correctly’. The poet Tony Harrison is fond of pointing out that the iambic pentameter is a marvellously natural form of utterance and can be heard in the street and on buses. Indeed I once heard a lady tell the box-office manager at the Theatre Royal Bath: ‘My friend she fell and broke her leg in Leamington. / She can’t play Bridge …’. Whereupon the box-office man completed the second line for her: ‘ … so now you’ll see the play.’

‘I would not sing.’ With these four short words, addressed to one or two of us over his plate of sausages in the Old Vic canteen circa 1966, Laurence Olivier summed up his history as a Shakespearean actor and explained why, early in his career, he was criticized for his handling of the verse. Not an hour ago I had the magical experience of watching and hearing the twenty-nine-year-old Olivier playing Orlando in the 1936 film of As You Like It. Fresh from this musical performance, I can report that it is easier to credit Ellen Terry’s opinion, recorded in her diary, of the nine-year-old Olivier’s performance in a production of Julius Caesar by the choir school of All Saints in Margaret Street, Fitzrovia: ‘The small boy who played Brutus is already a great actor’.

Perhaps, though, it was Gielgud who, from his emergence as a leading actor, was thought to be the finest speaker of the Bard. But I’m recalling Judi Dench’s Desert Island Discs choice of his and Peggy Ashcroft’s recording of the church scene from Much Ado About Nothing. Dame Peggy, it seemed to me, speaking the prose of this scene, was talking directly, naturally to the man she loved. Of her Portia a few years later, Kenneth Tynan said: ‘She speaks the poetry with the air of a woman who would never commit the social gaffe of reciting in public, with the result that the lines flow out newly minted, as unstrained as the quality of mercy itself.’

By comparison in the recording, Sir John’s familiar cadences, seemed to put him at one remove, the tones issuing from a Gielgudian theatrical hothouse. I also have a very early Parlophone recording of Gielgud speaking ‘Once more unto the breach’; he speaks in a generalized fortissimo with vibrato throughout. And yet it is he who offers such good advice on speaking the Bard:

In these later scenes [of Richard II] the subtleties of his speeches are capable of endless shades and nuances, but, as is nearly always the case in Shakespeare, the actor’s vocal efforts must be contrived within the framework of the verse and not outside it. Too many pauses and striking variations of tempo will tend to hold up the action disastrously and so ruin the pattern and symmetry of the verse.

Who would have though that in 1953, the year I went to drama school, Gielgud, then barely known in films, James Mason, the quintessential English film star, and the young Marlon Brando, chiefly famous for the film of A Streetcar Named Desire, would have worked together so successfully in a Hollywood version of Julius Caesar which is still eminently worth watching today?

Brando listened to recordings of classical actors, picked Gielgud’s brains on the one day they had time together and used, Gielgud has said, everything that Gielgud gave him. Sir John meanwhile was marvelling at Mason’s ability to ‘do nothing’ with his face yet convey everything. Who was influencing whom?

Notwithstanding the availability of high-definition Shakespearean examples on stage and screen, the tutor in charge of Bardic utterance at my drama school, Charlie Gordon, had actually been a concert Baritone who had eventually gone ‘on the halls’ with a singing and bell-ringing act. We did not know this then, but it might explain the way he quickly ran out of things to say to us, and was chiefly concerned that support from the diaphragm should always be in play throughout the Monday morning class when, week by week, we each had to deliver a fresh soliloquy and a poem. At a modest reckoning I think I learnt some twenty-five speeches and as many poems, and then began to recycle them.

‘When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder / that such trivial people should muse and thunder / in such lovely language.’ Thus wrote D. H. Lawrence. If the Stanislavski system, rightly or wrongly, encourages one to look into oneself and ‘use’ one’s own sensibility, sense memory and experience, Shakespeare can take one further. I once performed Richard II’s prison soliloquy: ‘I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world …’. The pretext, or context, for doing the speech lay in my show Defending Jeffrey … ? at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2001. The first time I rehearsed it was to try it out on Jude Kelly, who was producing the show and exerting a vivid directorial influence; I remember she was very impressed and moved by the speech. Since then it has occurred to me that in rehearsal or performance I never once thought of, or ‘used’, my own experience, my sense memory of solitary confinement in the guardroom of my army camp decades earlier. Our common humanity is perforce any actor’s starting point.

When Olivier played Orlando in a film in which he thought the director’s sheep ran away with the glory and believed his own performance ‘eccentric’, it was surely Shakespeare’s choice and placement of the simple words ‘But heavenly Rosalind!’ as an exit line that gave Olivier the quintessential moment of being in love, which he acted so perfectly, and not the substitution of his own experience.

So glad of this as they I cannot be,
Who are surpris’d withal; but my rejoicing
At nothing can be more.

I was thirty-six when I played Prospero and my son was eight, but the emotional eloquence of these lines supplied me with the old father and magician’s mind and mood, the mixture of resignation and rejoicing. As Olivier observed of the part of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s words can take you by the seat of your pants and hurl you across the stars.


Excerpts from:  Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances.  Indepenpress Publishing Ltd.  2011.  ISBN: 978-1-78003-125-5.  524pp. (Reviewed by Moira earlier this year HERE and available from all online bookshops, or direct from Edward’s website.)   All words and images strictly © Edward Petherbridge. 2011.

3 comments on “Of Muffled Trumpets and Meaningless Legs: Shakespeare in Performance

  1. Nikki
    November 16, 2011

    “As Olivier observed of the part of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s words can take you take you by the seat of your pants and hurl you across the stars.” That final line just sums up what I LOVE about Shakespeare. And in reading this you hit upon another love of mine – the ability to see the same play several times and feel each time that you saw something new. Anthony Sher’s Richard will never be Olivier’s…

    That’s a wonderful title, Edward. I loved this peek behind the scenes (I’m a great fan of the Players of Shakespeare series, so I really loved this) And I’ve added so many titles to my list of films I need to see. I can’t wait to get my hands on Julius Caesar!

    Thank you!

  2. Jackie
    November 16, 2011

    First I must say that Bean is absolutely adorable in that photo, it’s a very clever way to weave the whole post together.
    I really enjoyed reading this. the mechanics of acting is so mysterious to me that it’s almost another language. Mr. Petherbridge’s memories & the quotes from other actors and books made this a memorable piece. I’m definitely going to watch the Julius Caesar film he mentions, I’ve heard of it of course, but wasn’t sure whether to take that era’s interpretation seriously.
    Like Nikki, I love the last sentence, that’s terrific.

  3. Hilary
    November 20, 2011

    Wonderful reminiscences and personal witness of an age of Shakespeare on stage that I am old enough to remember – thank you, Edward Petherbridge. It is so enjoyable to discover the stage-side view. Voices are memories for me as strong as personal appearance. Loved the passage about iambic pentameters, and shall now be listening out for them in the supermarket queue!

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