Learning to speak Shakespeare’s verse in a Workshop with Jenny Caron Hall and Prof. Grace Ioppolo

‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue’:

Hamlet’s advice to the actors who visit Elsinore is, ironically, easy to say but difficult to do. That is why I invited Jenny Caron Hall, an actress and artist, to work with some University of Reading undergraduate students and me in a workshop in which she could teach the verse-speaking method of her late father Sir Peter Hall, the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company and later the Director of the National Theatre. Sir Peter, one of the most influential theatre and opera directors of all time, has been credited by famous actors, including Dame Judi Dench, with teaching them how to speak and interpret Shakespeare’s language and thereby truly understand his plays. You can watch an interview with Sir Peter Hall discussing his career here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUZq2vDcqaU

You can read about Jenny’s career here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennifer_Caron_Hall

Jenny and I had met over Twitter about four years ago when I was tweeting from my feed @ProfShakespeare about her father’s many contributions to Shakespearean theatre and offering numerous links to interviews and film clips. I had also tweeted about her brother Ed Hall’s amazing work as director of Propeller Theatre, whose all-male production of The Taming of the Shrew had greatly impressed my students and me in 2008. So, when Jenny said a few months ago that she wanted to start teaching her father’s verse-speaking methods, I convinced her to try a workshop with our students.  Of course, it helped that Jenny and I shared a California connection—I grew up in Los Angeles and she lived there as a child when her mother the actress and dancer Leslie Caron was working in Hollywood.

Neither Jenny nor I had ever run a practical workshop solely on verse, so we decided to recruit a few students, hire a film studio and camera operator George Ormisher and technician Christopher Bacon in the Minghella Building and see what happened over two hours. Fortunately, Sir David Bell had awarded me a grant from the Vice-Chancellor’s Endowment Fund to cover the Minghella filming costs and Jenny’s preparation and work.

So, Jenny and I and the students, Maria Ieridou, Raj Khan, Natasha Clarke, Millie Farquhar, Tzeitel Degiovanni, Emily Johnson, Eleanor Dewar and Lauren Collard, all turned up on September 28th at 1pm not quite sure what we were going to do. But within a few minutes, Jenny masterfully explained that her method of speaking verse had been developed by actor-manager Thomas Betterton in the 17th century and then passed on to such later actor-managers as David Garrick, Charles Macready, William Poel, Dadie Rylands and her father and then to her. Jenny also discussed how she thought that she knew Shakespeare’s language while performing in major productions at the National Theatre until she was directed by her father, who showed her how much more command she could have of Shakespeare’s verse.

In the workshop, Jenny began working with students on passages from Henry V, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and The Tempest. As you can see from the clips on YouTube, students who were hesitant at first quickly gained in confidence as Jenny showed them the rhythm and pace of the verse and how to hold the last syllable at the end of a line. As the workshop went along, I also added commentary on my own research and publications into how Shakespeare composed his plays in manuscript form and then transmitted them to the actors and the censor and finally to theatrical audiences in the 16th– and 17th-centuries. When the workshop ended, not only were the students and I impressed but so was George the camera operator, who, it turns out, is an actor with a special interest in Shakespeare. So we all felt that we had learned quite a lot from each other about Shakespeare’s language and plays. I can honestly say that Jenny taught me a great deal about language that I thought that I had understood but clearly had never considered.

Jenny recruited her husband Glenn Wilhide, a film and television director and screenwriter, to do the post-production editing of the film clips, so their quality is much better than in the usually grainy clips posted on YouTube.

The Workshop clips can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R81mZn7MzGI&list=PLO_lGJjy8GY9FrVQHjR41VZnzTCtPxrYq

Jenny has scheduled another workshop, for which I am applying for further funding, to be held in December in a replica of an Elizabethan theatre in a film studio in London. If we get funding, we plan to hold auditions and a rehearsal in late November.

So, although we may still be occasionally tripping over our tongues rather than speaking trippingly, we are very excited about the learning opportunities offered by this truly collaborative workshop series.

Professor Grace Ioppolo

About English Literature at Reading

The Department of English Literature at Reading has been an internationally recognised centre for research and teaching in English Studies for over a hundred years. Our teaching system, with its emphasis on seminars and tutorial work, encourages our students to discuss ideas with tutors and other students in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. All of our students have access to dedicated study advisors; our academic placement scheme and 'professional track' programme provide invaluable preparation for subsequent careers.
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