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Acting Shakespeare

On Judi Dench, Harriet Walter, Simon Russell Beale, and Rory Kinnear

Exploring how these contemporary Shakespearian Actors–Judi Dench, Harriet Walter, Simon Russell Beale, and Rory Kinnear–create their Shakespeare, reveals the power of Shakespeare's language. Analysing Shakespeare on the stage is a particular challenge as scholars must convey in prose what is intangible in behaviour. However, they bring new light to why actors return again and again to the Shakespearian stage: it allows them the ability to continue growing, stretching their ranges, and learning about themselves unlike any other profession. Read on to learn how actors value and engage with the complexity of Shakespeare.

Dame Judi Dench in Cymbeline. She has a troubled and sad expression.

Judi Dench

According to Shakespearian scholar Stanley Wells, Judi Dench has a great transformative power, able to play anything from a comic role to the dramatic lead. She worked hard to develop her immaculate timing and technical control of Shakespeare’s verse, utilising pauses, upwards inflections at the end of words and more, to bring out the antitheses in Shakespeare’s lines–to bring out its full sense, emotion, and richness. She also has a wonderful capacity to use expression without any sort of exaggeration or caricature, which gives a sense of the inwardness of her role.

Judi is not an intellectualising actress, rather she observes people and the way they speak, the way they move, the way they behave, and the way they express emotion. She implicitly studies without necessarily explicitly studying, as some actors would by reading a biography of Cleopatra before they play Cleopatra, but she understands the depths of the play and extensively discusses them with the director.

Harriet Walter

Harriet Walter is an interesting study in the case of being faithful to the text yet bringing an actor’s own agenda to it. She takes the patriarchal figures of Viola, Imogen, Portia, and Helena and turns them on their heads, taking the audience into them in a way which is deeply and freshly revealing. She revels in the liberating, morally ambiguous text, and her feminism brings out all the different nuances, for neither male nor female are either good nor bad in Shakespeare, but rather, hugely complex.

Harriet Walter as Cleopatra, wearing a cap of coloured discs, from which a black scarf with white spots hangs down either side of her face to her chest. She also wears a decorated metal collar over her shoulders.

As part of his work, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Head of Research & Knowledge Paul Edmondson analyses Harriet’s performance of Cleopatra and discusses how within that role she found new direction and liberation that she had not in her previous work. She is much more adept at using the stage space, going onto the floor, finding a horizontal spatial awareness, and drawing on new resources. She played opposite Patrick Stewart in the role, and they would keep the roles fresh for each other by daring to take these risks.

Harriet has also produced a vast amount of writing on her own work and is an intellectualising actress as much as Judi Dench is not. Her analysis comes through in her voice, which has a crisp, satirical  edge to it, but allows the emotion to breathe as well. Her skill shows through in being able to turn on a sixpence from that crisp, satirical tone of voice, to utter seriousness.

Rory Kinnear

Kinnear’s brilliance comes in demystifying Shakespeare. As part of a younger generation of great Shakespearian actors, Kinnear’s ascendancy is analysed by Dr. Paul Prescott for these moments in performance that compacted all the work he had done as an actor.

Prescott highlights Kinnear’s Angelo in Measure for Measure as a performance with this representative moment just before Isabella comes on for the second meeting. Rory taunts himself up with a slightly snazzy suit on, and he primps his apartment waiting for her arrival. In this moment, unexpectedly flirting with comedy, Rory tries to put contact lenses into his eyes. He was bespectacled, but seconds before decided that he was going to go without his glasses to meet Isabella.

This shows how a character or an actor does not necessarily know what kind of play he or she is in because in this instance, the audience laughed at this man who is about to go on and attempt rape. In this moment, Rory had to decide that his comedic act was a truthful thing to be doing. He knew that it was getting affection from the audience, but he also had to feel confident that it was somehow faithful to the character, and that he was not simply playing for an effect. 

Simon Russell Beale

Simon Russell Beale uses the parallels of the body and the line to shape Shakespeare’s verse. The result is a language that is both hilarious and so poignant it is heart-breaking. He takes risks in combining the vulnerable and the massively comedic, continually working in a danger zone.

Simon Russell Beale sits on a bench wearing a black gown, leaning on a walking stick and holding a balloon. Beside him sit two younger men, one in shirtsleeves with a tie, and holding a balloon as well, the other in an open jacket.

In her research, Professor Carol Rutter uses Simon's role as Cassius in Julius Caesar to analyse his development of the voice, how he turns words, lifting them out of the grain of the iambic pentameter line. His awareness of the rhetorical structure allows him to be both aggressive and self-denying at the same time in his persuasive speech. His Richard III and Iago also show his ability to use the energy of the line to move from this high expressiveness to void vacancy, as though he is a human black hole.

Simon exhibits an awareness of the breath in Shakespeare’s lines, experimenting with where to place stress and breath to change their meaning. His musical training allows him to move octaves and work with the music and acoustics of the verse.

Research conversations with Stanley Wells, Paul Edmondson, Carol Rutter, and Paul Prescott are based on their work for The Routledge Companion to Actors' Shakespeare.

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