Romeo and Juliet opens with a prologue that introduces the story that will be the “two hours traffic” on the stage. Only two hours? Isn’t all Shakespeare 4 hours long uncut? I tried to help dispel this myth with Hamlet, and those who think it’s a 5 hour play, as an example. It’s not 5 hours… at least it shouldn’t be.
I mentioned before I was working on a production of Richard III. The running time at the moment is a little over 3 hours — not including intermission — and it’s cut down a bit. Sure, Richard is a long play but that’s not why it’s running so long. It has to do with the speed of the speech. I’ll not rant about the production in general; the audiences seem to like the show, just not the length. Slow Shakespeare is a peeve of mine. Stop acting between the lines!
Shakespeare’s text is supposed to be spoken trippingly on the tongue, not languidly on the lips. I’ve harped on this string before, but “Harp on it still shall I till heart-strings break.” Because, of course, I don’t want to see or be a part of “bad Shakespeare” if I can help it.
I had the pleasure of meeting David Oyelowo at a screening of Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It, he played Orlando in the film. In a sort of talk-back session he gave some excellently-phrased advice: “Know what you’re saying and talk as fast as you can.” Simple, isn’t it? Yes. Easy? No. Actors these days are all about making the words sound natural. There’s nothing natural about poetry! Nothing natural about theatre, either. We should always strive to be believable, not natural. Don’t be responsible for sound and fury that signifies nothing.
The speed of the text has a lot to do with that. Shakespeare’s plays (and most other classical works) are not natural everyday speech, it’s thought and action. When people criticize Shakespeare saying “nobody talks like that!” smack them. I mean, say, “That’s the point!” People think a lot faster than they speak, and if the verse is thought, then the words need to move a lot faster than natural speech.
The challenge is to know exactly what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, hit the right words, understand the rhetoric, and make the text clear at a fast pace. But when all that comes together you’ve got a heck of a performance. Why do you think Branagh is so good? He’s not a star for his good looks, I’ll tell you that much.
It’s worth noting at this point that verse needn’t always be spoken quickly. There are moments that can be slowed, there are even occasions for pauses (which Shakespeare may have written in — more on this another day). But in general, the text should be continuous stream of text. The rate may quicken, slow, and pause briefly, but it must flow.
On the page the characters seem loquacious, but on the stage they must be vivacious.