A Matter of Voice

a Feature on Cicely Berry at The Wall Street Journal

a Feature on Cicely Berry at The Wall Street Journal

a Feature on Cicely Berry at The Wall Street Journal

‘Walk around the room saying your lines,” instructed Cicely Berry, and the half-dozen members of Fiasco Theater, a theater troupe here, hopped to it, moving around a rehearsal studio at the Duke Theater while speaking their particular stretch of a soliloquy from “Romeo and Juliet.”


photo by Henry Grossman | Cicely Berry helps actors understand the language of Shakespeare.

Ms. Berry watched and nodded. And now she wanted those same spoken lines at a gallop. Away the actors went, rather like the fiery-footed steeds mentioned in their recitation.

But the workout was just beginning. At Ms. Berry’s behest, they lay on the floor rolling from side to side; sat cross-legged in a circle and gave their lines—this time Ophelia’s “O, what a noble mind” lament from “Hamlet”—in a near whisper, took a stroll switching directions at each punctuation mark in the text, and then, hands on thighs, diligently tapped out the speech’s rhythm: “o, WHAT a NO-ble MIND. . .”

To an observer with little experience in Romeo on the run or in parsing pentameter, it was all a bit of a mystery. But these actors couldn’t seem to get enough. Of course, as the voice director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for the past 42 years—her charges have included Sean Connery, Judi Dench, Peter Finch, Anthony Hopkins and Jeremy Irons—Ms. Berry, 85, has an unassailable track record.

She was here recently to work with Fiasco, whose dazzling winter production of “Cymbeline” is back, this time for an extended run at the Barrow Street Theatre under the banner of Theatre for a New Audience. (Previews began Tuesday.)

Ms. Berry’s objective: to help actors meld their voices with Shakespeare’s. Her methods: varied. She’s been known to ask would-be Hamlets to rehearse while kicking beer bottles or throwing chairs. She’s importuned performers to speak while others are impeding their movement, and to repeat certain significant words. In a final exercise before the lunch break, Fiasco member Emily Young delivered Ophelia’s monologue while desperately attempting to attract the attention and empathy of her peers, who’d all been told to shake her off and head in another direction.

“We want the modern actor to make Shakespeare sound as though it’s being spoken for now,” Ms. Berry explained over a sandwich. “But we also want to honor all the resonances, which are part of the meaning of text.”

When the plays were first performed, a mere fraction of the audience could read. “They got the thought out of the rhythm of things and the sound of things,” Ms. Berry said. “When Ophelia says ‘oh, what a noble mind,’ there are long sounds. It’s like keening: ‘T’have seen what I have seen, to see what I see.’ We have to notice those sounds. They have to land on us but not sound overpoetic. It’s a difficult balancing act. Too often, actors today think too much about the meaning of the words and not how the words are propelling them.”

Moving while speaking underscores language’s flow and sound and muscularity, she said. Her exercises “release the actors’ bodies and thus free their minds, opening up their understanding of the text. It’s like singing the blues. There is a rhythm there that is part of the meaning.”

Ms. Berry grew up near London, “absolutely nuts” about poetry: Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley and Auden. “I learned poetry and avoided everybody,” is how she sums up her childhood. Though she could occasionally be prevailed on to recite some verse, being a performer was not a thing devoutly to be wished.

“I always wanted to work with voice. I wanted to work on voice production,” said Ms. Berry, who trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama. She subsequently returned there to teach, leaving in 1969 when recruited by Trevor Nunn, the RSC’s then artistic director, to be the company’s first voice director.

“He wanted to use more young actors but felt that they didn’t have the training to fill a large space efficiently, so I came and worked with him,” Ms. Berry said. “As I worked, there were three main directors. There was Trevor, who liked to find out the very intimate emotions of the character. There was Terry Hands, who liked history and who was always saying ‘faster and louder.’ He wanted to make the story very clear.” And there was John Barton, an RSC co-founder, “who was absolutely avid about finding all the different points of Shakespeare’s writing, the alliteration and literary aspects.”

Serving all these masters “was lovely,” Ms. Berry said. “Although I went in as purely a voice person, I started to get involved with how actors were using language.”

Patrick Stewart’s association with Ms. Berry dates back to the ’70s. “Under her guidance,” Mr. Stewart wrote in an email, “my vocal technique became truly grounded. But it was much, much more than acquiring technique that made sessions with Cis so vital. It was her work with language, and language and character, which is critical to understand if one is to perform Shakespeare.”

Ms. Berry is not, under any circumstances, to be confused with Henry Higgins. Where the rain in Spain collects is of no interest to her. “Oh, absolutely nothing like that. Absolutely not,” she said. “That’s finished now. What an actor has to train to do is open the voice and get it as expressive as possible with as much variety as possible, and to have good resonance in the chest. Then they have to change the resonance according to the character.”

“To me, Cicely is a director of voice for a generation of moviegoers. The close-up is basic vocabulary for us,” said Jeffrey Horowitz, the artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, who recruited Ms. Berry to work with his company to help bridge the gap between the macro responsibilities of the director and the micro concerns of the actor. “When you see Shakespeare, you want to feel the close-up in the same way the camera reveals the inner life of a character in a film,” Mr. Horowitz explained, paraphrasing Ms. Berry’s friend and colleague, the director Peter Brook. “Cicely lets actors and audiences experience that immediacy.

“The layman thinks, ‘Oh, you just get your voice out there.’ That’s part of it,” Mr. Horowitz continued. “But you don’t know how fast to say your lines, how much to stress them. All these things have to be discovered by the actor. It’s not like a piece of music where the pitch and tempo are written down.”

Along with her gigs with the RSC and Theatre for a New Audience, Ms. Berry trains other voice directors, offers her expertise to Nós do Morro, a theater troupe in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and works with prisoners. “They get a great satisfaction from speaking Shakespeare,” she said, “because it’s about deep feelings which they themselves have.”

Strongly political (“‘King Lear’ is the greatest Marxist play ever written”), Ms. Berry has also coached leaders and activists, among them Neil Kinnock, former head of Britain’s Labour Party. But she gave up that sideline several years ago to focus on her core passion. The sound bite can’t compete with sound and fury. “It’s Shakespeare,” she said. “I’ll do it until they tell me to stop.”

Ms. Kaufman writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.

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