Shakespeare’s original pronunciation (2012).

Every now and then a project captures our imagination and if the number of RTs the link to the British Library’s press release on the @shakespearelogs twitter feed is anything to go by, there is much excitement about this release of extracts from the plays in what curator Ben Crystal and his advisor and father David Crystal are ninety-five percent certain is the original pronunciation as heard on the stage of the original Globe.

Even those of us who’re familiar with and love the work are sometimes desperate to hear a new interpretation of the words and since we know that sections of it have been rendered insensible through the natural evolution of our language, we can’t help tingling at the thought that we might, as the publicity suggests find new meanings, hear new jokes and enhanced poetic effects.

As Ben Crystal introduction in the accompanying booklet suggests, the accent is somewhat understandably like the West Country. But there are also find fragments of other regions, with Irish, Scottish, Cockney and Australian and yes, even Scouse surfacing between the syllables. The stress patterns are also somewhat close to American, explaining why the text has always seem so sympathetic to some of the best US actors.

 An introduction from David Crystal outlines the sources their creative decisions, which includes Ben Jonson’s English Grammar as an invaluable resource. But though he’s aware that the results are still experiment, he strikes a note of disappointment that since the work of John Barton and Helge Kokeritz in the 1950s, theatrical experiments even at the Globe reconstruction have been tentative.

Act II, Scene II: 

“My excellent good friends! How dost thou, / Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how do ye both?”

Hamlet: Ben Crystal
Rosencrantz: Simon Manyonda
Guildenstern: Benjamin O’Mahony

In 2011, Crystal starred in an complete production of Hamlet in this original pronunciation as part of the Nevada Repertory Company, with a cast largely populated by undergraduates and advised by Eric Rasmussen (co-editor on the RSC Complete Works and Folio detective). That explains why of all the project's contributing actors he seems most comfortable with these new (or rather old) sounds ably supposed by his fellow cast members, National Theatre regular Manyonda and O’Mahony from the Tobbaco Factory.

The first thing to notice is the speed with which the text flows, especially in Hamlet’s solo section towards the end, and the rhythm which, although certainly available in some modern productions, has in the initial banter, hints of Samuel Beckett’s too and fro in Waiting for Godot and emphasises the filthiness of the initial metaphor (“strumpet”, “private parts”). Not that some sections don’t become oddly prosaic, especially the extra-syllable in “ambition”, the “sh” sound replaced by “si”.

The biggest surprise is in having heard the text acted so often with a regal accent, something grasping towards received pronunciation, we're suddenly given a prince and friends who sound not unlike characters propping up a bar in one of the regional soap operas.  There's also a naturally familial connection that sometimes isn’t quite communicated in the so-called traditionalist performances, where the usual clipped annunciation can sometimes create an isolation between the characters.

Act III, Scene One:

“To Be, Or Not To Be”

Hamlet: Matthew Mellalieu

Crystal shows surprising restraint in programming what’s arguably Shakespeare’s most famous speech as late as track eight, but it does give the listener a chance to become somewhat use to these new sounds. This isn’t easy but admittedly more pleasurable from the female actors, Joan Walker’s Sonnet 18 sounding almost as naughty as the Cadbury’s Caramel bunny. But I’m straying from the point. Once “To Be, Or Not To Be” arrives we’re ready for it.

Matthew Mellalieu's reading chooses to emphasise sounds over performance so the differences can be heard much more clearly. When Pebbles sang “Question” in such a curious way in the bottom end of her 80s song “Girlfriend” referencing this very speech, did she know she was utilising a four hundred year old pronunciation? The fs are silent (“O’ troubles”) as are the hs (“The t’ousand”). Double Es become singulars “(To slep”).  Cowards sound like “chords”.

The only way to really know how this original pronunciation works would be across a whole performance. The effect must be somewhat like a Northern Broadsides production in which we’re constantly aware of the extra layer of interpretation beyond the usual directorial hand in terms of deciding how the vernacular is communicated.  Hopefully, thanks to the interest in this cd, we'll be hear the experiment extended across a longer duration.

Shakespeare’s original pronunciation is published by the British Library. RRP: £10.00. ISBN 978 0 978-0-7123-5119-5. Review copy supplied.

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