Theater News

Speak the Speech, I Pray You

Renowned voice teacher Patsy Rodenburg has a passionate conversation with David Finkle.

Patsy Rodenburg
Patsy Rodenburg

“To understand Shakespeare, you have to speak the text,” Patsy Rodenburg says. And says it again. And yet again in one form or another. She says it at the beginning of her book Speaking Shakespeare. She said it more than once when she addressed a standing-room-only crowd in the Drama Book Shop’s black-box event room earlier this year. She said it at an interview in a Chelsea restaurant when she had some downtime during a Manhattan visit. And she could be saying it wherever she is at this very moment.

Why does Rodenburg repeat herself so often and with such well-articulated passion? Because, as a voice teacher, she appreciates the challenges and opportunities that the Bard hands to actors. To call this woman “a voice teacher” is akin to calling Manhattan an interesting borough: Rodenburg may very well be the leading exponent of voice coaching in the world. It seems as though she’s worked with everyone in the English theater over the past three decades. She taught Ralph Fiennes and Simon Russell Beale when they were still students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; she’s director of voice at the Royal National Theatre, where she worked with Glenn Close on A Streetcar Named Desire; she assisted Beale and Emily Watson on the Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night that Sam Mendes put up at the Donmar Warehouse in London and then, on this side of the pond, at BAM. To communicate her beliefs about how the voice must be developed, trained, and employed, she’s written three previous how-to books: The Right to Speak, The Need for Words, The Actor Speaks. These volumes boast adulatory introductions by Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, and Anthony Sher.

Talk to Rodenburg about Shakespeare and she discourses on “the great sweep of verse” and the chances the Bard offers thespians to “drown in the verse line.” She has worked on the canon for so long that she’s lost count of the many times she has delved into, for instance, Twelfth Night — but she hasn’t lost sight of what she’s learned about the texts. She will talk of analyzing the plays’ scenes while stressing that analysis only takes an actor so far. “If you look at the language,” she says about the melancholy prose and verse in Twelfth Night, “you see it’s a strange country Viola arrives in. She brings air into the country.”

Rodenburg has much to relay on the subject of the difference between the British approach to Shakespeare and the American way. (She has taught at many stateside spots, including Southern Methodist University.) “Americans have a different form of energy,” she says. “They take more risks, perhaps because they don’t know the risks they’re taking. They’re fit physically. You must be fit to play Shakespeare but you can’t be pumped; there has to be a certain amount of elasticity. How else do you let an impulse go through you?”

One thing Rodenburg won’t tolerate is any suggestion that Americans or anyone other than the Brits are at a disadvantage with Shakespeare because they don’t speak the
Queen’s English. “Absolute rubbish,” she says. “Take a look at Hamlet’s advice.” She’s referring to the Danish prince’s Act III chat with the players on speaking trippingly. Shakespeare, she insists, “can be done in any accent and in any way short of declaiming.” She further insists that anyone who feels an iamb’s forward thrust can speak or, for that matter, sing.

The English do have a leg up on Shakespeare, she says, in that “there is good theater within a few hours” of them. This she contrasts with the situation in America, where many actors are raised on movies and television. She also feels that English actors’ facility with speech stems from living in a country where they don’t need to travel far to hear diverse accents. Born in London and raised just outside the sprawling city, Rodenburg describes Elizabethan England as “untamed.” She mentions that “England was known to be the most temperamental of the European countries. English women were the freest. It wasn’t until the Empire that the English became stiff-upper-lipped.”

Mark Strong and Emily Watson inTwelfth Night at BAM
Mark Strong and Emily Watson in
Twelfth Night at BAM

The renowned voice specialist belies the old saw that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Rodenburg started out as an actress in the ’70s, playing for two seasons at the famous Roundhouse Theatre in North London; one of the roles she undertook was Rosalind in As You Like It. She liked acting but, apparently, not enough: One day, she paused to think about her commitment to acting as compared to working with others on their voices and decided that she’d rather dedicate herself to the latter. She was positioned to act on her preference because she had studied voice at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama with its leading voice exponent, Gwyneth Thorburn — or Thorby, as she was known to the Lawrence Olivier/John Gielgud/Michael Redgrave generation.

Rodenburg tells the rather wonderful story of attending a party given for Thorby’s 80th birthday. Seated as far from the dais as was possible, Rodenburg was called to Thorby’s side some time during the repast. When she got there, the birthday girl took her hand and the hand of then-established voice teacher Cecily Berry. She turned to those
immediately surrounding her and said, “These are the two.” Rodenburg realized that she’d been anointed. Since then she’s been up to her neck in glamorous assignments: “I have never asked for a job in my life,” she relates.

Rodenburg, who has an amused, no-nonsense air about her and who wears no-nonsense togs, has been on “a little quest” through the years. She has taught voice at any number of curious spots, including North London’s Holloway Prison. And she’s journeyed to all sorts of unlikely places to expand her understanding of the voice in operation. At the mere mention of the diaphragm, she leaps up and demonstrates the correct way to use it. She learned even more about the breathing/speaking parts of the body when preparing 14 actors to simulate prehistoric figures for a BBC documentary titled Walking With Cavemen: She learned “when the larynx dropped” and was fascinated to hear from the anthropologists with whom she worked about the evolution of abdominal muscles and how that led to mankind’s ability to sustain sounds.

“Hoo-hoo-hoo,” she exhales, simian-like. “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo. That was before man could go ‘hooooooooooooooo.'” For Patsy Rodenburg, the play’s the thing — and so is the vocal technique.