One of the most admired all-rounders in the Shakespeare world, Ben Crystal reckons we should “speak the speech” the way the Bard did. And that means “from the gut and the groin…”

Portraits of Ben Crystal by Piper Williams for Shakespeare Magazine.

Perhaps best known for his Shakespeare on Toast book and Passion in Practice workshops, Ben Crystal is an actor, writer, producer and director. Alongside his father, linguist David Crystal, he has pioneered the practice of Original Pronunciation, getting as close as he can to how Shakespeare would have sounded to Elizabethan audiences.

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Would you define your work as a Shakespearean quest?
“Yeah, definitely! I didn’t start out on a quest, I started off wanting to act it more than anything. And then the ideas for the books came up one by one and I became known as the boy who wrote that book. I struggled to get acting auditions for Shakespeare and then, partly though the writing and partly through needing an outlet, I found myself doing more workshops, writing more, exploring more. Finding the issues in both performance and education and in audiences’ perception of Shakespeare and what seemed to be missing, and chasing that down.”

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“Now, through following this path of spreading the word of the Bard, I’ve explored disciplines like pronunciation, become fascinated by the idea of the original Shakespeare ensemble, found myself with an education programme, an OP programme and a Shakespeare ensemble. If you’d asked me when I was 16 or 17 what my dream was, it would have been to be at the RSC. But you follow the path you’re on, and the path I’m on certainly seems to be a quest. I’m very happy with it.”

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Could you explain Original Pronunciation for those who are new to the term?
“It’s a recreation of the soundscape, the accents that Shakespeare’s actors spoke in 400 years ago, in the same way as the Globe spaces are recreations of the original spatial dynamics. It’s a recreation of a sound system, not an attempt to be authentic – because that’s impossible, and there’s only so much you’re going to learn from authenticity. The Globe spaces are as close as we can get to what the spaces looked like, felt like, and we have spent a fair amount of time trying to work out how that can change or improve the way that we act Shakespeare. It’s exactly the same with this sound.”

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How do you go about recreating the accent?
“It’s based on my father’s scholarly work for the Globe in 2004. He gathered all the evidence he could from three sources. One of these was the rhymes. Often Shakespeare’s rhymes don’t work in a modern accent. To let them rhyme again requires particular types of vowel qualities. That’s one source of data. Then, if you go back to the Folio and the Quartos, they used to spell a lot more like they spoke. So, for example, the word film was spelt philome which is very definitely a two syllable word (fil’um) which you still hear in Northern Ireland. That’s an Elizabethan pronunciation carried over from 400 years ago.”

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“Then there were people who wrote linguistic-like descriptions of what the accent sounded like. With those three sources of data combined you get to about 90 percent and that last 10 percent drives my father crazy, but he can’t fill it in. I see it as a great advantage because it means that if you and I were to form a Shakespeare company using OP then we would sound 90 percent the same but then that last 10 percent will be filled up with our natural accents, the story, the audible vocal sound of our experiences.”

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“Compare that to using RP [Received Pronunciation] which is not tied to a particular geographic location. If there is one thing that accent means to people, it’s identity and territory. To me, the idea that Shakespeare should be spoken in this identity-less accent where it flattens out everybody’s character and they all sound the same, takes away its inherent uniqueness.”

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How different does it feel to perform in OP?
“Acting in RP versus OP or even in your own natural accent, your actor’s centre will shift.
A lot of people find in RP that their centre tends to be around their throat. When I act in my natural accent I find that my centre shifts to my chest. And with OP the centre shifts all the way down to your gut and into your groin. You plant your feet much more firmly on the ground and it tends to lead you to stronger character choices.”

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“They tend to be earthier, more active choices and, as a knock-on effect, you tend to move faster as well. You follow Hamlet’s advice to ‘speak the speech trippingly on the tongue’. It ramps everything up and you’re flying around the stage connecting with fellow actors in a vastly different way. One of the final results of all that is that it tends to engage your heart rather than your head. And people tend to find that it’s easier to understand and they tend to get more emotionally engaged. And that’s all we want – to make you laugh, make you cry, bring the audience along with us.”

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Do you think OP can attract bigger, more mainstream audiences?
“That’s an interesting question. Because of course I do, otherwise I wouldn’t be spending time on it. But I have to caveat that it’s not a cash bunny. I don’t see it as the sort of a performance quality in Shakespeare that money can be made out of necessarily. I’m excited by it. Irrespective of whether or not it becomes popular, there is nothing a Shakespeare geek is excited more by than an unexplored area of his field.”

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Is there a key thing that you’ve discovered by performing in OP?
“There are plenty of lost rhymes and lost puns, but the biggest discovery has been more ephemeral, really. More abstract or intangible, because you end up with a different play on your hands. You speak the lines differently and end up with characters who are completely different animals to those you expected. When I did Hamlet there was no question that he was anything like the stereotypical passive, indecisive, boring fellow. He became almost Sherlock Holmesian in the way he was trying to discover the truth. He was active. And that, in part, came from the OP. So we’re rediscovering the plays in new lights, not just the words.”

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What other interesting things do you think are currently happening Shakespeare-wise?
“The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is interesting. There are plans to build a Shakespearean theatre for Shakespeare North. I’m intrigued by the Maxine Peake Hamlet that was up at the Royal Exchange and by the all-female company explorations that have been going on at The Donmar. There’s a lot of younger companies exploring Shakespeare – there’s Smooth Faced Gentlemen, The HandleBards, who go round on bikes. There’s lots of cool, interesting stuff in the underground as well as all the companies running around the country doing open-air Shakespeare. It’s interesting that both the Globe and the RSC have brought in international companies.”

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“The reason we’re having this conversation, the reason there’s a Shakespeare Magazine is that these plays really, really are wonderful. He had a capacity and a knack for exploring the human condition and the way that we think – and why we do the things that we do – in such an amazing way that it’s really hard to get them wrong. And yet we do. There is something that these international companies are tapping into.”

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“Or maybe it’s tapping into something in us. Because we are both in tandem released from the pressure of ‘how are they going to deliver this famous line?’ I think we are being taught a lot by Europe and Eastern Europe about something that we’re missing with Shakespeare, craft and a long rehearsal period, a return to the ensemble. They are not restricted because they’re not bound to our language and they have a playfulness with it that I think we’re losing.”

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You’ve travelled widely, how would you say Shakespeare is perceived around the world?
“Away from the UK everyone loves him! It’s a generalisation but it’s not too far off. I do not meet students who dislike him so much overseas but I do encounter this ownership issue that whilst they have a tremendous passion, heart and love for Shakespeare, there is still this idea that ‘We don’t do it right because we don’t have the right sound or we don’t have English training’.”

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“Americans have embraced OP, though. Because the accent that left London 400 years ago got on the boats and went to the Americas. So when they hear OP they don’t say ‘Oh God, that sounds alien to us’. They hear accent qualities they can relate to and rather than thinking ‘We can’t do Shakespeare because we don’t have that beautiful RP accent. We don’t have any ownership over Shakespeare, even though we love him’, they say ‘Oh my goodness, he actually sounds like us, we can do this’. So it’s no wonder that they’ve embraced it. There is some really, really fascinating work both in the States and across the world. I just wish there was more flow, that more would come over. And, indeed, the other way.”

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We’ve mentioned your father, David Crystal. In You Say Potato the relationship between the two of you bounces of the page. What’s it like work with your dad?
“It’s a pain in the neck and it is the most wonderful, joyous experience that you could possibly wish for! I came up with the idea for Shakespeare’s Words when I was 22. I was lucky to work with a parent at such a young age. We became friends, and we got to know each other so quickly. He certainly wasn’t used to someone telling him he was wrong. There absolutely were disputes. He taught me how to articulate an argument, he taught me how to articulate myself. I am utterly blessed and feel lucky to have both that working and familial friendship with him and my mum. And I’m especially lucky that, considering how much of an expert he is, how experienced he is – and that even though sometimes it does take a little bit of shouting – he is always perceptive and open to new ideas.”

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“You can’t really ask for a better colleague than that. So to be able to take his research on and explore it practically, it’s really wonderful. It’s a celebration of his research and it’s a continuation and an exploration of it that he wouldn’t necessarily be able to do himself. So we are a good partnership in that respect.”

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So, if you had one big Shakespearean aspiration, What would it be?
“To change the education system, fundamentally, from the top down or the bottom up, whichever way is quickest. To refresh Shakespeare production and performance and the perception of it in a similar way that Gielgud, Olivier, Burton or Branagh has done. I would like very much to spend a considerable amount of time training and forming a company – much like the ensemble I’ve been starting to form – in a Globe-like space, and see where that may take us. To have artistic directorship of a place like The Globe or the Wanamaker, building our own space and recreating a similar sort of dynamic, that would be fine.”

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“And coming away from these experiences in 20-25 years time and having someone in their twenties or thirties saying ‘Ben Crystal’s wrong, his ideas had their time and now this is where we need to go with Shakespeare’ would be a dream come true.”

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Find out more about Ben’s approach to Shakespeare at the Passion in Practice website.

This interview originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.

An intrepid crew of London-based Shakespeareans have just made theatrical history with the first cue script performance at Bankside’s Rose Playhouse since 1606. Lizzie Conrad Hughes of the salon: collective explains how they did it

Akilah Dale as Phoebe, Ricardo Freitas as Silvius

Akilah Dale as Phoebe, Ricardo Freitas as Silvius

We call it Shakespeare: Direct. Why the name? Because working from cue script parts in the style of Early Modern players – the first modern actors – means that you are directed directly through the text by the play’s writer, just as his own players were – so you are in direct contact with Shakespeare.

Cue script work means you prepare your part, your costume, and your character, but you do not know who else is in your scene, what they will say, or do, or how that will affect you, until you both meet on stage before an audience. And it is not enough to stand on stage and just speak – you have to deliver a performance. And you have to listen like your life depends on it not to miss your cue.

Ricardo Freitas as Hubert, Paula Parducz as Prince Arthur

Ricardo Freitas as Hubert, Paula Parducz as Prince Arthur

It has been said that cue script acting puts you right in the heart of the moment, but at no time are you in control of it – it’s a bit like juggling fire. This fire juggling makes the work very alive and gives us a glimpse of what performances may have been like back in Shakespeare’s day, with vibrantly alive actors hanging on each other’s every word.

Plus, sometimes an actor will receive a cue more than once – in other words, Shakespeare set up his actors to attempt to interrupt each other, which also helped to keep the action on stage fresh and exciting.

Anna Hawkes as Lady Percy

Anna Hawkes as Lady Percy

The moment I discovered The Rose Playhouse in May 2014, hidden under an office building beside Southwark Bridge, I knew what I had to do. The Rose is the site of Philip Henslowe’s playhouse, home to the Admiral’s Men, and site of Will Shakespeare’s own apprenticeship as player and playwright. It’s two minutes’ walk from Shakespeare’s Globe on the Bankside of the Thames, but it’s The Real Thing. And it’s very cold and they have no plumbing, as it’s a theatre in an archaeological site.

I’d been experimenting with First Folio text-based cue script acting for a few months, encouraged by my husband and fellow Shakespeare geek Dewi Hughes, and a growing group of fellow actors. We were gradually unearthing the acting secrets buried in the text by their writer/director and previously excavated by cue script pioneer Patrick Tucker. I’d read his book, Secrets of Acting Shakespeare, and been wildly inspired to try it out.

Lawrence Carmichael looking over the remains of The Rose

Lawrence Carmichael looking over the remains of The Rose

The work was embryonic still, but fascinating and ridiculously addictive. Finding The Rose, the spiritual home of cue script acting, it seemed tailor-made – all we had to do was bring the two things together.

On Sunday 29 March 2015 we performed at The Rose before an invited audience. There were 20 of us – 12 who knew what they were in for, and eight cue script novices who had no idea. We normally work in the studios at The Cockpit in Marylebone, so the echoing cavern and enigmatic great lake that covers The Rose meant a real change of pace.

Lizzie Conrad Hughes as Cleopatra

Lizzie Conrad Hughes as Cleopatra

We presented ten scenes from plays ranging from King John to As You Like It. Each scene begins and ends with a bell rung by the Book-holder – the prompter, who sits in the audience. Prompting was built into the process of the playhouses – their audiences knew they were watching a play and had no problem when a prompt was required. Nor did ours on Sunday. One audience member commented that it made her feel a part of the creative process, as the scene was created before her eyes.

Kim Hardy as Hotspur, Lawrence Carmichael as Northumberland

Kim Hardy as Hotspur, Lawrence Carmichael as Northumberland

Everyone taking part in this work did an all-day class to learn all the hidden secrets of the First Folio and get a feeling for being directed by the text. Then they received their part (around 40 lines and associated cues), which they had to study for text clues before their first one hour session with their ‘Verse Nurser’.

At this point we make sure they have any necessary info about their character and the story so far in the play, and check that they understand all their words and are on track with their study. They then get off book before session two, which is more about the physical performance, including potential movement in the scene.

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We have historical precedent for this – and besides, it makes practical theatrical sense! ‘VN’ and line learning takes three weeks. On performance day, we had a practical session of entrances and exits, changes in costume, and any physical business. Again, there is precedent for this – it’s about the only kind of practical preparation there was before a performance in Shakespeare’s day.

Dominic Kelly as Worcester

Dominic Kelly as Worcester

The actual acting passes in a haze of mental and emotional fire that is almost impossible to describe. Kim Hardy, who’s done the work once before, commented: “It was a tremendous experience all round. The buzz was thrilling playing at The Rose.” John Kelley, on his first go, said: “A unique, emotional, unforgettable experience where I felt utterly supported and inspired by my fellow players.”

Everyone who’s tried it agrees: it’s addictive. It changes how you work with other actors, how you treat text, and how you feel about William Shakespeare: player, playwright, director, poet, genius, and best friend to the modern actor.

The company perform their closing jig

The company perform their closing jig

Anyone looking for more information on the salon: collective and Shakespeare: Direct (and the chance to join the next round), check out their details on The Cockpit’s website.

All images by Camilla Greenwell