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.

Camilla_Greenwell_SC_Rose_LOWRES_017
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

A Photographic Glimpse of Cleopatras Past from Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company

If you enjoyed Tony Howard’s brilliant investigation of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in Issue 3 of Shakespeare Magazine, here are three more actresses who have tackled this endlessly complex and fascinating role. Thank you to Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC for these archive images.

Click on the images to enlarge and enjoy.

Suzanne Bertish as Cleopatra in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007-2008 Season production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Carol Pratt.

Cleo 2007

Helen Carey as Cleopatra, with Starla Benford as Charmian and Opal Alladin as Iras, in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 1996-1997 Season production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Ron Daniels. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Cleo 1996

Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Cleopatra and Gail Grate as Charmian in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 1988-1989 Season production of Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Cleo 1988

More from: Shakespeare Theatre Company

Did you see any of these productions? Which is your favourite portrayal of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on stage or screen? Leave a comment below and let us know.