THEATRE / Not like that, like this: If you want to be 'authentick', then, whatever happens, you must not rehearse before walking on stage. Georgina Brown meets the players doing it Shakespeare's way

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A month ago, six actors met and cast Twelfe Night (sic), the first-folio version of Shakespeare's comedy. Tomorrow night, that company, many of them strangers to one another, will dress up in heavy Elizabethan costumes and perform together for the first time. Each actor has had four weeks to learn a 'cue script' - that is, a three-word cue plus their own part in isolation from the rest of the play, which they have promised not to read. But, with the exception of the fights and the dance, they have never rehearsed the play before. The prompter has rarely felt so wanted. It's hard to know who is crazier: the audience who will pay pounds 5, or the performers who confess to a state of mild terror. But What You Will Theatre Company claims that there is method in their madness. This, they insist, is 'authentic' Shakespeare.

It's the 'fanatickally faithfull' (sic, again) boast which conjures nightmare images of Ladybird Shakespeare - all woolly tights, outsize codpieces, declamatory gestures and goofy Elizabethan pronunciation. It sounds like yet another example of the tiresomely reactionary, wilfully eccentric, 'where-there's-a-Will- there's-a-way' approach to Shakespeare from desperate attention-seeking actors.

So it comes as something of a relief to find instead a band of intelligent, professionally trained and experienced actors engaged in a spot of genuine dramatic archeology. The inspiration was a Shakespeare workshop taken by Patrick Tucker, a physicist turned freelance director who had done some research into the conditions under which Shakespeare's company performed their plays.

'When I direct Brookside,' Tucker explains, 'I have 20 minutes to rehearse and direct a scene - the writers incorporate that fact in the way they write. Maybe Shakespeare wrote like that too. Nobody knows how his company rehearsed - we know precise details about how a trap- door was hinged but rehearsals are never mentioned. What we do know from the one schedule that exists is that an Elizabethan company performed six different plays a week, six more the following week, and probably added a new play to the repertory every two weeks; that means doing 20 plays in three weeks. It's impossible: how could they learn their lines and rehearse?'

Armed with another meagre scrap of evidence - a cue script that belonged to Edward Alleyn - the leading actor at the Rose Theatre, the physicist in Tucker developed a theory: that the actors never rehearsed; they merely learnt their own parts from the cue script (apparently the actors were not given the whole play in case they stole it) the day before the performance. Then he put it to the test with a band of experienced Shakespearean actors. 'To my utter astonishment, it worked. Brilliantly. If Shakespeare is the genius we think he is, it's not all that surprising that he wrote all the instructions the actors need into the text. Like a composer, he scored the play for the actor.'

According to Tucker, the capitalised words contained in the first-folio versions of the plays are an instruction to the actor as to where to place the stress. (Subsequent editions have tidied up these and other grammatical idiosyncracies in a way that Tucker describes as 'intellectually dishonest'.) To this he has added a few elementary rules: throw academic logic out of the window; do not anticipate the rest of the scene; impose nothing. 'If you've got a series of non-sequiturs - as in Ophelia's mad speech - play it as written. The jaggedness or inconsistency is Shakespeare's instruction. If you think it's funny, play funny; if it's sad, play sad.'

The theory sounds intriguing. But surely a production that has not been blocked, in which actors simply walk over to whoever they are addressing - be it another character or the audience - can only look a shambles. Tucker disagrees. If all the instructions are obeyed, even in the most crowded scenes, an actor's position will be implicit in the text. And in any case, he adds, on a relatively small Elizabethan stage, there was little choice.

What the gang of six found most striking about Tucker's method, when it was put to the test in workshop, was the way it enlivened both actors and audience. As one of them, Ben Cole, says: 'The best performances I've ever been in are those when something has gone wrong - the actors spring to life, and the audience feels a sudden buzz. These days the audience spectates; they don't listen. This encourages them to really listen.'

Nick Hutchison agrees that it is a much-needed antidote to those stale West End productions in which 'as an actor you're on automatic pilot'. But, according to David Angus, the method takes some nerve: 'You have to throw away the stuff about re-creating spontaneity that you spent years learning at drama school and actually be spontaneous. You have to stop yourself thinking about where the scene is heading and concentrate on each moment, and you have to listen to every word the other characters say because you've no idea if your cue comes at the end of a 50-line speech or a two-line speech. That means you've got to prepare more meticulously than ever. You can't get up there and wing it. Out of fear actors can slip in tricks - a silly walk, perhaps - but if you do that here you remove all the spontaneity.'

'I think tricks are fine,' argues Anne Atkins, 'The Elizabethans were trained in the commedia dell'arte style of improvisation and would have pulled every trick in the book. This method does change your acting style - it has to be more physical, but not declamatory. We follow the advice Hamlet gave to the Players: 'Suit the word to the action and the action to the word'.'

It's easy to see the appeal to actors weary of directors. Cole is sick of seeing scenes overwhelmed by the direction and cites, as an example, the RSC production of Romeo and Juliet in which 'a scene between two guys at a dance was smothered by a red Lamborghini pulled on by a tow- rope to the accompanying sound of a hairdryer'. 'It's hanging the acting on a clever way of doing things - it isn't serving Shakespeare,' says David Angus. 'Too often I find myself watching a production and saying 'how clever' of the director and not listening at all.' Hutchison quotes, with obvious disgust, a critic of Robert Lepage's A Midsummer Night's Dream noting that one of the actors couldn't speak the verse but at least she could do the crab while she was saying it, and that was good enough. 'The text is what matters. And at best, with this technique, it's as if you are being directed by Shakespeare himself.'

The company passionately denounces accusations of gimmickry. 'We're not trying to re-create Shakespeareland - we are rediscovering Shakespeare.' And they emphasise that the project is an experiment. 'It may not work. But if it does it could be very exciting.' And in good time to become a regular attraction at the replica Globe Theatre, perhaps? The company is non-committal. In the end, in the way that any innovative, or retrogressive approach does, it boils down - or up - to one more attempt to make an old text live.

Twelfe Night: 21 Jan, 7.30pm The Institute, St Peter's Church, Vere St, W1

25 Jan, 7.30pm Lincoln's Inn, WC2

29 Jan, 7.30 Bear Gardens, Bankside, SE1

30 Jan, 7.30pm Lady Margaret's School, Parson's Green, SW6

1 Feb 8pm, King's Head, Upper St, N1

Booking: 071-253 3999

(Photograph omitted)