GLOSSARY / Words that can withstand the whirlwind

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The Independent Online
VISITING the Edinburgh Festival last week, I spent one morning perched on the Traverse Theatre's ziggurat-like (1) seats watching two famous theatrical practitioners. One, Harriet Walter, you will probably have heard of. The other, Patsy Rodenburg, will be less familiar, though if you have visited the National Theatre, you have almost certainly heard her work. She is Head of Voice there, responsible for persuading all those who act in National productions that while the vocal cords are an instrument virtually everyone can play, most of us are still plonking out 'Chopsticks'.

I bring the session up here because what followed was a fascinating demonstration of just how much pressure talented people can bring to bear on Shakespearean verse and, more pertinently perhaps, how much pressure the verse will sustain. Public speech rarely stops long enough for us to get a good look at it - it rushes past as if seen through a train window (2) and needs to survive only a glance.

For an hour and a half, however, the train came to a stop and we had only 14 lines of verse to stare at. Fittingly, they were lines about the durability of memorable language (Sonnet 55 in the Oxford Complete Works, 'Not marble nor the gilded monuments').

Festival Edinburgh (not to be confused with the dour Scottish capital of the same name) is not an early-morning city; even so, the Traverse's largest theatre was filled to overflowing for the event. The explanation was fairly simple: Festival Edinburgh has almost toxic concentrations of would-be actors. The audience had come, I realised after a while, not so much to watch a job of work, but to witness the magical moment at which text is transformed into 'acting'.

You could tell this from the fact that when Ms Rodenburg invited us to join in the warm-up exercises she was greeted not by the awkward shifting that is the British audience's traditional response to participation but by a cascade of eager bodies down the terracing. She and Ms Walter were nearly trampled in the rush.

That same enthusiasm inevitably deformed the occasion. Although both women carefully pointed out that this brief demonstration could only suggest the sort of work done over much longer periods in a rehearsal room, the mechanics of the thing almost obliged you to ignore the warning.

First Ms Walter would read a few lines, then Ms Rodenburg would pull out her vocal toolkit, asking her to intone the words on a single note, or to break the line into fragments, with aching pauses between them. Ms Walter would read the line again. A murmur of approbation seemed the least we could do to fill the little pause that followed.

In most cases, however, the second reading wasn't necessarily better than the first, merely different. The point of the exercise was not to ascend step by step to a perfect reading, but to experiment with the voice and the text, breaking the stranglehold that meaning has had on rhythmic sound since the naturalistic productions of the late Sixties. This was actually audible at one point, after Ms Rodenburg had asked Ms Walter to beat out the iambic metre with grotesquely exaggerated stresses. The reading that followed was genuinely thrilling (3) , as though a pulse was thumping beneath the words.

And under this harsh light the words gleamed. ' . . . you shall shine more bright in these contents', Shakespeare writes, 'Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time./ When wasteful war shall statues overturn,/And broils root out the work of masonry,/Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn/The living record of your memory.'

The cobweb of 's' sounds across the second line there, the conjuring trick by which the poet heaps up one pan of the scales with concrete nouns (stone, statues, masonry) only to tip it triumphantly back with a single feather-light abstract (memory), the faint sense that he is convincing himself as much as the loved one, emerged slowly, leached from the poem by the slow drip of repeated readings. It was a useful reminder that great verse is built to withstand hard use and a still point in the whirlwind of disposable words that the Festival throws up every year.

1 From the Assyrian ziqquratu, a height, pinnacle. Cf. zaqaru, to be high.

2 From the Old Norse vindauga (vindr, wind and auga, eye).

3 From the Old English thyrlian, to pierce, to penetrate.