I am back from the BT and I have a headache. Either Oxford is creating theatre for the deaf (in which case, I recommend sign language as a restful alternative), or our actors and directors have a problem with volume.
We shout before we can speak. Doubtless Neanderthals invented shouting when the first Neanderthal foot made contact with Neanderthal spear-head left on Neanderthal cave-floor, or when Neanderthal Jr wanted to signal that a mammothskin nappy had fulfilled its purpose. This historic association of shouting with shit and violence is no justification for charging me £4 to court aural abuse.
I do understand that shouting onstage is fun, and that it is tempting: big scene, big part, and some dimly-understood blank verse that suggests this scene is All About You And Your Big Huge Angst. Your audience is with you. Your character has just suffered unimaginable heartbreak. And naturally the only way to express this is by covering the first five rows in noise pollution and phlegm.
This is a fallacy. Volume is not emotion. Volume is not intensity. Volume is a con and a cesspit and usually a cop-out. While carefully charting a character’s early path, far too many actors and directors seem to think that the concluding emotional power can be expressed by a kind of all-purpose ranting, where one noise fits all.
While the actor wallows in their own verbal wankery, the audience is left wondering if all the big noise and dramatics means the queen my lord is (finally) dead.
Bewildered and betrayed, your paying guests – so attentive to your earlier characterisation, the hints dropped with your props – feel at the moment of aural assault like a lover who agrees to a little light bondage, only to wake and find their partner wearing a gimp mask and holding a blowtorch. It’s bizarre, embarrassing and exceptionally scary.
Contrary to popular belief, many of Oxford’s theatres are really quite small. Given current directorial trends, an embarrassed student audience is usually already combatting the cast’s sweat patches, anachronistic underwear and genitalia; with both hands clamped over their eyes, they have nothing left to cover their ears.
Real people, without RADA or BADA or the iambic pentameter, constantly vary their pitch, volume and pace in spontaneous speech. I am a bigoted reactionary (I like directors to direct, costumes to fit, and actors not to face upstage for hours without reason), but I hate the neglect of voice and verse-speaking.
Talent and determination are innate, but voices have to be exercised and techniques learned. Olivier wanted actors to have ‘an orchestra at their beck and call’ in vocal terms – not for the sake of the mythical Voice Beautiful (beautiful people beautifully enunciating beautiful lines until the audience is numb, dead or murderous), but to achieve stamina and versatility.
Charlie Reston has returned from a year at drama school and consequently sounds four hundred times better than anyone else on the Oxford stage, whilst his 4th week co-star, Sam Caird, has several big shouty scenes and yet manages to both enunciate his lines AND convey that his character is miffed. Clearly, it is possible.
I am not advocating a new Trappist drama, merely suggesting that actors fulfil the first rule of good acting, and be specific. If your character has something to shout about, remember why we open our mouths onstage: to communicate. Unless the playwright provides the blessing/curse of an ‘O, O, O’, part of what you must convey is words.
Use shouting onstage like nudity; sparingly, thrillingly, and only when integral to the plot. Humans are born shouting, but learn to speak.