Yesterday, I took part in the Harrogate Competitive Festival for Music Speech and Drama, Solo-Acting Shakespeare category/class. I came 3rd with Distinction with my performance of Othello Act 4 scene 3, Desdemona (the Willow scene). The competition was high in this category and this was my first time performing Shakespeare. It feels so far removed from screen acting, and I was utterly terrified. I don’t really know what I’m doing with Shakespeare but I love it at the same time. There seems to be more of a focus on the language itself and its musicality and rhythm, which is something you don’t think about at all with screen acting (it’ll just look fake on screen). Being ‘truthful’ (whatever that means anyway) to the emotions and character (in a screen-acting sense) is only half the battle with Shakespeare. The texts were written before Stanislavski, Strindberg, Chekhov, and so on introduced their ‘realism’ / ‘naturalism’ (etc) theories into acting.
I used to perform in speech and drama festivals a lot when I was a kid, sometimes I came first with honours, other times not. I also performed in the Harrogate festival pre-pandemic (2020 – just as it was being discussed on the news) with performances from Chekhov’s The Seagull (came 4th and the class was huge) and a sketch by Ronnie Barker (came 3rd, but this class was only out of 3 so I don’t really count it). Competitive performing is a nerve-racking experience but I do miss it at the same time. I feel too old to be doing this nowadays but at the same time I wish I could still perform like I used to as a child. When I think back to those competitions I came first in, they were the ones where I didn’t think too much about what I was doing and I just was…in the moment. It’s difficult to do that now I’m old. Also, Shakespeare doesn’t afford such being in the sense that you can internalise the emotions and ‘go with the flow’, because that language is important and needs to be expertly executed. As the adjudicator said (and I like this metaphor) you have to work the orchestra in your whole voice. And, of course, breath support is crucial with Shakespeare, so even abject fear has to be orchestrated musically. At the moment in my study and practice of Shakespeare, I am finding that dichotomy difficult to reconcile. I don’t want to forget about realism (again, what even is that?) because I believe Shakespeare can be brought to life in ways that speak to audiences of today (and not just experts in Shakespeare), but at the same time I don’t want to be conventionally bad at performing Shakespeare.