Edited by Lyn Haill
Oberon Books £12 99
Dateline: 2nd December, 2007
Actors Speaking harks back to two eras and allows readers to
wallow in double nostalgia as famous names are used as exemplars, again
and again. The book, which has been jointly published by Oberon Books
and the National Theatre, resulted from a project set up by playwright/director
Peter Gill when he headed the National Theatre Studio in the mid-1980s.
He had a pet theory that actors twenty years ago did not speak as well
as those of yesteryear and sent his students off to prove it by talking
to their elders. The interviewers are not individually identified but
include actors who are still working today such as John Burgess and
Their subjects could easily form a British acting Hall of Fame from
the last century, many being venerable by this stage, including a couple
of actresses, Athene Seyler and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, who were soon
to celebrate their centenaries when grilled in 1986, plus a couple of
others who managed near-misses.
The collective experience of these twelve actors is second to none,
with a great deal of variety to ensure that the maximum amount of wisdom
has been passed on. In addition, each is portrayed in characteristic
photographs of them in action.
All of this follows a strident introduction from Peter Gill, who explains
the purpose and operation of the National Theatre Studio before launching
into the politics of art financing with little respect for those involved
today on either side of the political divide.
What started as a mutual masterclass in the art of speaking on stage
became far more. While each of the individuals had unanimously strong
views on why today's (in 1986 and 1988) actors were often inaudible
and unintelligible, they did not stop at that point. Having offered
advice that will be of benefit to anyone wishing to act today with regard
to the basic skills that enable an actor to throw his or her voice to
the back of a massive auditorium and enunciate clearly in order to ensure
that plays have for meaning, they then move on.
Much of the pleasure of this book comes from the mini-biographies that
surround the lessons. Thus, we learn about the lives both on and off
stage of such greats as Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison and Michael Hordern
amongst the men and Fabia Drake, Margaret Tyzack and Patricia Hayes
(the archetypal stage maid but brought up to speak perfectly) from the
The format is relatively similar but never becomes boring, as the variety
of answers is so great. The interviewers try to discover who has influenced
the careers of their subjects; the extent to which they were taught
about speaking and general stage performance; how they compare current
speaking standards with those in their heyday and youth; and who they
thought were the best of younger actors at the time of their interview.
There is also concentration on the difference between speaking prose
and verse and in Shakespearean and contemporary plays.
Within this structure, many more personal questions are asked to tease
out brief biographies that are almost uniformly fascinating. In particular,
this book is of interest because the lives of many of the subjects were
so long that they are able to recall experiences from the very earliest
days of the 20th century right through to those of Margaret Thatcher.
This book can be strongly commended to anybody who wants to learn more
about how to act and in particular speak but also those who have an
interest in stage history and the lives of the stars.
Articles from 2007
Articles from 2006
Articles from 2005
Articles from 2004
Articles from 2003
Articles from 2002
Articles from 2001
Articles from 2000
Articles from 1999
Articles from 1998
Articles from 1997