Lost in Pronunciation – Ben Crystal at Waseda University
‘Lost’ can have negative connotations of being unable to find the way, of something wasted or ruined. However, it can also denote being rapt or absorbed in something. During the second week of May, Ben Crystal was certainly absorbed in talking to Tokyoites (and the odd visitor) about original pronunciation. I was able to attend the last of three talks given by Ben at local universities (all listed below), having missed all previous opportunities to see his work on using the accent to play Shakespeare in the UK. Apart from the sheer enjoyment of being immersed in what sounded to me like Chaucer reading Shakespeare as an audition piece for the BBC Radio 4’s The Archers (and, to others present, like a Yorkshire cadence – no-one quite hears the same thing, and Ben suggested that we tend to hear accents we’re already in some way familiar with, some part of our own experiences and identity reflected, therein) and the physicality of the talk, what particularly caught my attention was the emphasis placed on social justice. I admit that as a member of the Centre for Research on Education and Social Justice at the University of York, I have antennae that twitch vigorously when discussion turns to the distribution of knowledge, opportunities, and privileges within a society.
I won’t recap here the tenets of original pronunciation – instead you can watch Ben and David Crystal introducing them here or read about them on their website –or evaluate original pronunciation in terms of its authenticity, accuracy, feasibility for companies, comprehensibility for audiences and so forth. Rather, I want to highlight the ways in which the Crystal’s use a discourse around the accent and its usage which is saturated with a yearning for the even distribution throughout societies, performing arts cultures and education systems of opportunity to engaged with Shakespeare’s works. Ben opened the talk with an anecdote about his own teenage indifference towards, even hatred of, reading Shakespeare. This disaffection dissipated when Ben was given the chance to act his works. He spoke of his frustration, as a young actor and writer, at being unable to find a book that would introduce young people to studying Shakespeare informed by drama methods without ‘dumbing down’ the play’s content, that would give young people the ‘tools, weaponry or skill sets’ to experience Shakespeare as talking to them, which led to Shakespeare on Toast. He talked about the importance of original pronunciation in making Shakespeare (and perhaps British theatre more generally) ‘accessible’ – from making it clearly audible in big, open spaces without a microphone to speeding up productions by up to ten minutes; in taking him down from his ‘pedestal’; in confronting the dominance of Received Pronunciation Shakespeare, which impinges on some actors’ access to training and career paths, as well as turning off certain potential audiences; in making rhymes that ‘tear and strain’ in RP work beautifully (cf. Sonnet 116’s closing couplet proved/loved); and in revealing the ‘colour’, the way in which words sound like the phenomena they described (onomatopoeia?), in lines such as ‘let slip the dogs of war’ – or, in original pronunciation, something like ‘warghrrrr’, something like a battle cry or groaning in pain (Julius Caesar 3.1. 273). Whether or not original pronunciation is the way, or a better way than the updating of early modern drama on stage bemoaned by critic Michael Billington or the distinctive regional sound of companies such as Northern Broadsides, to make Shakespeare accessible to new generations, I can’t quibble with the egalitarian zeal ostensibly informing it.
N.B. Ben Crystal previously featured in Teaching Shakespeare magazine as one of our practitioner interviews. You can find the article, in which he talks about his Arden series Springboard Shakespeare, here.
Ben Crystal’s Tokyo talks:
- 8th May – “Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation – the Accent of Shakespeare“, Tsuda University.
- 9th May – “Shakespeare (As He Would Have Heard It)“, Aoyama Gakuin University.
- 10th May – “Original Pronunciation Shakespeare – As He Would Have Heard It?“, Waseda University.
If you are in Tokyo, and you want to keep abreast of or publicise local humanities events (some, but not all, Shakespeare related) as well as participating in a Humanities Café, check out the Tokyo Humanities project. Details can be found on their website http://www.tokyohumanities.org, Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/tokyohumanities/ and Twitter account @TokyoHumanities.