Try this for starters. Read a scene in rhymed couplets to someone you know, and ask them if it sounded natural. Not easy, is it? Great rhyme masters, from Alexander Pope to Richard Wilbur, require their readers to use these couplets on stage or page, and this is no small task. It asks from the performer something like singing. The regularity of the rhyme scheme, its dominance, can be treacherous. Peter Hall maintained that a script of Shakespeare’s can be read like music, but iambic pentameter is too strong and unbalanced to accept this kind of strictness all the time. Rhymed (sometimes called heroic) couplets need, indeed require, a balancing act. The listener knows instinctively when the rhymes are over-sung. I am saying there has to be a large and flexible middle to the actor’s method. This middle might be defined as the place that is returned to.
The ease of Mr. Wilbur’s rhymes help us to do this. We depend on their lightness to give us a chance to find the natural mean in our speaking and our hearing. Good delivery of rhymed couplets seems to float. It can rise or fall freely, immediately. This is what gives it comic grace. The actor hewing to the middle with great skill, keeping the rhymes subtle, can easily jump up or fall off, and we usually perceive these blips on the rhyming thermometer to be funny. The most frequent fault one hears in the theater is that they are overplayed. The result of this is that we never hear the couplets as natural , but something more like a never-ending nursery rhyme. The balance is all. I can think of few other spoken styles which need better control. We know that this control is there when an actress can make us laugh heartily with just a slight gesture, up or down with the rhyme. In Tina Packer’s inventively staged The Learned Ladies at Shakespeare and Co., there is a young actress who was a demonstration model of how to do this well. Kelly Galvin, as Henriette, made us at home in the structure, the sound, of the verse, and I mean this as the highest praise. She found the golden mean, the subtle middle with its infinite potential, and most of her speech stayed there. She had great power when she departed from it. Again, her speech was like a kind of music, a superb singer who knows where the top of the song is and leaves you with its complete shape in your ear. Everything I have seen from this actress has impressed me. The con sordino pathos of her Madame de Tourvel in The Dangerous Liaisons a few seasons ago, the clarity and bright energy of her Perdita in The Winter’s Tale with Jonathan Epstein and Elizabeth Aspenlieder, but none of them so much as her performance in The Learned Ladies. This young actress deserves a major main-stage role. Another sharp performance was given by Brittany Morgan as the maid Martine. This is what she had to do: speak a translation of a 17th century French play, rhymed by Mr. Wilbur, in a southern accent, and she did this with such an excellent understanding of the buoyancy of the verse that we believed her to be a real person. Ryan Winkles as Trissotin is also to be commended for not overdoing the most flamboyant part in the show. Any time one can hear Richard Wilbur’s verse on stage, one is hearing a rare and beautiful music. This is why his verses are so easy to sing, as I know from personal experience.
Fun at The Clark
There were two more comic adventures at The Clark this week. Williamstown Theatre Festival presented a reading of Richard Wilbur’s translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope. There was a consistent level of verbal dexterity on display in this event—John Douglas Thompson’s subdued way with the verse, which brought it very close to prose; Jennifer Mudge’s bright, resonant, equivocal Celimene; and excellence throughout in the supporting players. The reading held the audience’s attention effortlessly for over two hours—one felt that nothing was missing. The poe—the translator, that is—who was present, was heartily applauded at the conclusion of the show.
There was also a “Live from The National” screening of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Dominic Cooke’s new production. This is the show with the famous Lenny Henry, one of Britain’s favorite comics, as Antipholus. It was rather broad, and it revelled joyously in its romping energy and riotous rhythm. I thought the finest performance came from Michelle Terry as Luciana, one of a pair of sisters, caught up in the romantic mix-ups that the play gradually untangles. Ms. Terry had an absolutely uncanny sense of timing. She would leave pauses, endless spaces of silence, which one would never expect to play in the house, let alone on a movie screen. But they did! They did more than play; they made you laugh. They made you wonder. They made you question. She was superb.
I find it easier to watch a play on the big screen than to hear singing in that way. Somehow speaking is less the sound of the person in the room, and I seem to get more of it even when the person is not in the room. Maybe I am wrong about this. Still, for me a performance is something that happens between an audience and the stage. The stage that I was watching was reacting to an audience, or should I say with an audience, but it wasn’t the audience I was sitting in. It was three thousand miles away.