Shakespeare 'poisoned' by actors going over the top, director says

Hannah Furness
Sir Laurence Olivier overdoing a little as Hamlet

Shakespearean theatre has been “poisoned” by the “bizarre” over-acting of an older generation of thespians, the director Robert Icke has said.

Icke, who is currently working with actor Andrew Scott on an Almeida theatre production of Hamlet, said the public had been put off going to see Shakespeare by the “operative modes of delivery” once preferred by actors like Sir John Gielgud.

Saying British theatre had “shot itself in both feet” thanks to an obsession with “verse speaking”, he warned the taste for pausing at the end of every Shakespeare line is “nonsense” and ruins lines that are actually “completely...normal”.

Andrew Scott's 2017 Hamlet

In an interview about his modern Hamlet, awarded three stars by the Telegraph, Icke said he “never needed to see” a production in Elizabethan costume, opening with dry ice and actors pacing back and forth again.

“It's dead,” he said. “It's completely boring.”

On the topic of language, he told the Sunday Times Culture magazine: "The water is completely poisoned by reverence and bizarre, operatic modes of delivery.

Scott performing at the Almeida Theatre

"Actors do really weird things. They'll take lines that are completely colloquial and naturalistic and normal, and they will say it like it's the Bible."

The trait, he added, left audience believing there is "a high-culture party going on, which, if you're honest, you don't know how to behave at".

"Verse is one of the things British theatre has totally shot itself in both feet about," Icke added.

Andrew Scott as Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre

"Because we pretend there's such a thing as 'verse-speaking', and people say things like 'I didn't think the verse-speaking was very good', and nobody knows what that means.

"All this nonsense about 'Pause at the end of every line' that Peter Hall perpetuated in the 1960s..."

When asked whether he would have liked to work with Sir John Gielgud, Icke added: "Oh, kill me! I just don't think it's acting, in any modern sense."

David Tennant in the role at the RSC - Credit: Alastair Muir

The director is one of a new generation who regularly seek to emphasise the accessibility of Shakespeare, convincing a new generation to give productions a try.

Sir Nicholas Hytner, former director of the National Theatre, has previously urged actors to use “spontaneous, comprehensible, simple, natural” speech patterns to help audiences understand, delivering lines “as if it’s how they think”.

Greg Doran, director of the RSC, warned last year: "Actors sometimes become addicted to over-stressing.

“They get so interested in how many nuances the line can bear that they stress every single word and you get battered by nuance and don't get the simple strength of the line."

Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet

Scott, who plays Hamlet in the new production, said he hoped to convince new fans to love Shakespeare - but only if they want to.

"I really don't believe in forcing people to see Shakespeare if they don't want to,” he said. “You have to have confidence in the product.”

Icke added: "I don't know why we, in theatre, think we have the right to expect a sort of reverence from an audience, whereas on TV, if it's boring or bad or overacted or just not interesting, you switch it off."

Stephen Dillane's Hamlet performed at the Gielgud Theatre 1994

"I also think it's our job to be captivating for as long as we've asked for your attention.

"It's about offering a door into the maze and saying, 'Come into this maze, it's gonna be exciting.' “And if they get lost and find that scary or frustrating, that's fine.

“My feeling is more that we don't open the door, we just go, 'You'd be lucky to get into this room — doing Shakespeare!'"

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