Sunday 18 November 2007

On interacting with Beckett

My OP correspondent (see previous blog) also asks about interactivity between actors and audience. He was thinking about OP and the Globe, but today I am still getting over my most recent experience of audience/performance interaction, namely, last night at the Capital Centre at Warwick University. Fail Better Productions concluded a Beckett study day by presenting a brilliant production of two Samuel Beckett shorts. No failing better at all, here; indeed, I can't imagine them succeeding worse.

You might not have come across the Capital Centre, as it only started in May of this year. It's a great idea - a partnership between the University of Warwick and the Royal Shakespeare Company, established to use theatre performance skills and experience to enhance student learning and to draw on University research and resources to shape the development of the RSC acting companies. It's already done some exciting work, as I discovered yesterday.

The two pieces were Rough for Theatre 2 and Ohio Impromptu. The first is a duologue in which two men, 'A' and 'B', review the life of 'C', who is standing motionless, with his back to the audience, ready to jump out of the window. The second is also a duologue, but of a rather different kind, between two characters, a Reader and a Listener. The Reader reads from a book (with blank pages, in this production) telling the Listener's story. The Listener says nothing, but controls the reading by knocking on the table with his hand, thereby making the reader go back over parts of the story.

I had seen both before on film - and indeed, apart from Waiting for Godot, the only Beckett I have ever seen has been on film (I have the Beckett on Film DVD), and therefore very much as a passive observer. In an intimate space, such as the Capital, with the actors just a few feet away, I was enthralled by the way Beckett's language sucked me in, so that it felt that I was almost a part of the action, and I was surprised by the number of places where the Rough for Theatre 2 dialogue invited me to react. I had never felt that when watching on film, where the experience was (for me) primarily an intellectual one. It was a delight to discover so much humour in the play - not least because it was so well brought out by the actors and the director, who it appears - from comments in the talkback afterwards - were reinforced, energized, and sometimes surprised by the audience's reactions. For the record, the actors were Jonathan Broke ('A' and Listener) and Ben Crystal ('B' and Reader) and the director was Jonathan Heron (who also played 'C').

The whole thing reminded me so much of Shakespeare's Globe - which is what prompted this post in the first place! - where an audience can take a while to realize that it is allowed to be dynamic in its relationship to what is going on on stage, but once it does, it takes off! There were several moments in the OP productions when the use of the distinctive accent triggered a specific response - the one I remember best was the pronunciation of the name Ajax as 'a-jakes' (where jakes is the Elizabethan word for 'pisshouse'), which always got a laugh when normally the line would have been heard in silence. I would try and remember some other examples, but my head is full of Beckett today, and once he is inside your head it takes a while for him to go away.

On OP (the latest)

A correspondent writes to ask whether there have been any further productions of Shakespeare in 'original pronunciation' (OP), following the Romeo and Troilus at Shakespeare's Globe in 2005 and 2006 respectively - and whether there are to be any more.

The last question I can't answer - though I hope so. Every time I turn a piece of Shakespeare into OP I find something new - a rhyme that now works, a piece of unexpected wordplay, a fresh metrical reading, or just a general frisson that comes from hearing familiar lines read in an accent that is as close as we can get to how it would have been in 1600. So with only two plays done and (depending on what you include) 37-odd more to go, there is plenty of opportunity for doing something new.

The interest is continuing. In July this year an American director, Alex Torra, put on a performance of extracts from various plays in OP at a theatre in New York, which was evidently very well received. He is one of several expressions of interest I've had from people in the US, some of which I expect will turn into productions in due course. Also earlier this year I did an OP transcription and recording of the Sonnets for the sonnet marathon-man, Will Sutton. Maybe we'll hear them at the Rose one day: that would be electrifying. I'll keep readers of this blog posted, as soon as I hear of anything happening.

Monday 12 November 2007

On having lunch/dinner

A correspondent writes as follows: 'When I came across nouns for meals in my teaching I faced a problem because I belong to a non-Western culture. Dinner is the main meal of the day, I believe, in Western societies. It is usually eaten in the evening. What about lunch? It is usually a midday meal and people often have it at work. In Eastern societies, however, the main meal is usually in the afternoon [like lunch]. So, should we call it lunch or dinner?'

Dictionaries define dinner as a main meal, and leave open the question of time of day. This is because there is a great deal of regional and social class variation. In some parts of the UK (and also in some other parts of the English-speaking world) when people take their main meal in the middle of the day (eg in some farming communities) then that is called dinner. They wouldn't use the word lunch at all; and for them an evening meal would be called tea or more likely supper.

My own usage has changed over the years. When I lived in Liverpool, as a teenager, the meal I had in the middle of the day, whether at school or at weekends, was called dinner. Today, after a few decades of eating in the south of England, I call this lunch.

The standard word for a meal taken in the middle of the day is lunch. For many people, lunch is a light meal - it might only be a sandwich. Note that there are several ways of expressing variation at lunchtime, such as light lunch, big lunch, heavy lunch, and working lunch, which don't usually apply to the word dinner. After some publisher's lunches I've attended, I don't feel like eating for a week.

As always, there are exceptions. In schools, the traditional phrase for the lunchtime meal was school dinners and the people who serve it were called dinner ladies - and still are, in many places. And on Christmas day, most people sit down to a Christmas dinner - at lunchtime.

The two elements influencing usage, therefore, are the importance of the meal and the time of day. The main factor seems to be the importance of the meal, and so dinner would seem to be the solution, in the case of my correspondent. But he needs to listen out for the way others use the terms in English in his part of the world, for that will be more important than anything.

Monday 5 November 2007

On being high up

A correspondent from Italy writes to ask if there is any connection betweeen speech and altitude. Do languages spoken in the mountains have a distinctive phonology?

I don't know of any correlation between speech and altitude environment - and, indeed, I wouldn't expect there to be any. I can't think of any reason why a sound system of a language should be affected by height or, for that matter, by any other physical environmental factor. I know there are popular views which argue to the contrary - for example, saying that people who live in mountains will have a higher and more sweeping range of intonation patterns, whereas people who live on low plains will have a flatter intonation, but phonetic investigations give no support. I've also come across such views in relation to the accents within a language (eg from dialect coach Joan Washington in a BBC4 TV programme earlier this year called 'How the Edwardians Spoke'). Another example is the belief that people who live in coastal districts have a lot of back consonants or a nasal twang because the sea mists cause more nasal catarrh - this has been claimed with reference to the Liverpool accent, for example. Again, there's no basis: back consonants and nasal twangs turn up in non-marine environments and lots of accents on coasts don't show these features.

The only language phenomena I can think of which relate to physical environment are the speech surrogate systems - the so-called 'drum or whistle languages', used to cope with the need to communicate across distances (such as mountain valleys). I give a brief account in my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, but there will be several references online.