Saturday, June 30, 2012


Martin Ruben
An Actor’s Perspective

My brother, an avid theatergoer, one-time actor and a man of letters, was telling me about a production of Richard III with Kevin Spacey, where the actor shouted his way through the entire production. He then went on to say that the rest of the cast followed suit, and that eventually the bombast was overwhelming. There is no doubt as to Spacey’s ability as an actor, so it struck me as odd that such a choice was made and allowed to progress. One wonders if the scope of Spacey’s celebrity made anything the director might have to say moot, or if, in the recesses of the actor’s mind, the hunchback, for whatever reason, would substitute volume for passion. It reminded me of a production many years ago at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where Byron Jennings portrayed the same role, but with a very different approach. His Richard was well tempered, with great cunning, complexity, and a volume that allowed for subtlety and depth.

 The VERY LOUD Kevin Spacey as Richard III

There are those critics who might argue that royalty must make its presence known. Certainly, if one shouts, one’s presence will be known, but will it be heard? A king need not shout to let his subjects know he is the king. He is the king, period. What might cause the rise in volume is when the king, or prince, or anyone in a position of power, is threatened. To overuse a declamatory style is to minimize the effect of the language, putting it on an even plane. During the rehearsal process, we often hear the notion of needing somewhere to go, to bring a speech to a conclusion and, if so required, to let the passion of the argument manifest physically, vocally, or both. But if one starts at such a fever pitch, where does the actor go?

Actors shout Shakespeare because it feels good, in a peculiar way. By raising one’s voice, it is thought, one raises the elegance and passion of the language, particularly in an emotion-laden scene. Not so, at least not in every context. If anything, it tends to obfuscate the inherent romance of the language. Of course there are numerous situations when things attain a fevered pitch, but it is necessary that the audience be taken there, and not slammed against a wall of sound. Unfortunately, we live in an age now where our senses are constantly being bombarded and assaulted. Asking an audience to pay attention is asking them to trust you, and that trust must be handled respectfully, and not shouted out like a military DI. 

It really comes down to one thing and one thing only: tell the story. This one thing, however, contains many, many facets that must be attended to, like so many lords and ladies of the court. Each character has his/her own demands, his/her own ego, and his/her own argument. It becomes the actor’s task to discern between all these demands, the requirements of his own character, and a full understanding of the relationships between the characters. When we shout, unless this shouting is borne out of the sequence of events, we may get someone’s attention. If that is all we do, particularly with the complexities one finds in Shakespeare, we lose the audience immediately. It is essential to remember that within the context of the play, regardless of the possible historical references, Shakespeare has given us real people, many of whom happen to be royalty, but real nonetheless. If we compare ourselves to these characters, we will find many similarities, although we can hope that our actions will not get us beheaded. But we go through the same processes, the same sturm und drang, the same decision making processes. If, as actors, we examine our daily lives, how often do we find that shouting is an effective tool? Rarely, especially where children are involved. So as we continue to examine how to “speak the speech,” it becomes necessary to examine the self and ask: WWWD? What would we do?

So, do over-articulating, over-thinking, and excessive volume work in Shakespeare? No, because it doesn’t work in real life, and for the duration of the play, it is, in its own way, real life. Never is the notion of holding a mirror up to nature more necessary than in the telling of a great tale. If we believe it, the audience believes it, as long as they are not bullied and bludgeoned into believing it.

Bad Shakespeare gives the use of volume over nuance in performance 2/10 laurels.


  1. Or, to adapt Hamlet, Spacey out-Herods Herod.

  2. Indeed, Lanthinel, indeed! Thanks for reading and commenting. :D