Inauthenticity in art

Can we mount an authentic performance as Shakespeare would have seen it? No. Authenticity in the performing arts is ultimately impossible. We cannot perform anything, be it dance, music or drama, with any certainty either that we are performing in the right style (we are different people, with different attitudes and different sensibilities) or that we will understand even in approximately the same way as the original spectators.

The Shakespeare problem is particularly sensitive. Our language has changed, our accents have altered and our religious, political and social preoccupations have been transformed in the last 400 years. We are literally different people, in scale, appetite and morality.

In another 200 or so years, Shakespeare will only be faintly visible - rather as Chaucer is to us. Language must change or die. And Shakespeare's language will not always be readily comprehensible; he will soon need translating. And with the disappearance of the original words goes the disappearance of the form, which is why translated Shakespeare is so much modified, if not simplified.

But for the moment we can pursue in Shakespeare (as we can in performing Baroque music) a creative compromise. If we understand the author's formal demands, we have some chance of representing them in modern terms. Of course, performance fashions change; they must, in order to keep up with the subtle alterations in the audience's sensibilities. But an iambic beat is still an iambic beat; a legato phrase in Mozart is still a legato phrase.

The speech doesn't need sentimental Victorian booming, or the music string-playing with a 19th-century vibrato. The modern equivalent can be found providing we honour every part of the original that still speaks to us. What 2003 means by 'trippingly on the tongue' (which is to Hamlet's taste in his advice to the players) will become something very different by 2053. But it should still trip.

Rhetoric & verse

Nonetheless, there are major difficulties. I have done many productions of Shakespeare where the verse speaking has been highly praised by some critics and roundly condemned by others. Someone must have been wrong. The reason for these contradictions is that there are no accepted standards of verse speaking and not much agreement on the old rhetorical forms. Some people like emotional Shakespeare which is almost sung; some don't. Those who like the singing often think it is poetic. I like wit and restraint, and I believe Shakespeare liked them too.

Today, rhetoric is not trusted. It is no longer taught in schools, nor do most of us listen to its rhythms in a Sunday morning sermon. This is partly why there are no longer any accepted standards for verse speaking. Well-spoken productions don't usually get commented on: they are just thought of as good. It is the productions which don't communicate whose verse gets every kind of comment from the tolerant to the critical. I once read a critic who condemned an actor for his appalling verse speaking as Shylock in the Tubal scene. Clearly, nobody had pointed out to him that in this scene Shylock and Tubal speak entirely in prose. The rhythm should be different.

In our society, to be rhetorical is a term of abuse. A hundred years ago a politician would depend on rhetoric in his public speeches in order to stress his points. He would use repetitions, balanced answering phrases and antitheses. It was his way of defining a clear and formal argument. Today politicians want to be seen on television, chatting away like any other man in the street, with as many 'you knows' and 'reallys' as they can muster. Informality is thought to be honest; formality is considered artificial and untrustworthy.

But if Shakespeare's form is observed, an audience is still held; if it is not observed, the audience's attention strays and strays very quickly. So Shakespeare lives. And if an actor understands a speech and expresses its meaning through the form, the audience will understand also, even if they might not understand if they read the speech through once to themselves.

The demise of classical acting

These are difficult times for the classical actor because there is little technical consistency. I have worked in a theatre where the director before me urged the actors to run on from one line to the next, speak the text like prose, and to take breaths whenever they felt like it. He wanted them, he said, to be 'real'. They were; but they weren't comprehensible. I then arrived and said just the opposite - that the line structure was the main instrument of communication. Its five beats made up a phrase which was by and large as much as an audience could take in without a sense break.

In the past, it was hardly necessary to train actors to speak verse. They had - all of them - been marinated in so much Shakespeare during their early years in regional theatres or on classical tours that the rhythm came naturally to them. It played in their heads all the time - like an insistent backing group. Young actors are now exposed to little Shakespeare because most regional theatres cannot afford to do plays that require more than a dozen actors. And drama schools spend little time training young actors in Shakespeare because they know it is unlikely to be used in the professional theatre. Only a small percentage of actors will ever actually do Shakespeare and that will be because they have joined the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre.

Shakespeare, it is thought, is of little use for the behavioural understatement of television acting. The fact that it is still the best training for any actor or any style is overlooked. There is no better way for an actor to train his intellect, his body, his breathing, his voice, and his skills in communicating with an audience than by playing Shakespeare. It is an Olympic course in acting. If the resulting performer is a rough and crude actor who is full of overstatement, then he is no true Shakespearean and he has not been well taught. He is distorting the form by overstating it. Shakespeare demands that we delicately fulfil it.

Some actors confuse verse with 'poetry' - which they take to be the indulgent and often sentimental use of high emotion to support lyrical lines. 'Purple passages' they may with justice call them. But verse is not necessarily 'poetical' or even 'purple'. And it certainly isn't in Shakespeare. The main purpose of his verse is to represent ordinary speech and tell a story lucidly. At its best, it is quick and clear. And if it is delivered with five accents as written, and with a tiny sense break (not a stop) at the end of each line, communication with an audience is immediate. That is why Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameters; he didn't want to be 'poetic', he wanted to be understood. He earns his poetry and his metaphors when the emotions become intense. He can then move from plain speech to intricate images with ease. And he is able to use the most banal things - Lear's button, or Cleopatra's corset - to break our hearts. Most of his great moments are based on the mundane and the concrete, rather than the hyperbolical.

Text & technique

Speaking Shakespeare's verse and prose is an easily learned technique. It takes about three days for an actor to familiarise himself with what he has to look for; and it takes a few weeks more for him to become comfortable in the techniques.

Shakespeare tells the actor when to go fast and when to go slow; when to come in on cue, and when to accent a particular word or series of words. He tells the actor much else; and he always tells him when to do it (provided the actor knows where to look). But he never tells him why. The motive, the why, remains the creative task of the actor. He has to endorse feelings in himself which support the form that Shakespeare's text has given him. Actors quickly understand that, if they know the technique, they have a better chance to make the text work. They are empowered then to make the audience listen and understand.

I have been trying to direct Shakespeare for over 50 years. Armed with a facsimile of the Folio, a simply edited but not-too-punctuated modern text, a glossary of archaic words and those that have changed their meaning, and an understanding of how Shakespeare guides his actors with his form, it is still possible to approach any of his texts with the confidence that they will be understood. Shakespeare's advice to the players is still potent.

One of the UK's most renowned theatre directors, Peter Hall this year marks 50 years in the profession. During his illustrious career - from his early days at Cambridge through founding the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, leading the Royal National Theatre for 15 years and travelling the globe as a freelance director - Hall has worked with many of the greatest Shakespearean actors of our time, including Laurince Olivier, Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen.

The above has been extracted from Hall's Shakespeare's Advice to the Players, newly published in hardback by Oberon Books (priced £19.99). For further information or to order a copy, visit the Oberon Books website.

Peter Hall's new production of Shakespeare's As You Like It opens on 18 August 2003 (previews from 13 August) at the Theatre Royal Bath, where it continues to 30 August before visiting Stoke-on-Trent and Nottingham.