Speaking Shakespeare with Prisoners & Posh Girls


The room I’ve just entered contains one armed robber, a couple of drug dealers, several violent criminals and other chaps guilty of various offences I never find out about. But when I enter the room I know nothing about anyone. I just see ten men sprawled in chairs. They stare at me, each one looking like he's thinking, ‘What the hell is this all about?’

 ‘I’m a voice coach,’ I tell them. I help actors speak on stage.’ 

 ‘Taught anyone famous?’

 ‘Can't say,’ I answer, disappointing them, before announcing, to a weary response, that we’re going to read some poems. The men look underwhelmed. But only a few minutes afterwards they’re speaking the anger of Sonnet 129 (‘Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame, Is lust in action....’), first to themselves, sitting in their chairs, then out loud as they walk around the room, changing direction on punctuation breaks and moving with the jerky, lust-filled flow of the poem.

Any thoughts?’ I ask.

He’s crazy!’ one man says. ‘He’s not right,’ says another. And as they continue to walk and speak the sonnet, a passionate discussion about the poem ensues and the armed robber announces, ‘He needs a shag, bruv!' A drug dealer agrees: ‘He’s desperate... He wants some love!’ Then, after the session, as the men leave the classroom to return to their cells, one turns to me and says, 'Guv, he gets it - Shakespeare's bangin...'

 Later that week I’m in a private girls’ school. The plush-carpeted corridors are a contrast with prison wings. A sixth-former is about to walk around a classroom, reading Ophelia’s, Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.... Outside the classroom, I’ve instructed her to address Ophelia's words to individual members in the group. But while she waits outside, I tell the other girls to blank her. ‘Look away when she speaks. Don’t let her engage...’

 As the girls ignore her, ‘Ophelia’s’ attempts to make herself understood produce increasingly assertive vocal efforts.

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,

That sucked the honey of his music vows,'

The student becomes increasingly desperate to connect.

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason

Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;'

 The other girls still blank her. Her voice wells up.

That unmatched form and feature of blown youth

Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,

T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!'

 At the end of the speech her class mates applaud her. ‘Poor Ophelia!’ says the girl. ‘She's so sad but nobody cares...'

 The following month I’m in the Women’s Institute’s Denman College in Oxfordshire. A woman, some distance from her teenage years, is speaking Juliet’s speech which follows Romeo’s killing of Tybalt, her cousin. The speech is laden with contradictory ideas that reflect Juliet’s conflicting emotions.

'O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!

Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?

Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical,

Dove-feather'd raven! Wolvish-ravening lamb'

 We’re well into the workshop. We’ve done lots of warm-ups, covered other texts and already done several readings of this speech. One involved the group forming a circle around the woman as she tried to break through the circle. Now I have her sitting on the floor, speaking while the group circles her. 

O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell,

When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend

In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?

 The woman’s voice becomes a wail. As she speaks, she starts to sob:

Was ever book containing such vile matter

So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell

In such a gorgeous palace!

 ‘Was that me?’ she says, suddenly returning to herself, a dignified, 60-something lady. ‘I’ve no idea where that voice came from....’

  All the above exercises are based upon the work of Cicely Berry, Voice Director of the RSC. Berry is renowned globally for her work on text and was one of the first voice coaches to come up with exercises designed to bring actors away from the assumption that Shakespeare was best spoken in Received Pronunciation. Many of her exercises involve resistance – restraining/heckling/blanking a speaker. The result is often an unimpeded vocal response that provides fresh insights into a text.

 In the introduction to her book, The Actor and The Text, she writes, ‘This book is not simply about making the voice sound more interesting. It is about getting inside the words we use, responding to them in as free a way as possible and then presenting that response to an audience.’

 For non-actors, the first effect is to reduce intellectual or emotional self-consciousness when a speaker approaches a complicated text. Focusing on something other than just speaking, stops the speaker worrying about a text’s meaning and emotion – and allows the words to be spoken unfettered. The results are often startling. Speakers who have never looked at Shakespeare texts sometimes feel for the first time the satisfaction of articulating powerful language, while speakers who are already familiar with a text often find new shades of meaning and emotion in it.

 Moving beyond theatre, Berry has taken her work into schools and prisons – and even into Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. For over sixty years, her exercises have helped release the power of words and she has inspired countless voice-coaches. I met her when I did an MA in Voice Studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

After two workshops with Cicely, I ended up corresponding with her. Then, maybe because I was doing Shakespeare work in prisons (something she has said fascinates her) or maybe simply because she’s a generous spirit, she invited me to her home in Stratford and I started a one-to-one speaking Shakespeare master class with the world’s most famous voice coach. She started by quoting a line from The Spanish Tragedy (a play by 16th century dramatist, Thomas Kydd) that she said contained an idea that has constantly inspired her: ‘Where words prevail not, violence prevails’.

 Inspired by Cicely Berry, I have taken Shakespeare into schools, prisons and arts centres. From watching prisoners find delight in speaking Shakespeare, to watching school students discover great excitement in 'boring' exam texts, the work constantly corroborates Berry’s philosophy that The Bard’s words were written to be spoken (not constantly analysed by academics) and that simple, enormous pleasure can be found in speaking his rich, powerful language out loud.

You can find out more about more Matthew Collins' Shakespeare workshops at www.matthewcollins.co.uk




Matthew Collins Public Speaking Tutor (West London)

About The Author

For 25yrs I've been a pro speaker - presenting on national TV (Travel Show, Wogan, Richard & Judy, other progs) & giving entertaining/motivational speeches. I make 20+ speeches a year to audiences ranging in size from 20 to several thousand people.

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