[lg policy] Theater Talkback: The Accent ’s the Thing

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Mar 18 21:05:19 UTC 2010

March 18, 2010, 12:45 pm

Theater Talkback: The Accent’s the Thing

LONDON — It’s only when you come to this city and hear British actors
playing Americans that you realize how funny we all talk. I’m kidding,
of course, but after listening to the peculiar nasality of some of the
accents in the Old Vic revival of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of
Separation,” I found myself wondering whether the twang-free voice I’d
always assumed I’d been speaking in sounded so very peculiar to the
British. I’ve been working on something grander-sounding and
mid-Atlantic ever since.Accents can cause unusual problems for actors.
First-class training doesn’t necessarily instill the ability to master
different voices; it’s a particular aptitude that comes more naturally
to some than others. I adored Patti LuPone’s darkly funny performance
as Mrs. Lovett in the recent Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd,” but I
have never before heard an Englishwoman of any class or period –
fictional or otherwise — speaking with quite the same quirky
intonations. (Video of Ms. LuPone and the rest of the cast of the
Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd” is here.)

Nor did I recognize the voice of Lesley Manville’s Ouisa in “Six
Degrees” as resembling any I’d heard in New York, uptown or down. It
was at least a little consoling to recall that British actors face the
same vocal challenges performing American classics that Americans do
when tackling the (virtually ubiquitous) British plays on our stages.
We are often left wincing at half-on, half-off British accents on
Broadway, which is one reason, I suppose, that so many British plays
travel with their casts intact.In the case of “Six Degrees,” in which
many in the cast struggled with accent problems (the young man from
Utah sounded more like a Texas cowboy), I wondered whether it might
not be better to chuck the accents altogether and simply allow the
actors to play the roles in voices that came naturally. Yes, the play
is New York-specific, and a tale of a particular social milieu, but it
is more profoundly a story of the liberating power of the imagination
to forge links between people of disparate experience.

To hear it with British accents might be more universalizing than
discombobulating. It certainly would go easier on American ears,
although of course it’s probable that most in the audience didn’t
register the vocal oddities that I did. A bad accent can irrevocably
mar a good performance, or a good production. Then again, there are
other plays that would be inconceivable in transposed accents.
“Jerusalem,” Jez Butterworth’s beautiful, funny and mournful comedy
about the fraying fabric of English culture, is steeped in a specific
language that simply wouldn’t sound the same without the specifics of
vocal inflection. But then you reflect that Shakespeare is readily
done without English accents by Americans – in fact it seems peculiar
when it is. And most of his histories, at least, are quite
specifically English and feature characters whose rank in society is
signaled in every syllable they speak. We have become accustomed to
Americans doing Shakespeare in their own way.

Have you had experiences with wayward or wonderful voices onstage?
Feel free to share them as  I go off to practice my new voice. The
rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain, I am told.

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