Making 'Shakespeare and Love'
Don Gilet, Naomi Frederick, Adam James and Ron Cook
Drama producers Sally Avens and Jessica Dromgoole introduce Radio 3's 'Shakespeare Unlocked' season featuring two romantic plays
The two hours’ traffic of our stage
When Radio 3 decided they wanted to commission several new productions for the BBC season ‘Shakespeare Unlocked’, it seemed a great opportunity to look at two of his most romantic works; Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night. We wanted to work with one company on the two productions; giving the actors the opportunity to live in Shakespeare’s world, and speak his beautiful language for longer and, of course, play very different parts.
Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night sit very happily together. The former is set at the height of summer, and the latter in deep midwinter. Romeo and Juliet starts with a wild punning wit and pitches into desperate tragedy, while Twelfth Night begins with the tragedy of Viola and Sebastian’s separation, and in Orsino’s heartfelt melancholy and ends in high comedy.
If music be the food of love play on….
Commissioning a score from the composer, Roger Goula, further unified the two plays. Developing a theme in the context of all the aspects of love that the plays present – doomed, filial, comic, excited, youthful, mistaken, and more – Roger worked a basic refrain into a myriad of variations that spanned the epic to the intimate: the context was all.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em
When it came to casting, we had twice the challenge. We needed actors who would step up equally to the demands of the two plays, who understood radio acting, who could speak verse beautifully, and we needed actors who happened to work well as a company.
Creating the street fight in studio
We had four days to record each of the plays, from a standing start, and barely rehearse scenes before they are recorded for the first of perhaps four or five goes. Inevitably, everyone comes primed with hours of private study, and the first read-through involves a huge amount of tacit negotiation and experimentation. It’s incredibly exciting. In studio then, scenes are blocked (as in theatre, but with microphones as the focus, rather than the front of the stage), and the cast then need to be aware always of their positions, their movements, of each other, of the microphone, of the shape of the scene, and of their scripts. Sometimes this can be shambolic, sometimes almost gladiatorial, but in this instance, it was like ballet. Often – if there’s a crowd – the background to the scene will be recorded using the cast we have, and then those same actors will pitch their lines above the level of sound they remember making. They may – for example – have to be in a street fight or in a dance (the men look particularly lovely in practice skirts).
Vanessa Kirby, Rosie Cavaliero
Two of the fairest stars in all the Heaven
Two of the actors we looked to immediately were David Tennant and Rosie Cavaliero; the winners of the Best Actor and Best Actress Awards at the recent Audio Drama Awards. Both were consummate radio actors but whereas David had often performed Shakespeare (including a production of Much Ado About Nothing for Radio 3) for Rosie this was her first time. Overcoming her initial fears, and discarding anything she’d learned during Eng Lit classes at school, Rosie turned in great nuanced performances as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and Maria in Twelfth Night, bringing lovely warmth and wit to both. A natural sympathy between the actors made the relationship between Rosie’s Nurse and Juliet (Vanessa Kirby) one of the surprise strengths of the play.
David was to play the Prince in Romeo and Juliet and Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The Prince is – in effect – a cameo role, but to have an actor of David’s authority underpinning the political story of Verona, makes an enormous difference to the telling of the play’s story. Capulet’s fury with Tybalt at his party (and the subsequent wildness of Tybalt’s hatred) is so much more tangibly a symptom of his smarting at being told off by the Prince, when the Prince is David Tennant.
Whilst younger than the average Malvolio there is nothing in the script that alludes to his age. As David himself points out there is more poignancy to the fact that Malvolio may think that Olivia loves him even though he is out of her league if he is a younger man.
Fortunate studio scheduling meant that we had got Malvolio’s famous letter scene recorded before David was struck down with flu. Bravely he struggled in and the hoarseness of his voice as he calls for his release in the mad scenes where he is imprisoned is all too real.
Love sought is good, but giv'n unsought is better ...
- The productions will be available as free downloads – for a limited period. For the Twelfth Night podcast, follow this link from 830pm on Sunday 22 April.
- Visit the Twelfth Night programme page.
Rosie Cavaliero, Ron Cook, David Tennant