What is it that you do?
I help people, often prominent executives, who want or have to talk to large numbers of people effectively and who are hampered by something.
What might they be hampered by?
I try to look at the person and, much as a doctor would, I try to diagnose what’s wrong. It could be high breath; that’s when people breathe in the top part of their lungs so that their shoulders come up. They sound very breathy when they talk, and they don’t sound confident even if they are confident, because they are always striving to catch their breath at the wrong time. Or they might have a clenched jaw. That means that the resonance of the sound won’t come off their palate, so they have to learn to relax. Usually it’s something to do with the jaw and the way you physically form your vowels and consonants; or it can be in the neck. If the neck is tense, it stops the sound getting out. Some speakers may have an accent, which is a more delicate matter. But it’s not about hiding the accent, it’s about making the person speaking feel more comfortable. That’s what the whole process is about. The problem can be that a person isn’t being understood. That’s the case with one of my current clients. Three-quarters of his work is done on the phone, and the phone is lethal with an accent; he speaks far too fast, so he doesn’t give himself the chance to speak better. So there are three things to work on with him: to slow him down; to try to understand why he’s speaking fast; and to deal with his speech inflection.
Why would he be speaking so fast?
It could be nerves, or impatience—that feeling that you’ve already understood what people are saying and are going to answer the same vein, or to push the moment to the next and not being in the moment—or some anxiety of some sort. The solution is often about relaxing. It’s really unlearning rather than learning.
You have a trained voice. What is that?
I trained twice, really, first when I was young and on stage. I learned to project technically, to use my voice so I could stand onstage in an auditorium for 1,000 people and be heard from the back without straining my voice. When you audition at the National Theatre in London they do it several times. They first hold your audition in the small space and then move you to the large theatre, the Olivier. The casting director sits right at the back and if you do it effortlessly you probably get the part; if you don’t, you don’t.
It’s about alignment. The lungs are a bellows, so when you breathe out you’re pushing the air out, and you just have to know how to get the most out of lungs in a relaxed position. There’s high breathing, low breathing and intercostal breathing, and singers actually use the back of their backs as well. Really, you’re just learning to use what you’ve got. When you speak normally you usually use a tiny percentage of your total capacity.
The second training I had was in singing. When I began as an actress I also wanted to sing, so I learned the singing technique, which is slightly different from the vocal. It did help me do what I want with my voice effortlessly. I used it enormously in radio; I performed on radio for many years. But it’s like anything, it’s just practice—learning to modulate, letting the expression rise to the top of your voice. Never doing, just being, we know that’s the secret.
All of that is fabulously interesting to teach, because it’s about encouraging people to become themselves, to make the most of their tools, whether for personal or professional expression.
Working on the Song of Solomon
What we are looking at here is submitting yourself to interpreting, or voicing, someone else’s message. You’ve got two things here. You’ve got yourself, your means, your tool, and then you’ve got this poem or text—and how are these two going to meet? Obviously, this text has been thought about, sweated, anguished over (or not) by somebody else, and so you can trust that. If you have chosen the text, there’s something about it that reaches out to you, that touches you. That connection, of you to that text, going through your own organ, your own perception, your own sensitivity, is a precious thing, and you’re going to take that precious element and make other people be touched by it. So what you’re doing is using yourself as a funnel of the writer’s expression with the tools available to you. Anyone can do it, and people do, and they should do it.
Gesturing is really interesting. Luckily, you can hide behind a lectern, because people are so embarrassed standing up with nothing between them and the audience. One of the first things you learn when you stand in front of an audience is what to do with your hands.
If you haven’t got an Oscar to hold.
An experienced actor can do it. When James Fenton was reading one of his own poems (“For Andrew Wood”) at Christopher Hitchens’s memorial service, he opened his arms in a gesture of love, because he felt that it was right from his own experience.
How do we approach this text? And try to avoid a poetry voice?
The poetry voice turns the ears off immediately. What you have to go back to is that feeling that you are interpreting this person’s words, and you can do it that way, your way and just say the words. That’s what a lot of directors say to actors. It’s a meeting of what you are at that moment, who you’re talking to, and what your author has written. It’s that meeting, that moment, that’s the exciting thing. You’re not going to become someone else, you’re going to serve as well as possible what the other person has written without really looking for anything except for what’s in the words.
How does a reader begin? Is there prepping?
You’re up on the stage, standing at the lectern. The first thing is silence. When you’re speaking into silence, hopefully what you should be doing is like taking an ink pen to a white page: how are you going to inscribe the first word that’s been written into that silence? To be conscious of what’s needed, you need first to silence yourself, find the silence in yourself. That can really be just a moment—obviously, you’re not going to stand and meditate for 10 minutes—but that tiny, tiny moment of looking, or not, at the audience (it really doesn’t matter, whatever makes you more comfortable), is a look inside, bringing you back to that central place in you that’s the fount of what you’re going to give to the poem. You need it. Have a quick look at how you’re standing and feel the silence for a second. Then you’re going to breathe in for a second, and as you breathe out, you’re going to write on that white page, aren’t you?
When do you look at our audience? How often do you do it?
I’m not sure there is a recipe for looking. If you feel you need contact with your audience, that’s the time to do it. It’s obviously more effective at the end of the sentence than in the middle, but I don’t know that there’s a rule. I don’t particularly feel a need to look at the audience myself; I feel I’m looking at them through the words and expression. However, what you don’t want is to be bent into your text. So when you’re preparing, always hold your text up, so that people receive the organ of your expression, which is your eyes, your face, your torso. If you’re bent over your piece of paper, they don’t get it. They’ve got to receive it. Looking up does help, but I’ve got to a point now when I feel I’ve worked so much with poetry and text that I can sort of see people while saying it; I’m projecting that look through my voice. For me there is no rule, but some people I work with might need to do it.
Many people see this passage of the Bible as a dialogue between Solomon and a young woman (line 1, the young woman; line 2, Solomon; lines 3–11, the young woman; lines 11–15, Solomon; lines 16–17, the young woman). Should readers shift their voices to acknowledge this dialogue?
I would mostly say no, and let the poem stand on its own as it is. You’re saying it in a particular context—usually a wedding—and probably don’t need to define who is speaking. This is one that almost everyone knows anyway, so that’s wonderful too; it’s like a ritual. When a text is so well known, it’s a wonderful new area of liberty, because you can choose what you want to pull out of it.
The Song of Solomon, chapter 2, the Bible, King James Version
1. I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
This line does have a comma, but one of the rules about poetry is rhythm. Rhythm is all-important. It doesn’t have to fall where you think it’s supposed to; you can play with it as you wish, but what must happen is that a very clear rhythm emerges, so that the end of the sentence is strong. When you set off at the beginning of the sentence you must know where you’re going with it. It’s like getting in a car and knowing that you’re going to drive to the village or drive 30 miles.
So how do I draw that map?
When you’re working on it, you can try it out several times. The point is to set off at one point, which is the beginning of the sentence in energy terms, and to go right to the other end of the sentence. That’s an energy pattern. And you can only feel it if you do it. So you could put the emphasis on “rose” and “lily”—that’s one way—or you could say, I’m going to put my accent on the “valleys” here. Or you could say, Ah, it’s because “I am the rose of Sharon” is the all-important part to me, and the lily of the valleys is a sub-text to that. Or you could give “Sharon” and “valleys” equal emotional emphasis. You can play with it as you like, but you have to know where you’re going with it.
That wasn’t your everyday speaking voice, but it didn’t sound like a ghastly poetry voice, either.
I was giving you an example, so perhaps I was exaggerating a little bit, but if you’ve got a mike, too, that’s wonderful, because then you can whisper into it. You mentioned earlier hearing James Fenton recite one of his own poems as though he was talking; for me that’s the highest form of poetry reading.
It’s very definitive isn’t it? It’s very present. It’s a declaration, and now here comes an explanation, about that lily, about that love.
Perhaps we are overthinking it. Because, look, it’s very simple. The words are so beautiful.
2. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
Well! Strictly following the words “thorns” and “daughters,” it has prickly bits here. I’m trusting the poem, so if I’m trusting the words it’s quite a tricky thing saying that my love is a lily and the daughters are thorns.
If the text is tricky, you don’t have to be tricky saying it. Let the audience interpret it. You’re there not to push the sense out of it, just to push the poetry and the rhythm of it. So let the audience make their minds up about how they understand that. What we’re doing here is also providing an answer to the first line, so in rhythmic terms you’re establishing something in the first and then bouncing the second line at the first.
3. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
Now you have a change of scene, a change of information.
You’re going into a different tense.
The shadow of that has to be in your voice. It’s much more intimate, and your voice has to reflect it, as if you’ve lived that.
Whatever “fruit was sweet to my taste” means, it’s clearly an intimate thing. And you stressed “beloved” there, because in the previous sentence there was “love,” but here it’s become “beloved.” So that was a stressed word, a rhythmic repeat.
Stress is really important. It’s the backbone of the sentence and it’s used very much in the English language, whereas in French, for instance, it isn’t. In French each word is given a certain amount of stress, it’s all farmed out fairly equally. Anglo-Saxon languages have a stress style that the Romance languages don’t have. It’s something you have to teach.
4. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.
When I read this last week, I put the stress on “was love.” I was very aware I was at a wedding in a cathedral, and I naturally looked up and across towards the bride and groom. It was for them. For me it was the definitive line, the banner over this poem was love.
That’s good, because obviously you were feeling confident enough to give it the expression it required to stop and look, and that was wonderful. But you could also have said, “but the banner over me was—love.” To put your pause just before “love,” to give it a certain mystery. Because it could have been all sorts of things, but it just happened to be love. That’s what’s extraordinary about reading poetry; the rhythm, using the funnel of your own experience to nourish the words, is enough. You don’t have to do any more.
5. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.
And then came the tricky line: the beginning is excessive isn’t it? “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples.”
And of course “sick of love” means “with.” I would have changed that, but I’m sure people understand that “I am sick of love” isn’t “I’m fed up with love.”
So the emphasis can tell you it’s a good thing, not a bad?
You can be complicit with the audience if you find those words are excessive, make the audience complicit in the understanding of that. Perhaps give it a note of humor?
You looked at the ceiling then.
Yes, perhaps that helped. Perhaps a reader who hasn’t looked at the audience until then maybe could look at that point. I would hate the audience to misunderstand, so I’d almost be tempted to say “for I am sick with love.” You have to trust your audience.
6. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
This is lovely, it’s a beautiful simple line. But even here you have to see where you’re going. Where are you putting your emphasis? No one’s right.
You’re telling somebody who wasn’t there, describing the scene.
It would stand up to several interpretations, but it depends where you want to put your inflection. In a poem what you want to do is rise to some kind of emotional crescendo.
7. I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please.
Well, here is a shift of voice. You’re back to the beginning, where you’re addressing your audience directly, in a way.
Since it’s a beautiful form of expression, you can use that form of poetry to make it a little more muscular in terms of intensity; a slight biblical feeling, simply because the words are so written that it gives you a license to do so.
I would feel uneasy putting emphasis on “Jerusalem,” because it seems such a modern reference—and it’s a place of conflict. I can’t see the word clearly.
So perhaps you might not want to give it that emphasis.
So you’re throwing away that word. It’s a biblical word, not a geography lesson.
You might, but I probably would emphasize it. My choice would be to use it to give it some poetic structure.
For me, I want to land on “till he please”—it’s a “whatever he wants, baby.”
But in terms of pace, don’t close it on “love,” so that the rhythm continues to the end of the sentence all the way to “please.”
8. The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.
So here is a kind of ta-dah! Off-screen noise.
You could make people laugh on that, even!
It’s much more impassioned.
Perhaps you do not need to stop there, but continue into “behold” and beyond, and make it one sentence.
And I love all these “-ing” words, it speeds up here.
It’s lovely, that sentence. It’s got one of those things in poetry that you always have to use, alliteration.
So you hop from leaping to skipping.
You want to put the emphasis on the second part of those words—make it leap.
9. My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.
Here’s another qualification. It keeps doing this. It explains what’s going on. This is like line three, it’s filling you in.
You’re seeing it like a literary counterpoint—which is fine, because it gives the reference to how you said it before, perhaps—but the understanding of the intellectual form of the poetry has to be secondary to its expression. It is important to realize that.
Maybe I am led too much by that, as I’m seeing it as a kind of explanation, but perhaps it’s not something to linger over. I see this line as a sort of stage direction.
You have to be informed by it. You, Lucy, are interested in that.
It has lots of directions—where he stands, where he looks, the way he shows himself.
That information has to be digested and be there, but in fact you’re going to use something other than reasoning to express it. It’s got to pass on the understanding of the way it’s structured and to charge you with a form of expression, but then that has to be forgotten, and what will emerge is something else. Perhaps you can even use your breath on that, use that pause so you can view it. That’s important. When you’re working on a text or a part with someone, you have to give the impression that you’re actually seeing it—that’s important.
In front of their eyes.
Yes, so you’re actually seeing it. Then it touches people.
But you’re an experienced actress. A regular person couldn’t say it the way you just did without flopping straight on their nose. Everyone would say, “Oh, please.”
You’d be surprised. You wouldn’t necessarily have to do it with a gesture or theatrical voice. You could be more introverted with it.
That look someone has when they’re talking about someone they love. That glazed-over look? Remembering.
That’s wonderful. That’s it. She’s in the moment of what he’s like, and bringing you into it. I think it’s lovely if you feel that the person reading it can see him standing looking through the lattice.
10. My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
So now we’ve finished with that, and this is different. A different energy is required. You have to inject, and that’s another form of inspection. Should you say it as if you are putting quotation marks around “Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away.”? The wonder of saying it again is that you don’t necessarily have to interpret it. That’s what I mean by being informed by the structure and understanding it, but not necessarily saying it literally like that.
11. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
This comes right out of line 10. It’s saying, because of these reasons.
When you’ve read this poem a few times you see where to inject energy. It comes in three chapters, and they don’t just denote the meaning of it but the rhythm of it as well, so I need to inject more energy into the “Rise up,” giving the first one energy and the second less, so that the second has to fall from the first. It’s energy and rhythm again.
12. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
Spilling out of all that come the flowers. Lines 11, 12, 13 could be in one package really.
13. The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
Tender grape is such a lovely thing it’s impossible not to linger over it. “Come away” closes it.
“Give a good smell.” The last three words have to be as one rhythmically.
The word “smell” is a little awkward.
14. O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.
I got to the Cathedral early and read through this text, and when I got to “secret places of the stairs,” I thought, “Oh, no, I’ve copied it out wrong and it must be ‘stars.’” I asked the nice ladies in the Cathedral shop if they had a Bible, but they didn’t, and then rushed around looking for a verger or anybody in a gown. We looked it up and it is “stairs.” I suppose it means ledges in the cliffs. The verger and I had a good laugh.
On a far more prosaic level, behind the stairs are often secret places. Quite a nice intimate place.
I still didn’t want everybody to burst out laughing.
There is a sort of exhaling on “O my dove.”
There is a sort of “let me do this, let me do this, for sweet is thy voice.”
It’s very difficult to isolate these lines. I’m not sure how I would say this.
I see it as a lover pleading.
15. Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.
I love this line. For me this is the clincher.
It’s a wonderful line. I would let the poem say it. Hopefully, by the time you get here you’ve built up a relationship with the words and the audience so you can just let that one be.
Aren’t the little foxes drunk on the tender grapes?
I was thinking it means “kill the little foxes”—I don’t know.
I don’t think there’s anything nasty in it.
But don’t the foxes eat the young grapes?
It’s not saying, kill them.
Yes, I think it is.
16. My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.
So here comes the wrapup. This is definitive: “he’s mine, I’m his.”
The most interesting thing about this poem is really what you’re saying about it and how you feel about it. When you’re working with people, what is interesting is what it awakes in them. You should never tell them how to say it, really. Let them explore it. And ask where do you think the emphasis should come. Directors who lead actors to find their own connection with a text are going to be so much more convincing.
17. Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.
Of course the Bible goes on and on. We just cut it off here.
It could be the opposite of incantation—conclusion.
Until we meet again—goodbye.
I loved saying the “Mountains of Bether.” It is so ethereal. When I got to this bit I said it to the Cathedral.