In July 2017 I was part of a theatre company which performed Shakespeare’s RICHARD III in Bristol Cathedral, a repeat visit for the company, Antic Disposition, which put on HENRY V there in 2016. These performances were part of a tour of English cathedrals (including Salisbury, Ely, Gloucester, Peterborough and Leicester) and each one presents unique challenges for actors.
I suppose the first challenge is “how do we make our performance gripping and exciting enough to keep the audience’s attention on us, when they’re surrounded by so much beauty and magnificence?” This is no mean task when you’re in some of the country’s loveliest buildings!
The biggest challenge, though, is acoustic: the huge vault of the cathedral takes our words and rolls them around the space, creating echoes and reverberations. Our incidental music sounds wonderful, but getting the spoken word across to the audience is pretty demanding: our constant reminder from the director is to slow down, increase the volume, and emphasise the consonants. Shakespeare’s text is terrific, but also pretty dense, and when you’re using such rich stuff you don’t want the audience to miss a thing.
Our production was staged “in traverse”, which means the stage runs down the length of the nave with the audience sitting on either side, facing each other. This draws them closer to the action, which is exciting. It also means the actors have to position themselves at one of the ends whenever possible and try to avoid speaking in the centre, so we can avoid having our backs to any section of the audience.
I played Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI. Her husband and her son, Edward Price of Wales, have been murdered by members of the house of York: she is consumed by grief and rage, and her desire for revenge expresses itself in curses directed at the whole York clan and, particularly, Queen Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV:
“Long mays’t thou live to wail thy children’s death
And see another, as I see thee now
Decked in thy rights, as thou art stalled in mine.
Long die thy happy days before thy death,
And after many lengthened hours of grief
Die nether mother, wife, nor England’s queen”
Margaret is a grieving mother whose grief is so all-absorbing it drives out any empathy with the suffering of others: it felt shocking to deliver those lines in a place which symbolises love and compassion.
It is a great privilege to bring Shakespeare’s characters to life in such a historic setting, and particularly satisfying to hear women’s voices fill the space, speaking lines which in his time were spoken by boys, and in places where for centuries women’s voices were not meant to be heard. All the female characters in Richard lll are strong women, who in turn tell him, without fear, exactly what they think of him, each one driven by grief and anger to speak out.
Performing in a sacred space also made me reflect on how often God is called upon by various characters in the play, and “used” by each one for their own purpose: Margaret’s God is one of vengeance, whom she begs to punish her enemies:
“God I pray him
That none of you may live his natural age
But by some unlooked accident cut off”
Her principal enemy is Richard himself:
“Cancel his bond of life, dear God I pray,
That I may live and say the dog is dead”.
When I’m hurling these words of such anger and bitterness into the vast space of the cathedral they seem to hang in the air – words matter, they can wound, and once said they cannot be unspoken: such a contrast to the words of love and forgiveness the cathedral was built to give voice to.