Freedom to sing

November 12, 2010

Autumn light – photograph by Liz Mathews

From Radio 3’s bold attempt to promote ‘free thinking’ in its eponymous festival, I heard Fiona Shaw’s talk on Nightwaves (by chance, as it followed on from a concert), and I’m glad that I did.    The theme of the discussions this year has been ‘happiness’, but this programme was called ‘What acting can teach you about life’. Perhaps inevitably, Shaw concentrated more on what the great plays themselves – literature rather than acting – had taught her about life, and how life had illuminated her work. Despite the not very encouraging title, I’d recommend it as well worth listening to again.

Much of this talk was about the way in which words act on the imagination, and the art of the actor in communicating that inner vision. Shaw’s demonstrations of the way different meanings can be drawn out of words, depending on how they are spoken, were funny but also revealing.  Her story of the great RSC voice coach Cicely Berry telling her to ‘walk on the commas’ when speaking Shakespeare’s verse was demonstrated brilliantly.

(Although she’s not an actor I’ve seen often onstage, I did see her brain scan in the Identity exhibition at the Wellcome Institute, with the fascinating display of the areas of the brain which light up when she’s reading poetry – the arms that move in the imagination also seem to the brain to be moving, even when they are physically still…)

Also refreshing was Shaw’s vehement denunciation of the lies of politicians, and their devaluing of our language by misuse and disrespect.    (The audience’s reaction made clear how unusual such plain-speaking seemed to them in such a context.)  This contrasted strongly with the actor’s description of the Elizabethan dramatists, Shakespeare particularly, as writers who were trying to speak the truth.

Best of all was her concluding affirmation of the importance of ‘the nightingale of art’ and the hope that it will go on singing.

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