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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 August 2005, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
The real sound of Shakespeare?
By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Ever been baffled by the bard? Vexed by his verse? Or perplexed by his puns? London's Globe theatre thinks it has the answer: perform Shakespeare's plays in Shakespeare's dialect.

The Globe, London (pic Donald Cooper)
The Globe will stage Troilus and Cressida for six weeks

In August the theatre will stage an "original production" of Troilus and Cressida, with the actors performing the lines as closely as possibly to the play's first performance - in 1604.

By opening night, they will have rehearsed using phonetic scripts for two months and, hopefully, will render the play just as its author intended. They say their accents are somewhere between Australian, Cornish, Irish and Scottish, with a dash of Yorkshire - yet bizarrely, completely intelligible if you happen to come from North Carolina.

For example, the word "voice" is pronounced the same as "vice", "reason" as "raisin", "room" as "Rome", "one" as "own" - breathing new life into Shakespeare's rhyming and punning.

'Visceral' text

Giles Block, the play's director, believes the idea could catch on. He first tried the technique for three performances of Romeo and Juliet last year.

"I think it helps the audiences enter more into the visceral nature of the text. It brings out the qualities of the text, the richness of sound which is closer to our emotions than the way we speak today," he says.

"Apart from the delight of feeling 'I'm getting closer to how this play was done 400 years ago', some of the jokes, some of the rhymes and some of the puns also work again."

The actors have been coached by David Crystal, one of the world's most prominent language experts. He prepared the phonetic script by meticulously researching the rhymes, meter and spellings within Shakespeare's plays and believes the dialect to be "about 80% accurate".

"There are three important sources of evidence for this," he says. "The first is the sound of the puns and jokes, the second is the spellings in the original texts. The third and most important piece of evidence is that, at the time there was a group of phoneticians who actually wrote in great detail about how the sounds of English were pronounced."

The 17th century writer and dramatist Ben Johnson, for example, says the letter "r" was pronounced with a growl. "He tells us there's a doggy sound - think 'grrrr'," Mr Crystal says.

Toilet humour

Philip Bird, who plays the Trojan king Hector (pronounced 'Ecter), admits he felt "apprehensive" at first, but he says within a matter of minutes the material becomes "totally understandable". He says the "earthy, gutsy, grounded" accent forces the actors to find different ways of portraying power and seniority.

There was a group of phoneticians who actually wrote in great detail about how the sounds of English were pronounced
David Crystal
Language expert
"When you're asked to play someone who is powerful or of high status, you act class, you act posh - but with this production it is not available because everyone spoke the same way 400 years ago."

But the accent also resurrects some classic Shakespearean puns. Ajax, who is the butt of many jokes in the play, is pronounced "a-jakes" - which, conveniently, is an Elizabethan word meaning toilet.

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