A symphony of voices at The Paper Stage: Reading “The Witch of Edmonton” (Mary Way)

I attended the reading of Lucy Munro’s Arden edition of The Witch of Edmonton by Rowley, Dekker and Ford as a fun diversion from my studies of Shakespeare both on the page and stage. I had never read nor heard of this play before that week and thought it was a tragedy, my first error. I also assumed I would be a lone American voice striking discordantly in a sea of proper English accents, my second error. What I discovered instead was how unexpectedly hilarious The Witch of Edmonton actually was and how that was amplified by the diversity of voices reading it. The tone, pitch and accent of each voice revealed something I wasn’t expecting to hear. I have grown so accustomed to the highly trained resonant voices you find on stages across the world that I have developed a craving for variety, which was satisfied by The Paper Stage.

The stereotype of the posh English “Shakespearean” actor has become a parody of itself, yet accents that deviate from the “norm” still seem to be reserved as character devices or a tool of class/country differentiation in Early Modern theatre (with a few exceptions e.g. David Tennant in Much Ado About Nothing). How refreshing and illuminating it is, in a world of homogenised sound on stage, to hear an Early Modern play read in natural human voices. What happens when we abandon “convention” and embrace the breadth of the human voice? Modern accents are a far cry from the pirate-esque style of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, so why not embrace the complexity of the natural voice to see where that leads us?

During the reading certain aspects of the text took on a different meaning. The Dog character, the Witch’s familiar and devil in disguise, has not an insignificant amount of “bow wows” in the script. Instead of attempting a realistic dog noise, our reader said the lines saucily and suggestively, bringing a sinister yet humorous tilt to the character. The Morris dancers also ran the spectrum of accents. Through the diversity of voices each character took on an individuality and personality, even without any overt attempts at “acting”. And yet the voices filled up the space while avoiding the forceful affectation that befalls too many stage actors when speaking outside their natural range. Even the age range of the actors contributed to this: pairing an older sounding gentleman as the child (Frank Thorney) of a younger voice (Old Thorney) imbued the relationship with unexpected humour. It was also interesting to hear the inevitable cross-gendered casting of women’s voices in “men’s” roles, the opposite to the all male casts of the original Early Modern production.

When you take the plays out of a conventionally dramatic setting, the text and voice become the two most important parts of the “performance”, each one informing the other. The natural voice becomes a tool of illumination: how does the speech flow, where are the lines that might sound odd in a stereotypical Received Pronunciation accent but natural in an American one? It is a rare gift to hear a play read by such an international spectrum in one room. I loved hearing the variety of inflections and pronunciations that would have never come out of my mouth, and I believe that this varied aural experience is extremely valuable. From amateur actors to Early Modern enthusiasts, The Paper Stage has shown me the text will inform the voice and the voice will carry the text. I found the diversity of the vocal instrument particularly essential to the transcendent musicality of the text. In a “risk-free” enjoyable environment like The Paper Stage (amplified by the generous provision of snacks and drinks) we are truly able to explore these dynamics in a way that is overlooked in a theatrical production. I would love for the use of natural voices to become a popular trend on the professional stage, but until then I will just have to relish the unique opportunity The Paper Stage has given me.

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Community-making on The Paper Stage (Rosemary Walters)

Over the past two terms the Paper Stage readings have seemed to me to have a growing sense of community, a sort of company of players. “Titus Andronicus” was the only one which I had already seen on stage, and it was fascinating to re-enact this. The pie scenario was just as PS photo - communityrepulsive! although obviously the obscenity of the mutilation didn’t have the same impact – someone near me fainted when I saw it on stage. But it’s always exhilarating to come to a piece of drama for the first time whether on the stage or on paper. In the Paper Stage, without any movement or props the text has to speak for itself even more strongly, which is quite difficult when reading an unseen script for the first time, often without any idea of plot or the complicated relationships existing between the characters before the plot begins. Would some kind of resume of the storyline at the beginning help or detract from the excitement of the reading? Would actors of this time know the stories before they saw the script for the first time?

As someone who knows nothing about the scholarship of early modern drama what fascinates me is the place of the conscious and sub-conscious in all this. To what extent did Webster, Lyly and Co “know” what was going on in their own and their characters’ minds amongst all the violence and often frenzied activity?  Did they have any concept of the sub-conscious? How far can you assume hidden motivation and/or “modern” political or moral significances? Are these stupid questions? I’m sure studying the drama of this period would answer this for me but I’ve come to the plays without this background and still enjoyed them immensely.

In the discussion afterwards I do ask myself if we should be shocked at some of the assumptions, for example about the treatment of women, into which we read our own contemporary concerns or just accept that we’ve been in another place at another time. Is this a cop-out? I enjoy going to the Globe and now the Wanamaker Playhouse and have this vision of contemporary audiences for these plays being there for a good evening out, not sitting respectfully in rapt attention through the whole play, dwelling solemnly on ethical and moral considerations.  And somehow, for me, the Paper Stage evenings get near to what I imagine (perhaps wrongly!) this atmosphere to be. What is so refreshing about the Paper Stage is the informality of the reading, being part of the story over a glass of wine, not worrying about in depth analysis or forgetting words and being able to enjoy the plays as vivid stories of people getting into sometimes impossibly complicated and crisis situations and trying to get themselves out of them! I’ve felt that the growing sense of community has enabled us to take more risks with getting into role as we’ve travelled through war, murder, adultery, witchcraft and various other combinations of tortured characters and their social and domestic power struggles and look forward to more of these to come.