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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