Peter Phillips

Beyond words

Beyond words

Sitting in the Globe Theatre towards the end of last season, I began to have one of those out-of-mind experiences which only music is supposed to be able to give. The play in question was Measure for Measure, always known to be a difficult one to interpret satisfactorily, a difficulty which presumably increases if one is not in possession of all that might be of help. Full of untried concentration we welcome the players and lend them our ears. Off goes the Duke: ‘Of government the properties to unfold/ Would seem in me to affect speech and discourse,/ Since I am put to know that your own science/ Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice/ My strength can give you…’

What? Could you possibly say that again more slowly? Could you perhaps say it with the syntax just a little bit rearranged? No, evidently not, since that first speech runs on for another 15 lines before the actor can take a breath, and (one soon learns) the best policy is to make as much as possible of what can be grasped and not to fret about the rest. But, one’s other inner voice argues, isn’t that a bit ridiculous, not to say sacrilegious? After all, this is Shakespeare, and the tickets cost a lot of money. Surely the very least we can expect is to hear the lines and get something out of them. This isn’t Chaucer. Everyone knows you need a crib for Chaucer.

For about a quarter of an hour one hangs on for dear life, and then the attention wanders. Maybe a passing helicopter, or a mobile phone, has broken the thread. Or maybe it was a party of schoolchildren playing among themselves. Then one notices more than just the youth of some of the audience: for example, that whole rows of the people sitting nearby are not English.

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