22nd August 2011
My name’s Phil Cumbus and I’m playing Judas, Angel Gabriel and Ribald. I came to be in the production because it’s being done in tandem with Much Ado About Nothing. Two years ago I had a brilliant time working with Deborah Bruce (Director) on Helen, an equally epic scale production with rich language and large scale theatrics in it. So I knew she’d be equally suited to this and luckily she wanted me to be in it.
One of the biggest challenges about the piece was the sound, and the text and the voice; and the language that The Globe Mysteries is rich with. It’s an amazing piece of theatre history in terms of its language and how it influenced Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It’s a part of its theatrical make up and it’s key to access that aspect of it properly.
We had Tony Harrison on board and he talked a little bit at the beginning about accent. When he first did the Mysteries back in the 70s he wrote it in a distinct Northern dialect. This was not only because it is his own background but also because at the time, in English theatre, verse speaking was done with a middle class, received pronunciation accent. He was very much battling against that so he wrote this piece as a sort of antidote to all that highbrow, sterile verse speaking. Obviously that battle no longer needs fighting; in a way accents and dialect are very much a part of Shakespeare in verse. Using the dialects was more about suiting the language he’d written. The language that is in The Globe Mysteries is very specific to the North of England. There are lots of words and sounds that are simply not used down south, and lots of rhyming that only really works in a particular accent.
I don’t use my own accent at all. I use variations of Northern accents, and a Welsh accent. I went with the rhythms of what I was doing. I made Gabriel as much about my own voice as possible, so literally just changing the sound of the accent and trying to keep my own emphasis and quality and tone of my own voice. For Judas; I loved all the alliteration that Tony has written. Judas’ first speech is incredibly percussive and aggressive and the language is very alliterative. So I used that punchiness and it ended up having a much more urban, Northern accent , I suppose more Manchester , which distinguished it from Gabriel a little more.
For Ribald, who’s this mad, stupid Devil character, I wanted to do something completely different . The scene that Ribald’s in is very cartoony so I thought I could go with something a bit mad. I went with this really broad, probably quite terrible Welsh accent that was very useful for me in terms of taking a leap away from the other two characters. Accent for an actor is sort of like costume in that once you get it right it starts to influence what you’re doing. To begin with it can start to feel a little awkward and you don’t quite fit it, and you are concentrating a lot on the accent. But gradually as the rehearsal process goes on it becomes really useful and a very smooth way of discovering things in the text.
In Shakespearian language you have iambic pentameter , this very strong rhythm. Much Ado About Nothing is actually Shakespeare’s great prose play. There’s a lot of non-verse but Claudio, the character I play has quite a significant amount of iambic pentameter to speak. It’s sort of the same, in terms of how you use that verse; in Tony Harrison’s language you’ve got this alliteration which is pretty constant. Some moments you notice it, and at other moments you want it to be an undercurrent. Sometimes when you want to use it to display emotion, you use it in a very similar way that you use iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. You have to choose your moments when you want because you don’t want it to become the only thing that’s dictating you. In the same way that you don’t want the verse to be more important than anything else.
Those discoveries have been even more palpable by the presence of an audience. It’s been an amazing play to do with a crowd of people because with this, more than any other play, you have no idea how people are going to react. All the styles of the scenes are varied and all the characters. There’s slapstick comedy, profound and religious moments. So it was really exciting to see how the audience react. And it’s still going on; every scene I’m in is really exciting because they’re so new. The audience are really swinging with all the changes in the play and The Globe is wonderful for that. As a space it can handle real quick sharp changes in time, from being really touching, really gentle tender moments to then suddenly being swept up by something either very violent or very funny or very broad. The audience are wrapped up in that. We use the audience a lot as well. A lot of the stuff we did in the rehearsal room we just couldn’t recreate without them. Each performance will be a great leap forward in how we tell these stories and how we use these characters. I’m loving it and the audience seem to be taking to it as well.
Both in the rehearsal room and in the tech rehearsal I have seen some of the show. The crucifixion was a big tech day and such an epic thing to do. It involves quite a lot of technical aspects to make sure that the actor playing Jesus (William Ash) is safe and also because there’s quite a lot of genuine technicalities to tying someone onto a cross and getting them into the air. I’ve seen it and I think it’s extraordinary. I think the way Tony’s written that scene is brilliant – seen through the eyes of four workmen. He’s coming to that iconic scene in a very unexpected way.
Watching is the best way of gauging what’s happening. It’s also the best way of learning, as well as being in the plays. To be able to watch the stuff that’s in your own play is brilliant. I love a lot of the work that’s being done; I love the bravery and I think that’s what you need with this play and what Deborah’s done brilliantly is to have the bravery to leap into these epic stories and to find the most fun and inventive way of telling them.