This November, University of Kansas theater professor Paul Meier will be staging the first US production of a Shakespeare play spoken in the original pronunciation. This is not only a first for the United States, but it’s an extremely rare event worldwide. There have only been 3 other productions of original pronunciation (OP) Shakespeare before this one, 2 at The Globe theater in London, and 1 at Cambridge in the 1950s.
The reason these performances are so rare is not that Shakespeare’s accent is too far out of our reach. Linguists know quite a lot about early modern English, and for Shakespeare in particular, there’s a blueprint of original pronunciation in the rhymes that no longer work today but did in his time. It’s that the linguists who have the appropriate expertise don’t also have the qualifications or interests to teach it to actors and put on a play, nor do most theaters have the wherewithal to put together the necessary team.
Meier is not only a theater professor with a particular passion for Shakespeare, but he’s also a top-notch dialect coach with 30 years’ experience researching accents and dialects all over the world. In 2007, he took a small group of students to Stratford-upon-Avon where they attended a seminar in original pronunciation led by linguist and OP expert David Crystal. Crystal had been the consultant on the Globe’s OP productions, and Meier determined on the spot that he would find a way to bring Crystal to Kansas to work on an OP play together.
It took a few years, but Meier finally made it happen. They decided to do “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because it’s packed with rhymes that worked in OP but not in today’s English. David Crystal spent 2 weeks with Meier the cast in September, working to get the accents just right.
“American audiences will hear an accent and style surprisingly like their own in its informality and strong r-colored vowels,” Meier said. “The original pronunciation performance strongly contrasts with the notions of precise and polished delivery created by John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and their colleagues from the 20th century British theater.”
Meier said audiences will hear word play and rhymes that “haven’t worked for several hundred years (love/prove, eyes/qualities, etc.) magically restored, as Bottom, Puck and company wind the language clock back to 1595.”
“The audience will hear rough and surprisingly vernacular diction, they will hear echoes of Irish, New England and Cockney that survive to this day as ‘dialect fossils.’ And they will be delighted by how very understandable the language is, despite the intervening centuries.”
The play will run for 8 performances between November 11th and November 21st. If you plan to be in the Lawrence, Kansas, area during that time, you can purchase advance tickets from the KU website. The rest of us need not weep, however, because after the play closes, the cast will be recording a radio drama version, complete with sound effects and music, for Kansas Public Radio. It will be made available online and via CD after it airs on the radio.
For the linguist nerds among you or for those of you who just want to try your hand at OP, Paul Meier has created a free e-book with embedded sound files from the documentation he used to train the cast: The Original Pronunciation of Shakespeare’s English (pdf).
Here’s a subtitled video of the cast rehearsing in original pronunciation: