The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.360 Monday, 3 August 2015
Date: July 31, 2015 at 1:50:36 PM EDT
Subject: Benedict Cumberbatch Has 1,480 Lines in Hamlet
[Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from the Independent. –Hardy]
Benedict Cumberbatch has 1,480 lines in Hamlet - so what's the secret to actors' memory skills?
Friday 31 July 2015
“Remember me!” At midnight, on the battlements of Elsinore, his father’s restless spirit transfixes Hamlet with that command. “Remember thee!” Hamlet reflects: “Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat/ In this distracted globe.” Summoned to vengeance, the Prince of Denmark decides that in order to fulfil his mission, he must clear out his memory-banks. He should erase all the knowledge installed by an elite Renaissance education: “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,/ All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,/ That youth and observation copied there”.
The duty of revenge means unlearning all that Hamlet knows by heart – a big deal, around 1600. In the second act, memorisation again becomes a plot-pivot. Hamlet writes a speech for the First Player which, he hopes, will terrify stepfather Claudius into admitting guilt: “You could, for a need,/ study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which/ I would set down and insert in’t, could you not?” A cinch. In the London theatre Shakespeare knew, star performers had to commit bulky parts to memory within days. Richard Burbage, for whom he probably wrote Hamlet, was a legend for his repertoire of supersized roles.
Next week, 415 years on, Benedict Cumberbatch will become the latest actor to scale the peak of Hamlet when he begins his sold-out run at the Barbican Theatre in London. Every Hamlet has to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines. The count will vary a little according to the edition used. Compared with this epic stretch, Shakespeare's other tragic leads look almost lightweight: Othello with 890, King Lear 750, Macbeth a slimline 710. If Hamlet stands at the pinnacle of the actor's art for its emotional and intellectual range, it also activates and exercises the hippocampus – the area in the brain that converts short-term into long-term memory – as few other roles ever will.
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So actors and musicians use – admittedly, at an extraordinary pitch – a near-universal facility that just happens to have fallen out of favour. And the more you hear any text, the easier it becomes to ingest for good. Michael Pennington reports that, when he first studied Hamlet as a professional actor, long years of exposure to the play meant that the part posed no special problems. “By that time, I’d heard it played over and over again, in my mouth and other people’s mouths. I hardly had to learn it at all.” In contrast to the abstractions and complexities of, say, King Lear or Macbeth, he also found that the punch and snap of Hamlet’s own speech helped to make the role stick. “Although it’s very long, the language is surprisingly simple to learn – it’s very practical, down-to-earth language. What could be simpler than ‘To be or not to be ...’?”
Do actors and musicians command a special treasury of recall-and-retrieval secrets – dark arts invisible to awestruck spectators? Almost certainly not. When the leading Shakespeare scholar Professor Peter Holland researched memory and forgetting on the stage, he wrote that: “What I found most remarkable is the virtual silence in the books on actor training on how to remember the lines”. By and large, that’s still the case. Handbooks of technique will briefly round up useful tips but then move on to website management or the benefits of yoga.
For most performers, the mantra remains what Pennington calls “Repetition, repetition, repetition”. Yet that discipline can take a myriad of forms. One size of memorisation by no means fits all. Pennington says that “I always learn late at night. Some people prefer the morning, when you’re fresh .... Everyone has their own system, especially when they come across passages that are particularly tricky for them.” He recommends acrostics and mnemonics that associate troublesome passages with a memorable story: an approach rooted in the Renaissance “art of memory” that flourished in Shakespeare’s day.
Recordings of a single part or of an entire play, committed to MP3 players and listened to over and over again, also find favour. This record-and-repeat method has a long pedigree, but Peter Allday’s LineLearner app brings it into the download age. Older forms of technology also have their fans. Lenny Henry speaks for many actors when, in Laura Barnett’s book Advice from the Players, he advises: “Try writing down your lines, at least 10 times for each scene.” Moving around also helps to fix the words. It seems that the hippocampus likes to have other senses busy while it works. Helga Noice, professor of psychology at Elmhurst College in Illinois, discovered that the physical actions that partner words have a crucial effect in sealing the deal for long-term memory.
All actors agree, however, that the key to mastering lines is not to treat them as lines, but as the ingredients of a character and a story. Grasp the total meaning, and the words will swiftly follow. For Michael Pennington, "You come to know the character that much better. It's like the engineering of a car: you get to see what goes on under the bonnet. It's a matter of cosying up the author – you see how they do it, and you develop a feeling for the music of the language".
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‘Hamlet’, with Benedict Cumberbatch, runs at the Barbican Theatre 5 August-31 October, with live transmission to cinemas nationwide on 15 October. BBC Prom 22, with the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon, is at the Royal Albert Hall at 3.30pm on Sunday 2 August, with a BBC4 broadcast on Sunday 9 August. Michael Pennington’s book ‘Let me Play the Lion Too: How To Be an Actor’ is published by Faber & Faber. He will be appearing in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’, which opens at the Garrick Theatre on 17 October