Off-off-Broadway's Shakespeare OP Players recently mounted a very admirable production of Twelfth Night. As it always should be, it wasn’t necessary to understand the lines to appreciate the play. The interpretive choices were clear and the actors excited the text with a vibrant stage life that was eloquent in itself.
The accomplishment was all the more appreciated because the actors are speaking Shakespeare’s English – or original Pronunciation (OP).
Our linguistic ancestors the Anglo-Saxons spoke Old English from about 500 AD. Around 1100, with the Norman Conquests, it morphed into Middle English. From about 1500, with the Renaissance and all, the transformation into Modern English began. Words lost many of their grammatical endings (some remain, such as the ‘s’ at the end of plurals). Word order became more important.
Shakespeare’s language was Early Modern English. Of course, we can’t be sure how it was pronounced, but we can estimate pretty reliably through linguistic reconstruction. Examining the rhymes and puns in the period literature is rewarding in this respect, and there is material from the period about how the language was spoken. Finally, Shakespeare’s spelling gives us clues.
The OP gave the production a delicious distance. What’s more, it made us listen harder than we might, engrossing us all the more. As with Stravinsky, our ears learn the sounds as the piece proceeds. An initial period of befuddlement leads to a greater comfort with the them.
I’d like to have seen more tonal variation among the scenes, and the company could have taken greater pains with the set. But we hope that the company’s next OP production will have a considerably longer run than Twelfth Night did, and that it will get the attention it deserves. It’s important to see that creative theatre doesn’t need to be avant-garde.