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Performing Shakespeare as he would have liked it

Lizzie Conrad Hughes. Photo by Nikki Wills
Lizzie Conrad Hughes. Photo by Nikki Wills

In a bid to bring a more authentic 16th-century experience to theatre-goers, the Shake-Scene Shakespeare actors are depicting As You Like It - one of the Bard's most popular comedies - at the Gibberd Garden on the outskirts of Harlow this Sunday (Jul 22).

Lizzie Conrad Hughes. Photo by Nikki Wills
Lizzie Conrad Hughes. Photo by Nikki Wills

The twist? While the players have all studied their parts, they have no idea what their co-stars will say until they perform live in front of the audience.

The actors have not been given copies of the playscript in its entirety. Instead, they are provided solely with their lines and their cues – exactly as Shakespeare’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and other Elizabethan actors would have received their instructions when they performed.

“It’s a huge thrill to use the technique that was used in Shakespeare’s day,” said Lizzie Conrad Hughes, the director of the show and founder of Shake-Scene Shakespeare, a London-based theatre company.

Lizzie coaches her actors on a one-to-one basis, but there is no group rehearsal where the actors meet to read through the script. When the thespians perform the play for the first time, they will not have previously heard or even seen each other’s lines.


“For the actors’ point of view,

it’s like the ultimate challenge,” Lizzie explained. “The wonderful thing that happens on stage

is that the play is created in front of the audience. The audience witnesses and is a part of the creation process.

“I think of it as alchemy – the coming together of elements. Something comes together that wasn’t there before.”

Gibberd Garden Old Harlow
Gibberd Garden Old Harlow

By cutting up the script and giving her actors only their lines and cues, Lizzie believes this creates a much more genuine theatre experience – the actors are fully present in the moment; they listen intently to one another and react to their surroundings impulsively.

But this can sometimes lead to friction, as some actors will interrupt and talk over one

another. “Certain cues turn up more than once,” Lizzie said.

“One character might recite a cue more than once.”

As You Like It: Synopsis

Duke Senior has been banished and usurped by his brother, Duke Frederik. He has fled court and retreated to the Forest of Arden with his noblemen.

His daughter, Rosalind, has been allowed to remain at court as a companion to Frederik’s daughter, Celia, but when she incurs his wrath, she is also banished.

Celia opts to run away with her best friend and they leave for Arden with the jester, Touchstone. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, and Celia assumes the role of a common shepherdess.

Meanwhile, Rosalind’s love-interest, Orlando, also flees to the forest, believing his brother, Oliver, intends to kill him. He is taken in by Duke Senior and his band of merry men.

Orlando eventually meets the disguised Rosalind and, along with a few others, the couple become entangled in a beguiling game of love, lust and mistaken identity.

When one actor delivers a speech, Shakespeare may have littered their co-star’s cue throughout the text several times. The second actor, when they hear their cue, will try to begin speaking – interrupting the first – who in turn might talk more loudly and more aggressively to finish what they have to say.

“It’s an atmosphere on stage that you don’t get – or at least I haven’t seen when you take the whole text approach,” Lizzie said.

And if that was not enough of a test for the performers, Lizzie has brought another challenge into the mix: the actors do not know who is playing which role – and they will not find out until they arrive at the Gibberd Garden on the morning of the performance.

While Shakespeare did not adopt this level of mystery, Lizzie explained that it makes matters even more exciting for the performers. “We’re living in a time where Shakespeare’s stuff is more familiar,” she said, “so we keep secrets to get the stakes a little higher.”

But, she explained that her Shake-Scene players relish the challenge – Lizzie has previously offered to tell them who is playing which role, but there was a unanimous “no” from the company.

“It always works out, even if there’s some confusion, they do the natural human thing and find their way through,” Lizzie said.

Lizzie founded Shake-Scene Shakespeare last year; she was inspired by a book about the cue-script method, Secrets of Acting Shakespeare, by Patrick Tucker. “Basically, what happened was, my head exploded,” Lizzie said. “I thought I have to try this. I have to find out what this is like.”

And now she’s tried the cue-script method, Lizzie is not tempted to return to the more conventional whole-text approach. “This is me now, for probably the rest of my career and the rest of my life,” she said.

The English literature graduate attained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Hull and went on to get her MA from Leeds University. Lizzie subsequently went on to qualify as a secondary school teacher, but gave it up when she was 25 to pursue a theatrical career.

She now has 23 years’ experience as an actor and is planning on embarking on a PhD, focusing on cue-scripting.

But in the meantime, Lizzie and the rest of the company have their production to look forward to. As You Like It will be performed at the Gibberd Garden in Harlow on Sunday, July 22; there will be two performances, one at noon and one at 5pm.

Tickets cost £8, and there is a limited number of £5 tickets for students across both shows. To book, visit www.thegibberdgarden.co.uk or call 01279 442112.


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