Dialogue, text and speech were the order of the day in David Newman’s workshop on English Restoration comedy. The room was jam-packed with actors and directors ready to get stuck into some 17th century hijinks, and the workshop proceeded as a study of text followed by scratch performances of a short scene or act.
David began by asking us to clarify the tenets of Restoration drama. I can’t say it’s a period I know a great deal about. I thought maybe studying Renaissance Drama at university would be an advantage, but it didn’t take me long to discover that Restoration comedy is a rather different beast; more parodic and self congratulatory in tone than the heavy ruminations on found in Kyd, Marlowe and Webster.
So, David put the question to us: what best defined the tone and character of Restoration drama? Luckily, a few of those in the know summarised it for us: Restoration comedy is self-congratulatory, consciously lascivious in tone, highly knowing in its form, and perhaps most of all, a jovial celebration of theatre’s ability to temporarily unite different classes, creeds, genders and professions. Oh, and Charles II bloody loved it!
When we came to the texts, David compared the actor’s delivery of verse to a ball that must be kept in the air. In effect, the performer is playing a game of ‘keepy-uppy’ with the metrical rhythm of the text: too labored a pause, too strained an inflection or too long an inhalation result in the ball falling and the rhythm of the performance collapsing.
At first, I found it difficult to figure out how David’s analogy specifically catered to Restoration comedy. Surely all dramatic works written in verse – from the plays of Shakespeare to the medieval poetry of Beowulf – require an identical mastery of speech and cadence? It was only through practice that this distinction became clear. We learned that Restoration comedy creates what might be described as verbal sparring in which two performers engage in dialogue, often with the intention of one-upmanship and appealing to the audience’s sympathies. It was this that produced the playfulness of the comedy as we toyed with interruptions, audience address and the effects of different words and expressions.
David also explained the way in which physical action can release a scene of dialogue from its straightjacket, and enrich both its meaning and rhythm. For example, a wife’s conversation about strolling through the park against the wishes of her husband is imbued with new layers if it is born out of a pre-existing action. In this case, drinking tea or knitting clothes breathes intention into the scene and complicates the unfolding of the verse.
David Newman studied at the University of Warwick and trained at the National Theatre Studio Director’s Programme. He has worked as an NSDF selector, and directed productions of Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (Sheffield Theatres) The Jazz Conductor (Sheffield Theatres) Kitty’s Story (Nottingham Playhouse, Roundabout) When the Wind Blows (Southwark Playhouse), as well as many others.