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The Folger Spotlight

Louis Butelli: Speaking Shakespeare and Schiller

Nancy Robinette (Hanna) and Louis Butelli (Sir Amias Paulet) in Mary Stuart.

Nancy Robinette (Hanna) and Louis Butelli (Sir Amias Paulet) in Mary Stuart.

Hi again from your friend Louis Butelli! Here at the Folger Theatre, our production of Mary Stuart is up and running, and you should definitely come and see it. Click here for more information.

Translated and adapted by Peter Oswald, directed by Richard Clifford and starring Kate Eastwood Norris and Holly Twyford, Mary Stuart is the story of two queens, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England. During the course of the evening, we meet these two amazing women and their households as they battle it out for the ultimate prize: control of Europe’s most diverse and lucrative empire.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Mary Stuart is its language. Oswald has certainly used Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play as the strong backbone for his 2005 adaptation, yet his script is its own unique entity. Written mostly in blank verse- non-rhyming iambic pentameter- the language sings and soars like poetry, with occasional bits of modern-sounding vernacular taking us by surprise and keeping us on our toes.

Poet & Playwright Peter Oswald.

Poet & Playwright Peter Oswald.

Both a playwright and a poet, Oswald fixates on the ancient and the classical, using his own language to breathe new life into old stories. His other work includes a verse adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, an adaptation of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses called The Golden Ass, a take on the ancient Indian myth The Ramayana, as well as adaptations of plays by Sophocles and Plautus.

Any playwright writing verse in English is at some point going to have to take on comparisons to William Shakespeare, arguably the best verse-writer to ever live. In fact, at a poetry reading at the Folger last week, Oswald was asked in a Q&A session whether or not Shakespeare was an influence. Quietly, almost sheepishly, his answer was, “um, yes.”

He addressed the question more fully in an interview in The Guardian in 2005 saying, “people often seem to think that what I am trying to do is re-create Shakespeare, which would be the worst thing imaginable. I am not. I am trying to write contemporary plays that use iambic pentameter because to me it seems like the most natural form to use. Its beat is the beat of a heartbeat, and at its best it stimulates the listener’s heart. It is also free-flowing and in its metrical form it is very close to normal everyday speech. Actors just love it.”

In last week’s reading, Oswald himself stood on the Folger stage and performed his poem, a haunting parable of an old fisherman. As somebody who stands on the same stage speaking Oswald’s words each night, it was illuminating to see the author delivering the verse himself. He performed simply, his voice reedy but gaining in volume as he went, and he allowed himself to be a vessel for the words and the story. I will strive to do the same.

Burleigh (Rajesh Bose), Sir Amias Paulet (Louis Butelli), and the Earl of Shrewsbury (Craig Wallace) discuss the fate of Mary Stuart.

Burleigh (Rajesh Bose), Sir Amias Paulet (Louis Butelli), and the Earl of Shrewsbury (Craig Wallace) discuss the fate of Mary Stuart.

It occurs to me that, having spent a large chunk of my career speaking Shakespeare’s verse, speaking someone else’s ought to be a cinch. However, working on Mary Stuart has revealed something unexpected. I can only speak for myself here, but I get the feeling that there is a kind of DNA-level difference embedded in the way every writer composes a line of 10 syllables. Put more simply, speaking Oswald’s words just “feels” different.

Having just played Cassius in Julius Caesar here at Folger, I’ve spent quite a lot of time bashing out line after line of some of Shakespeare’s most repeated verse. There is inevitability in the way he composed Cassius’ speeches.

Consider this little chunk:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

This is robust language. Each line is a square and even 10 syllables. In just 7 economical lines, Shakespeare lays out the character’s entire mission statement. To speak it is to sort of give yourself to it; to read it, as it were, off a stone tablet.

In Mary Stuart, I play Sir Amias Paulet, an honest nobleman who is charged with keeping Mary imprisoned in his castle. When Paulet speaks to Lord Burleigh or to Hannah (Mary’s nurse), he speaks in prose. But when he speaks to Mary, he speaks in verse. Have a look at this little chunk, where he warns Mary of Elizabeth’s imminent arrival in Act III:

Is it not what you wanted now it’s happening?
You asked for it. Perhaps you did not think
That it would come so quickly. You have never
Been short of words. Well you will need them now.
The time to speak has come.

The verse operates very differently here. The first line runs to 12 syllables, or 11 if one elides the “happening” into “hap’ning.” The third line runs to 11 syllables with the “ver” in “never” dangling over the edge. The through-line of thought changes twice, first at “perhaps you did not think,” then at “you have never been,” and both times the change in thought happens mid-line. Paulet asks a question at the beginning of the passage, but doesn’t wait for an answer before continuing. He uses the word “you” five times. The last line is a “half line,” which Mary finishes in her response.

Holly Twyford (Elizabeth I) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Mary Stuart) as rival queens.

Holly Twyford (Elizabeth I) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Mary Stuart) as rival queens.

Complex stuff to be certain! Still, what makes it so good is what it reveals about the character. Paulet habitually speaks in prose – he is most comfortable there. However, he must elevate his speech to speak to a Queen. When he does, it makes him nervous, and his language has a choppy quality to it. He speeds up; he turns on a dime from thought to thought. This reveals character and intent, and helps the actor to make choices about performance.

Oswald’s verse feels gentler somehow, softer than Shakespeare. It feels very contemporary, but in an almost stilted way as befits the speaker of the lines. If anything, it doesn’t “feel” like speaking verse at all, which is an odd thing to say. There is a delicacy, a kind of gossamer feel to it. As I mentioned earlier in my description of Oswald’s own performance of his words, simplicity seems best for this language.

If you’ve been to see Mary Stuart, some of this may have occurred to you as well, and I welcome you to the nerdy side of the tracks. If you haven’t yet been to see Mary Stuart, well, what are you waiting for? Click here for your tickets.

Until next time!


Bravo! I just saw the Sunday matinee, and I was swept away. When I first sat down I was determined to notice Paulet’s prose/verse difference — but, I must admit, I was so carried away by the captivating drama I failed to note it. Please consider my lack of attention as the highest compliment. I was simply mesmerized by the struggle taking place on stage.

Dawn Forsythe — February 15, 2015

Thanks, Dawn! And, just to underscore what you say, none of the nonsense I wrote above has any bearing at all on our audiences’ actual experience. I’m a nerdy little actor fellow who likes to blather on from time to time. Sound and fury signifying nothing, etc. You used the word “mesmerized,” and I can’t think of a higher compliment. Thank you, thank you and thank you!

Louis Butelli — February 16, 2015