Telling it like it is: the word on the street on the stage

Let’s face it: actors on stage don’t generally talk like real-life people. Until recently it would have seemed odd to hear the voice of the man on the street in “to be or not to be”, or one of Wilde’s epigrams spoken with the uneven intonation of everyday speech.

But what of verbatim theatre which, contrary to our expectations, is starting to bridge the gap between everyday- and stage-speak? The technique of using real, quotidian conversations replicated by actors is becoming ubiquitous, and challenging our assumptions about what theatre ought to sound like.

It was Alecky Blythe’s sell-out musical London Road, which appeared in the National Theatre in 2011, that brought verbatim theatre into the headlines.

It wasn’t just the play’s unconventional technique that surprised its audiences; the content was shocking too: the story came from a series of interviews that Blythe had conducted during and after the search for the Ipswich murderer in 2006.

Her first interviews were collected at a time when five bodies of the murdered prostitutes had been found, but no arrests made. Blythe wanted to capture the feeling within the community at this period of heightened anxiety: “The best verbatim theatre is as much present tense as possible”, she says, “it’s about capturing things as they happen.”

It’s not just the recordings that capture things ‘as they happen’ – the feeling of spontaneity is maintained even during the rehearsal process. The actors in Blythe’s plays are barred from seeing the text, replicating their lines instead from edited recordings which are played live to them during the rehearsals and even onstage during performance. Learning of lines is discouraged (since it is argued this would diminish the verisimilitude of the speech) – actors just listen to the audio and repeat what they hear. As Blythe said of London Road, “Every cough, stutter and hesitation is reproduced.”

With such exact reproduction of everyday speech, it’s hard to determine when verbatim accounts become verbatim theatre. The introduction of musical accompaniment to Blythe’s verbatim technique added a new, more theatrical dimension: in London Road she enlisted the help of Adam Cork to incorporate music into the recordings without losing the speech’s honesty. Purer forms of verbatim technique are often overtly political, like Ice&Fire’s Asylum Monologues, which was performed at Christ Church in November 2013. The passionate delivery of the actors was striking, but, without costumes or props, the production felt like a reading – three extremely powerful accounts of asylum-seekers coming to Britain. But is this kind of journalistic verbatim performance really theatre?

With verbatim theatre employing journalistic techniques and subject-matters, perhaps we should be less rigid about distinguishing between ‘theatre’ and ‘journalism’. Blythe says she owes a lot to Anna Deavere Smith, who, in the early 1990s, was the first to combine the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of reproducing their words accurately in performance.

Now Blythe’s success is encouraging a whole new generation of verbatim playwrights to pick up the recorder. Amongst Blythe’s mentees is Ellie Browning, winner of the IdeasTap Underbelly Award, whose play Love Re-Imagined was created from interviews with prisoners and their families.

Perhaps the most potent aspect of well executed verbatim theatre is its ability, as Adam Cork puts it, to make “spontaneously spoken words formal…to explode the thought of a moment into slow motion, [which] can allow us more deeply to contemplate what’s being expressed.”

An emotion or thought spoken in an instant is magnified; politicised even. Unlike newspapers, verbatim theatre slows down time, facilitating the contemplation that is often lacking in our treatment of news stories. Recent news is full of material ready to be transformed into fascinating theatre using the verbatim technique. Leveson inquiry, anyone?

A still from trailer for Judgement at Nuremberg PHOTO / Roxlom Films/United Artists