With a remit covering vocal techniques, teaching dialects and interpreting text, Kate Godfrey coaches the Royal Shakespeare Company’s actors to make the most challenging lines comprehensible on stage. She tells Tim Bano why striving for clarity rather than sounding posh is the key to making yourself understood
A few years into his career as a lawyer, the ancient Roman orator Cicero, the man who practically invented many of the techniques of modern rhetoric, decided he needed a voice coach.
There’s an extraordinary continuity that two millennia later, ahead of the West End opening of Imperium, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy, Kate Godfrey is working with the cast on some of the same techniques Apollonius Molon used to teach Cicero himself.
She may not be forcing actors to recite their lines while running up a mountain, but the RSC’s head of voice still teaches them how to breathe and how to stand using age-old methods.
Unsurprisingly, Godfrey is very well-spoken. It’s not just the crystal clear enunciation; there’s a gentleness and warmth to her voice too. That undoubtedly comes in handy when she has to spend a lot of her time telling actors that they might have misunderstood the lines they’re saying.
For Godfrey, that’s the trickiest part of a job that requires a huge breadth of expertise. The graduate diploma she took at Central School of Speech and Drama involved studying anatomy, “from the nose down to the pubic bone”. She studied phonetics to be able to teach dialects. And she knows Shakespeare backwards, going through the plays in detail, looking up obscure words, picking up on a particular character’s repeated use of imagery – “usually animals, birds or death” – and teasing out rhetorical devices such as antithesis and alliteration.
It’s that last element of the three strands of voice work – parsing the text in the way that makes it sound rhythmical and comprehensible to an audience – that Godfrey says can be the most difficult. “You have to be very sensitive, finding a balance between advising the actor on delivery and stopping short of telling them how to say their lines. I often think, is it just how I would do it or is that really what’s being said?”
Godfrey mentions some lines of Beatrice’s she was working on with an actor recently for a production of Much Ado About Nothing, pointing out the wordplay of the words ‘cinque’ and ‘sink’. “I said: ‘I think you’re doing this already but just enjoy the fact that the word is being used in two different ways.’ And she said: ‘Oh, I hadn’t noticed that.’ Actors get very involved in characterisation, but actually it’s also about ideas. Particularly in Shakespeare.”
It’s a frustration echoed by Godfrey’s colleagues, especially the legendary voice coach Cicely Berry, known for her unorthodox training methods. “Cicely would say that if you just work out what every word means, you miss an underlying nuance much deeper down in the psyche about the visceral feeling of speaking them. So when I hear someone do something different, I think: ‘Oh that’s an interesting choice, is that going to work? Or have they not quite understood what they’re saying?’ ”
While Godfrey focuses primarily on text at the RSC, for more than a decade her role at the National Theatre was more about voice. She was involved with several Alan Bennett plays, including The History Boys and The Habit of Art with Richard Griffiths. “We didn’t do a lot of work,” Godfrey admits, “because he had a lot of really wonderful stories. I kept having to say: ‘Richard, really, we should get back to work.’ ”
She was also at the National for the original production of War Horse, which provided her with one of the stranger moments in her career. “I remember my boss Jeannette Nelson and I shutting ourselves in the sound room trying out a variety of horse noises,” she says.
Godfrey had ended up at the National in 2001, working part-time alongside teaching at drama schools such as Mountview and Guildhall. But this was a second career for her. Originally trained as an actor, she had appeared in a wide range of productions including the five-hour epics The Wandering Jew in the Lyttelton alongside Mark Rylance, and Countrymania in the Olivier starring Sian Thomas, both adapted by Mike Alfreds.
Q&A: Kate Godfrey
What were your first non-theatre jobs?
Waitressing, working in a hotel as a chambermaid and on the call desk at Morgan Stanley.
What was your first theatre job?
Assistant stage manager at the Arts Theatre. I wasn’t trained as an ASM, but it meant I could get my Equity card and was very good experience.
What is your next job?
Imperium at London’s Gielgud Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You have to have incredible tact. You have to fit in with the director and the actor, not get involved too much in their process and stay on the right side of the line when it comes to not directing.
Who is your biggest influence?
Patsy Rodenburg and Cicely Berry.
What is your advice for auditions?
Don’t feel you can’t do the speech that’s been done to death. You might find the way you do it is entirely different and refreshing and they hear it again for the first time, if you really know what you’re talking about. Really understand the argument, understand every single word – especially with Shakespeare. Fully own it.
If you hadn’t been a voice coach what would you have been?
A Foley artist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
It was almost inevitable that she should end up in theatre, as the daughter of actors Amanda Walker, who had roles in 28 Weeks Later and A Room With a View, and Patrick Godfrey, who worked at the RSC at the time of Peter Brook’s iconic Midsummer Night’s Dream there in 1970.
But at the National she met world-renowned voice coaches Jeannette Nelson and Patsy Rodenburg, and decided to reinvent herself. “It was very hard getting acting work, especially if you were a woman at that time,” she says. “I thought: ‘Well I’ll do the course and see what happens.’ And actually it really took over. My initial idea was to become a dialect coach but I ended up doing more voice.”
Besides, she explains, you barely scratch the surface of dialects during training – it’s impossible to cover every possible accent, or to master the differences between Lancashire and Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall, Suffolk and Norfolk or Newcastle and Sunderland. “It’s like when you pass your driving test. You can drive a car but you’re by no means an expert driver. You’d have to learn on the job, going off and recording someone speaking English but with that particular accent.”
One project Godfrey worked on required a Kashmiri accent. “I found out that all the Kashmiris in London were in Upton Park. So I went up with my cassette recorder, walked into a greengrocer and said: ‘Would you mind talking into my microphone and just having a chat?’”
Voice coaching is a niche job – and Godfrey admits it was a risk to move from one profession with limited work to another. While most voice work is in film, she has stuck mainly to theatre, breaking away briefly to help out on Franco Zeffirelli’s film Callas Forever, starring Fanny Ardant.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Godfrey says. “Fanny was absolutely fabulous. She has a strong French accent and speaks very good English, but her pronunciation needed a little help as there are certain sounds the French have that we don’t. And of course it’s true the other way around – she would tease me and say: ‘English, it is a barbaric language.’ ”
Also for film, she helped Daniel Radcliffe learn an Australian accent for 2007’s December Boys. But, largely, Godfrey has stayed in theatre. Even though film can be very lucrative, “the flexibility of theatre makes it easier, allowing me to teach in the morning and drop into a rehearsal on the other side of town in the afternoon”.
Godfrey gets annoyed when she hears actors mumbling in films and on TV, “though that makes me sound so reactionary”. But she stresses that, often, it’s not right to blame the actors. “The speakers in our televisions are not as good as they used to be. That’s a lot to do with it, too.”
She loves teaching voice and stresses the importance of getting the basics right. “I always thought it must be extraordinary for acting students to go back home after the first term and say: ‘Well, we learned to walk, we learned to stand, and we learned to breathe.’ Their parents must think: ‘How much are you paying for this?’ But those fundamentals are really important.”
By the end of their training, actors often used to end up with different voices and accents from the ones they started with. “It’s always a dilemma. Loosening the jaw, bringing the sound more forward in order to fill a theatre, they start to sound more south-east or RP. That could be hard. I remember my friends saying when I came back from drama school that I sounded so posh. I never really knew what the answer was.”
Does she think that the dominance of RP in theatre is over? “It’s just on the turn now in terms of acting styles. And I suppose I’m just working out where we stand.” It’s an issue the RSC is thinking hard about, with artistic director Gregory Doran due to meet with Godfrey, head of casting Hannah Miller and others to discuss the best way forward.
“At the RSC, we really encourage actors to use their own accents. We just have to make sure it’s clear. We don’t want to be old-fashioned. But what does that mean exactly?”
Above all, it’s about clarity and comprehensibility. “I’m really very grateful to people when they say ‘I heard every word’. That’s terrific, but that really should be a given. Did you want to listen to every word? That’s actually more what I’m interested in. Did you understand it?” And if the answer is yes, then the value of Godfrey’s job speaks for itself.