Finding Queen Victoria for Talking Deads
My first task was to read the piece to make myself aware of the content and rhythm. The monologue immediately threw up possibilities as well as challenges; how was I going to do justice to my performance of Queen Victoria as well as perform her mimicking Charles Dickens and her ministers.
Whilst speaking the majority of the lines straight ahead to camera to an invisible audience, Victoria also needed to address a non-existent maid and prime minister just off to the side. Complex changes were required to make the transitions appear smooth and real, (that I was really speaking to them), not an easy process and something that required significant preparation.
I then spent time researching the character of Queen Victoria, not in too much depth but enough to give me a flavour of her, the real person, which also allowed me to consider how she might move and address her subjects, maid and prime minister. I personally like to read a piece several times to pick up any clues or ideas as to how I’ll perform it, being careful not to make absolute decisions in order that I can change things as I go along – I like to keep an open mind in case I have misinterpreted something or a better idea hits a little later in the process. It is too easy to read it once or twice, come to conclusions and miss subtle intricacies. It was important for me to get a grasp of the words and how they flowed as sentence. As it’s a one woman piece the only person who could impact on it was me!
Feeling the flow of the piece was important to me too. Reading it many times, not out loud but to myself, helped me find words or phrases that I was hesitant over and needed to approach again and maybe in a different way. In reading through it many times natural pauses revealed themselves as did the opportunities where I could change the pace and the mood. Like most, if not all actors, I was keen that my performance was interesting and would hold an audience. Being dull and monotone is important at times but not with this piece. Reading it also revealed the significant amount of humour in the piece. I followed my gut feelings and went to town exploring and experimenting in my characterisation and tone, really pushing to the extremes. (You can always pull it back at a later date).
I made the decision that Queen Victoria was required to be more of a caricature than a serious depiction of the real woman and making that decision enabled me to focus more on exaggerating to comic effect rather performing a truthful person. Then and only then was I ready to learn it.
Over the years I have tried many ways to do this, recording myself and playing it back often, learning a sentence at a time, learning it in silence or speaking the words out loud. The way I choose to learn lines that works best for me is to read two or three sentences in my head, repeat that three or four times then move on to the next two or three sentences. Then go back and read all 6 sentences before adding the next two or three sentences. Learning a role in a play I would do this for as many pages as I could then leave it for the day. The following day I start reciting from the beginning and never cease to be amazed by how much of the material has stuck. I then continue working through the lines until they are all done. Using this method and I was able to learn Lady Bracknell’s lines from ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in three days!
Queen Victoria took five days to learn and then many hours of refining the delivery and polishing the performance. Of course when your director comes to film you, you need to be prepared to change what you do as required. Nothing is ever set in stone. Hope you enjoyed ‘Empress Victoria!’