Features Published 3 April 2018

Theatre’s missing accents

Francesca Peschier explores how regional and working class accents are both underused and misused by theatre.
Francesca Peschier
If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You at Vault Festival 2018. Photo: Keith Dixon.

Alan McMahon and Josh Williams in If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You at Vault Festival 2018. Photo: Keith Dixon.

‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue’ (Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 2)

In ‘I bet Nicholas Hynter doesn’t have to do this’, a brilliantly titled chapter of Glory and the Garden (eds. Ros Merkin & Kate Dorney) , Gwenda Hughes chronicles the complaint letters she received as artistic director of The New Vic, then The Victoria Theatre in North Staffordshire. Amongst these are a series of moans directed at Northern Broadsides’ Shakespeare, including one outraged-of-Cheshire writer who felt horrified at the bard’s words being so unsuitably intoned by those with (gasp) regional accents. Not only was our affronted friend clearly a frightful snob, he was also wrong: as scholars of original pronunciation will tell you, accurately ‘saying it as it was written’ doesn’t mean RP, nor is having an accent some strange quirk of the 21st century. Unless you have access to a time machine, all of our modern-day voices are “wrong” for Shakespeare, not just those which aren’t posh or from beyond the M25.

Within the small screen world of ‘The North’™ as presented in TV comedy and drama, individuals are consistently restricted to simplified working-class characters who present an invariable parade of stereotypes. Such on screen depictions of the city have conditioned the national horizon of expectations as to what is expected from such characters. My personal experience if this has been heavily coloured by my PhD research on staging Liverpool but I also come from a place that is popular as a punchline: Croydon.

Perhaps I have been naïve (and likely sheltered by my middle class-ness and white-ness) but I never felt particularly marginalised by the endless gags about not falling asleep on the bus lest you end up in my hometown. That was until this year when I saw two plays that centred Croydon voices, and not just as bleak funny background (Hallo Peep Show): If we got some more cocaine I could show you how much I love you (John O’Donovan, so good that Exeunt reviewed it THRICE) with Casey – a young, black man from Croydon with a gentle nature and steadfast resolve, and the hilarious yet heart-breaking Dean McBride, by Sonya Hale). I felt unexpectedly moved, hearing voices that I knew finally given the limelight.

Too often, the sound of a northern or working-class voice on stage heralds either comedy or what Natasha Tripney describes in in Exeunt’s (Mostly) Irrational Theatre Dislikes as a ‘detonator’ –an individual with no personal agency but used to ‘hold up a mirror to other characters’. My frustration boiled over when watching The National’s Macbeth. I’m sorry (ok, not that sorry) to kick a show while it’s down, but in all the damning reviews there is a major point that has not been appropriately interrogated: we need to talk about the porter. Though intended by Shakespeare as a fool-style part, the role is expanded, exaggerated and clowned by Trevor Fox, who dials up his natural Geordie to squeeze laughter out of the Olivier audience. His cartoonish performance isn’t the only offender. Banquo’s estuary-accented murderers appear (as described by Sarah Crompton for WhatsonStage) as ‘extras from The Jeremy Kyle Show’. In a National Theatre Shakespeare (and in Macbeth… a play that takes place in SCOTLAND) in 2018, certain voices are only present to be funny, or at best, a ‘gritty’ façade.

Language matters, and to align certain accents with certain characters is to lose so much of what can be done with a place’s unique intonations or turns of phrase. The south London ([sic] Sawf Landan) voice is almost without exception played as ugly or stupid. But for playwright Sonya Hale it’s the voice of her son, it has ‘a rhythm… a musicality’, an originality where her son and friends ‘make up words all the time’. (You know who else made up words all the time, Mr. Grumpy-complainer-of-the-introductory-paragraph? Shakespeare, so shut your mouth). Dean McBride is interspersed with grime music including Stormzy (yes, he’s from Thornton Heath but go gentle on us Croydonites, we can’t live off Kate Moss forever), filled with familiar voices that Hale sees as giving her son and his peers a way to be proud of where they come from: music that reflects a robust south London attitude. Words are important, as Hale, whose script is written in Croydon vernacular, says: they ‘… not only frame and describe our particular reality, but can also be a way of coping with it if it’s a bit shit.’

The stigma certain accents carry is also heavily gendered. Northern woman in particular so often exist in theatre only to be either mocked, or overly sentimentalised as resilience-in-lipstick. Rounded female characters from north of Watford are rare in plays written by those not from there, or they’re misrepresented where they do exist (see: far too many dodgy versions of Educating Rita). Complex real women are painted across theatrical and televisual drama as gaudy parrots, brightly coloured and squawking against the assumed depressed darkness that is the north (The North™ again). Writer and theatre critic Tracey Sinclair agrees that such characterisation is mockery, usually staged by outsiders:

‘It’s the same culture that laughs at women in tiny dresses and high heels in the snow on a Friday night, instead of marvelling at their resilience and commitment to having fun; that mocks Ladies Day at the races for being chavvy when what that means is fat girls know your place.’

Sinclair contextualises this as part of bigger social issue, of classist attitudes and a North-South divide that persists. For Sinclair, staging lazy stereotypes is akin to laughing at Liverpool women at Aintree, or tabloid press sending photographers to capture the lack of coats on a Newcastle night out. It is symptomatic of a wider idea spread by the ‘… Tory political narrative that working-class people don’t deserve anything nice, any beauty’. Spending money on looking good isn’t allowed to be glamorous and fun if you don’t live in London, instead it is to be held up for ridicule, for getting it wrong, for trying to take possession of something that the media has decided as not for you. As Sinclair says, ‘sartorial eccentricity’ is praised on the red carpet and catwalk but a plump, northern woman will be ‘eviscerated’ in the same publication ‘… for daring to wear something fun or shiny or tight instead of having the good sense to dress to diminish her curves, her fake tan, her too muchness’. Taking the piss out of the awesome outfits of the races weekend feeds into the image of northern women as unsophisticated, a distanced patronising sneer at the provinces who don’t know any better, despite (as the wonderful blogger Steph Bannister aka Scouse Bird Problems put it) ‘London trustafarians frequently spending thousands to look like they’ve crawled out of a bin’.

A Liverpool actor pal tells me that she is still regularly asked to do a ‘comedy generic northern accent’ at auditions. It’s the voice of the light relief, denied exact provenance let alone intersectionality. It was only this year, after nearly four years researching Liverpool theatre, that I saw my first strong Liverpool-accented, black female character (Alexandra Mardell as Daisy in Mad as Hell). This raises questions not only as to who is speaking and who is listening, but as to who is putting those words into those mouths. When the people who are being mocked or typecast aren’t involved in the creative process, theatre can be guilty of ‘othering’ whole sections of society. This is where, Sinclair says, that things start to taste very bad: ‘plays about the working-class experience feel like exhibits at a zoo – you’re sitting in a room full of middle class people who are enjoying being shocked and outraged at the antics on stage.’

What about when the humour comes from a place of self-knowledge? Sinclair, who is originally from Newcastle, finds little to be offended in comedy about Geordies that she recognises as having seeds of truth in its stereotypes: ‘I suspect that’s because we tend to self-identify as (deliberately) funnier than posh people and in most of the instances I can think of, it’s used as a puncture to pomposity’. This is why it’s so refreshing to see stereotypes challenged, but in a way that the people whose voices are being represented will still enjoy and recognise. As I was with my plays-about-Croydon joy, Sinclair was fired up by the complexity of Northern Stage’s The Last Ship: an ‘… an unapologetically Northern story (they hadn’t even toned down the slang, which was a delight to me – I never thought I would hear the word ‘radgy’ on stage), in a Geordie space.’

Representation matters and the lack of it has insidious effects. Ava Davies’ recent review of The Great Wave shows how stirring seeing people who look like you on stage can be. That must true of people that sound like you, too. What does it do to young people to see their accent only employed for comic value, or as a cautionary warning that these characters are not to be trusted? Hale sees it as a matter of accountability for writers and producers, for those that make culture which shapes and reflects politics:

‘Its our responsibility to challenge stereotypes, to represent marginalised and misrepresented truthfully and honestly in order to readdress these power imbalances, because if we don’t what message are we sending out? – Especially to young people? That all Croydon youth are drug dealers and scummy and a bit thick and everyone from a South London estate is destined to knife somebody, nick your moped and end up in prison? It’s so deeply embedded in the patriarchal system that we hardly notice we are doing it.’

If we place limitations on who-says-what, we feed into a wider sonic blandness where nearly every newsreader, voice in the House of Commons or bodiless Radio 4 presenter sounds the same. When regional accents are restricted to regional contexts and working-class voices only get raised in inadequate narratives, and perpetuated stereotypes trickle off screen deeming some voices as inappropriate for saying some words. I am posh, I went to private school and I know my way around Spektrix  – and yet the slight Croydon inflection to my voice saw me barred from answering the phone at Glyndebourne. Northern voices in particular deserve better, says Sinclair:

‘…..we deserve our gorgeous, sweeping, epic stories against brilliant backdrops,  spanning countries. We deserve our love stories and our stained-glass windows and our journeys into the sunset, and if you won’t give us them as due, we’ll take them. And we’ll resist your dismissal of us as loud and cheap and shabby and ungrateful, and we will defiantly proclaim not just our worth but our beauty.’

Croydon might not be classed as a blockbuster-quality landscape anytime soon (though have you seen the 50p tower lit at night? Its positively Ballard-esque) but just like so many places that aren’t London, heroic stories happen here. Stories that I want to hear in the voices of those that tell them as well as see. Tell me a banging legend mate, and please, I pray you, tell it to me in the tongue it was told to you.

Sonya Hale’s latest work can be seen at the upcoming Alchymy Festival, Oxford. Sinclair’s review of ‘The Last Ship’ for The Stage can be found here

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Francesca Peschier

Francesca is a freelance lecturer, reviewer, and AHRC funded PhD student at University of Arts London. where her research examines the relationship between scenography and identity in Liverpool. A former model maker and set painter, she still manages to keep her place on the Society of British Theatre Designers committee. She is the founding editor of JAWS, the Journal of Arts Writing by Students published by Intellect. When not writing about or watching theatre she concerns herself with running a croquet society and back-combing her hair to desired Dolly Parton heights.

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