Features Essays Published 18 September 2013

The World of Words

Elizabeth Kuti's plays include The Sugar Wife and The Six-Days’ World. Her latest, Fishskin Trousers, is directed by RADA voice coach Robert Price. Here she discusses accent, dialect and how language can let you travel through time as a playwright.
Elizabeth Kuti

The sweetest word I ever heard was something approximating to ‘mummy’ or ‘mama’ when my son was about four years old. It was the most-longed for moment of victory in what had sometimes seemed like a desperate battle that began when he was two, and not talking. It had seemed a long time to wait; but of course we were lucky.  There are lots of parents who wait much longer, and are waiting still.

Language is the threshold we must pass to enter most human communities; it draws the boundaries around what thoughts we can think.  As any mother knows whose child has had difficulty entering the word of worlds, the struggle to acquire language can be one of anguish, punctuated by the greatest joy when a word is achieved.  Some words are particularly freighted with delight – or pain.

Language connects us not only to people but to place; to the present moment, but also to the past; to our forebears and to ways of seeing, to beliefs and dreams that may survive only in the words left to us.

I knew quite early on in the writing of this play that it would be about language, as much as anything else. It was strongly about place, in that the Suffolk coastal town of Orford, its castle, history and landscape, were going to provide not only the setting, but also plot and characters. It seemed imperative that the play be connected to language and in the theatre that means voices, as the voice is how the word reaches the audience. I have always loved Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer; and I was further inspired by the work of Mark O’Rowe, and his thoughts on the monologue drama, to write a three-person monologue drama, with just three characters telling their stories directly to the audience. And because I think the theatre is a place above all for time travel, I knew that they would speak from different eras.

The old Suffolk accent is rich and beautiful, and living where I do in north Essex, it chimes with the old rural Essex accent that you can sometimes hear at the school gate from grandparents picking up children. Never mind TOWIE; the family of East Anglian accents, even in Essex, shares characteristics that are soft and lilting, earthy and wry; ‘morning’ becomes ‘morn-en’; ‘horses’ becomes ‘horsuz’. ‘Go’ becomes ‘goo’. People of a certain age who remember Bernard Matthews’s turkeys being ‘bootiful . . . really bootiful’ will know that ‘yod-dropping’ (losing the ‘y’ sound in words like ‘computer’ so that it becomes ‘compooter’) is a feature of both Norfolk and Suffolk accents. And most exotically of all, ‘that’ often replaces the neuter pronoun ‘it’ – so ‘it’s raining’ becomes ‘that’s rain-un’; or ‘Where’s the jug?’ is answered by ‘That’s on the table.’

Jessica Carroll as Mab

Jessica Carroll as Mab

Writing the voice of Mab – the twelfth-century Orford woman who tells the story of the Wild Man caught in fishermen’s nets – became a welcome excuse to trawl for Suffolk words and phrases, and each new find was like a prize catch. ‘Mardle’ for gossip; ‘rainy bugs’ for ladybirds, ‘rived’ for splitting apart logs; ‘dawsey’ for sleepy.  Of course it’s not in any sense an authentic or historically precise reconstruction of how people actually talked in twelfth-century Orford; this is a play, not a work of history or linguistics, and yes, I’m partly just making it up: playing, and writing to please my own ear and imagination. But there is plenty of inspiration, and guidance, in Suffolk writing, and in the work, not only of professional linguists, but also in the efforts of dedicated enthusiasts such as Charlie Haylock who have worked to keep the accent archived and alive.

Brett Brown as Ben. Photos by Alexandra Guelff

Brett Brown as Ben. All photos by Alexandra Guelff

Recorded voices of Suffolk people  are a wonderful resource for the playwright – like that of the renowned storyteller and broadcaster Peggy Cole, whose voice you will hear in the Finborough foyer if you come to the show. Theatre is always collaborative, and the play’s other voices arrived via more complicated, and more collaborative, routes. Ben, the 1970s radar scientist, was originally planned as an American Vietnam veteran – but working with the Australian actor Brett Brown, the character evolved into something altogether more original as Brett dug deep for some good Australian phrasing that a 1970s academic from Canberra might use.  The idea of hazing – suggested by the director Robert Price – became a more personal and specific source of trauma, providing its own code words and vocabulary (‘Hazing, Ben. . . Sigma Alpha tradition. . . we got to be tougher on the pledges this year’).

The third voice was in some ways the most tricky for me to net, as she was closest to my own time and accent: a 21st century woman of Southern England who had joined the middle class through education, now herself a teacher. Mog’s voice needed something to defamiliarise it and I started trying out a kind of free verse for her monologues. When her voice became too obviously ‘lyrical’ and unrealistic, I began to lose confidence; and I also felt myself unequal to the task of writing verse, being a playwright and not a poet.  So I rewrote her into prose, but this made her words turn into naturalism that felt more like television than theatre. It also seemed to take ages for her to get information across as naturalistic speech allows itself a lot of humming and haa-ing.  So I went back to ‘lines’ in a kind of free verse, but committing to a ‘non-poetic’ vocabulary, so that Mog’s words were those of daily speech, and not consciously ‘poetic’ or special; but nonetheless somehow that sparer form and the need to get information into a line meant that the pace was faster, and that some phrases could be much more concise, more tightly-packed, or even flirt with rhyme:

‘The machine trundles on. Appointments. Consultants. The kind, the not-so-kind, the daily grind of life-and-death, mundane, apocalyptic all in one’.  Of course a joy of English is that it can be very spare anyway – as George Orwell pointed out, English has a wonderful flexibility where nouns can become verbs, and verbs nouns, with porous  ease. . . so if you want to talk about fishing for example, ‘net’, ‘catch’ and ‘haul’ are all options both as nouns and verbs. Similarly Mog describes herself ‘flooring it’ down the motorway; ‘floor’ is not only a noun but also an active verb with a range of uses, while ‘to be floored’ is about defeat and failure.

Mog’s Orford is a world of words, sensuous and poignant, scraps of remembered dialect, where the words are the place, but also the photographs, the memories, emotions and lost things (‘stuff I lost – the mermaid’s purse/ . . . the muntjac’s skull/They flood back in, the words, all out of season, jumbled: Sea-campion, thrift and samphire; /Rainy bugs and gorse’).  The production under Robert’s direction has eschewed projecting visual images or any other kind of multi-media approach to scenography in order to let words do the work. Robert describes his intentions as wanting to ‘explore the possibility of working with the purest connection between writer and actor – to investigate that relationship fully and to explore what would happen if we did nothing to distract the audience from listening to and watching and feeling the work of that partnership: the partnership between the creative act of writing and the creative act of acting.

I wanted to offer the experience of word, character, story, behaviour, thought and voice un-diluted by set, sound track, interpretation and so on.’  Commenting on the lack of music, set or props, Robert explains: ‘There is music – there are props – there is a set ! Just very, very little of each. . . I was looking to avoid any of the tropes that signal mere competence from a production without necessarily involving real thought or creativity of any depth.’

It is a clear manifesto. I asked Robert if his views are connected to his parallel profession as a RADA voice coach and tutor?  ‘I certainly wanted to make strong offerings to the audience in  terms of accents and voices; they are the set, music and props of this production. . .’  While we are on the subject of accents, voice teaching and RADA, maybe we can clarify something: is it true that if a student arrives at RADA with a non-RP accent, during their training process they will learn to eradicate that accent?  Robert’s response is clear. ‘Not in my classes – not now – and that is not the policy of RADA at all. We celebrate all accents. Students will often have to adapt the way they use their voice on quite a profound level and that will change the way they sound and young actors now need huge range and flexibility to survive so they will certainly learn many accents including RP. But no – not at all.’

Though the play has certainly emerged as one in which language – and accents – are centrestage, nonetheless there are mixed attitudes expressed with regard to words and language. The Wild Man flaps his hands and makes noises, but does not speak, and his ‘non-compliance’ with the word of worlds is angrily defended by Mab: ‘they don’t understand your flap-flap-flap and no-word world . . . thass all they got, foolish angry words, don’t mean squit, exist in air and vanish.’  The Wild Man’s otherness is symbolised not only by his connection with sea and water, rather than land; but also by the fact that he does not use his voice to speak. But this also saves him from the errors that other characters fall into.  ‘Foolish angry words’, lies and spoken betrayals are at the heart of the play’s darkest moments; certain utterances spoken at moments of extremis and later regretted – are decisive moments of action, spurs that drive the characters to act and speak.

To enter the world of words is to be both blessed and cursed; it’s a rite of passage that the non-verbal Wild Man never undertakes. Language is our passport into the world of lies and betrayal, as well as into that of poetry and light; my hope is that the play acknowledges both.

Main images show Eva Traynor as Mog. Photo: Alexandra Guelff.

Elizabeth Kuti’s Fishskin Trousers is at the Finbrough Theatre until 28th September 2013.




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