Imogen Stubbs hits out at mumbling actors

Rada boss and Imogen Stubbs say language is being mangled in bid to imitate American film stars – and audiences are being let down.

Too many actors mumble their way through their lines, neither enunciating nor projecting words clearly enough for audiences to understand them, according to leading figures in theatre.

Edward Kemp, artistic director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) and actress Imogen Stubbs are infuriated by the mutterers, who they believe let down playwrights and audiences. Kemp said that some directors and producers encouraged mumbling, believing that “laidback mumbling is more truthful”.

Stubbs, who has appeared in scores of stage roles, including the part of Sally Bowles in Cabaret and Desdemona in Othello as well as film and television dramas, added that muttering – with its lack of variety and tonal interest – was perhaps a misguided attempt to imitate American film stars. “It was so drummed into us at drama school that ‘it’s unforgiveable not to be clear and heard’,” she said.

The problem is so serious that Kemp fears “plays of language” – including works by Shakespeare, Wilde, Coward and Pinter – could eventually become so opaque that audiences will stay away. Already, he said, “we are on a knife-edge with Restoration comedy … It’s hard to find people who can teach and direct it”.

Rada – whose alumni include Peter O’Toole, Vivien Leigh and Ralph Fiennes and which today attracts 3,000 applicants a year for 28 places – had to scrap its long-standing sight-reading test of a Dickens passage from its auditions because it was “so painful” to hear.

Kemp and Stubbs regularly encounter stage mumblers. Kemp said: “There’s usually someone [about whom] you think, ‘sorry, what?’” Stubbs appeared in one production where she even found herself having to lip-read a mumbling co-star.

Although their criticisms focus on theatre, they are also irritated by mumbling in film and television, including Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Stubbs, a Rada council member, questioned whether Luhrmann had heard of commas or full stops. “You’re just longing for it to stop and breathe. I thought the actors looked embarrassed. They were rather garbling their lines.”

Like many viewers, Kemp often watches television dramas with subtitles. He found himself repeatedly adjusting the volume in his struggle to hear the dialogue in Birdsong, the BBC’s period drama last year.

Kemp, also a playwright, feels that part of the problem lies in actors being encouraged to improvise scripts, delivering “something like [what’s] on the page”, rather than the writer’s finely crafted original. “A lot of directors want you to jazz it up,” he said. The demise of repertory theatres has robbed young actors of opportunities to learn the craft of using the voice, while typecasting has also taken its toll, Stubbs suggested.

“The naturalistic, mumbling acting style tends to go with people who are playing something closer to their obvious self … People who are playing against their obvious self tend to embrace the acting a bit more,” added Stubbs.

While keen to acknowledge the excellence of some young actors, Stubbs senses that others are terrified of being caught sounding “like an old-fashioned actor”. But she added: “Acting is playing. You are pretending. Simon Russell Beale or Alex Jennings are theatrical actors who are naturalistic. You can hear them and people love them.”

Part of the problem also lies in the education system. Teenagers leave school unable to understand what they are asked to read, with no apparent relationship with language, let alone a sense of how to shape it, Kemp said. There is no longer a guarantee that even someone with an English degree from a leading university could handle this stuff, he added.

“We’ve had to change our training to adapt to teenagers [without] the faintest notion of basic grammar,” he said. He had a first-year student with English A-level reading a Shakespeare sonnet. “It made no sense to me whatsoever. I said, ‘can you just read out the nouns to me?’ He had no idea what a noun was.”

Rada has introduced grammar classes because of this problem. Kemp spoke of one student – an Austrian – with a finer appreciation of English grammar than a room which included at least one Oxford graduate.

Audiences are voicing frustration online. Stephen Dillane is among actors whose mumbling has irritated them. “Dillane has been Mumbleman for years,” one wrote. “I caught Dillane’s Prospero at the Old Vic, like the rest of the audience couldn’t hear a word and was bitterly disappointed,” wrote another. “I still went along to see him at the Almeida in Masterbuilder but again, he was in a world of his own, totally pre-occupied with his own performance – absolutely no connection with the audience and worse, giving nothing to his fellow actors.”

Older actors draw on the subtleties of pitch, timbre and tempo – crucial for big spaces, yet they have “gone out of the culture”, Kemp said, with today’s actors relying on volume. “You can’t stress through volume, you have to stress through other things … I don’t always struggle to hear, but I do often struggle to understand. There’s the audibility thing and there’s the connection thing.”

Rada is rethinking its voice training and is launching its first public festival, giving actors opportunities to develop and showcase new work. The event, from 29 June until 6 July (2013), will see three generations of alumni on stage, in and around the Rada buildings in Bloomsbury.

Of course, every actor mutters sometimes, and Stubbs joked that her criticism could come back to haunt her.


Original article by Dalya Alberge, The Observer, 22 June 2013
reprint under NLA licence AL 00055357