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Cicely Berry - An Obituary

Cicely Berry – Voice coach, theatre director

Born, May 17 1926; died October 15 2018.

Cicely Berry, who has died aged 92, revolutionised how actors use their voice onstage, aligning speech with a deep-rooted physicality that empowered it. This was particularly the case with tackling Shakespeare, whose poetry under Berry’s guidance came alive with a richness that focused on understanding the text from the gut as well as the mind.

Berry brought her integrated body-and-mind way of coaching for voice to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where for twelve years she was the sole member of a voice department created under then artistic director Trevor Nunn, who had drafted her into the company. During that time, she worked with Peter Brook on his 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and struck up working friendships with noticeably visceral living writers such as David Rudkin, who she called her mentor, and Edward Bond. Like them, she recognised how words come to life when lifted off the page, and how the voice is an essential part of everyday being, which, once liberated, can be used as a powerful creative tool in unison with the rest of the body.

Berry’s methodology – she was loathe to call it a technique – saw her attempt to get actors to become less physically self-conscious in ways that would free up their mental assets. Exercises included having her charges kick chairs around the room and deliberately stutter as they spoke. However extreme these may have appeared to the outside eye, they paid dividends for several generations of actors.

When in 1991 she hosted the first international conference of theatre voice teachers in Stratford, it was testament to how much Berry had been a pioneer in her field. It also showed how far things had developed in terms of acknowledgement of the importance of voicework, which she had helped transform into an integral part of the actor’s toolbox.

Berry was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, one of five children to Cecil Berry, a City clerk, and Frances Berry, a dressmaker. A fascination with poetry began when she would hide in the toilet reading books to try and find some space away from her siblings. After training as a teacher at the Central School of Speech and Drama, where she challenged already outmoded notions of elocution, as well as returning there as a teacher for several years, she began to give private lessons, both in the heart of theatre-land and in the Kensington home she shared with her husband, actor Harry Moore. One of her students was a young Sean Connery, who she said had a fine voice, but who should relax more.

Throughout the 1960s Berry’s reputation as a voice teacher was such that she was eventually approached by Nunn to join the RSC in 1969. By the time she left her post in 2014, the department had grown in both scope and personnel, as had the recognition for such devoted study of voice.

Berry’s new post didn’t make her rich, and, in the early 1970s with her phone cut off, over a six-week period she channelled her experience into a book, Voice and the Actor (1973). Along with four other books, The Actor and his Text (1987), Your Voice and how to Use It Successfully (1975), Text in Action (2001) and Word Play: A Textual Handbook for Directors and Actors (2002), her first book cemented her reputation as a major player in her field.

As a director she oversaw a 1986 National Theatre schools’ production of Hamlet, with Tim McInnerny in the title role, then in 1988 for the RSC she directed Richard Haddon Haines as King Lear in what she called Shakespeare’s most Marxist play.

By this time Berry had established the Voice and Speech Centre with fellow voice coaches Robert Freeburn, Sally Grace and Patsy Rodenburg, and in 1990 with Paul Schoolman adapted three film scripts as The Dartmoor Trilogy, based on work she did with prisoners. Berry recognised how reading Shakespeare gave inmates a sense of power to express themselves.  Berry’s belief in how theatre can change lives took her much later to Rio de Janeiro, where, although by now in her 70s, she worked with youth theatre group Nos do Morro, which translates as We from the Slums.

As dialogue coach on two films by Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor (1987) and Stealing Beauty (1996), starring Liv Tyler and Jeremy Irons. She also worked on Titus (1999) Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role. Berry’s own appearances onscreen included a turn in TV quiz show Call My Bluff in 1967, an appearance that illustrated just how the playful and the serious can co-exist side by side.

A documentary, Where Words Prevail (2005), saw actors including Emily Watson, Samuel West and Greg Hicks line up with the likes of Edward Bond, author of Theatre of the Oppressed Augusto Boal and even former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock line up to praise Berry’s extraordinary practice. It was a talent that took Berry across the world, and which saw her awarded an OBE in 1985 and a CBE in 2009.

In 2016, with Adrian Wade Berry created The Working Shakespeare Library, a five-DVD and book resource based on a three-day masterclass with acting luminaries including Samuel L Jackson and Helen Hunt. The same year, Berry returned to the RSC to work on current artistic director Gregory Doran’s production of The Tempest.

In a statement released by the RSC following Berry’s passing, Doran called her “radical and subversive, playful and provocative, utterly unsentimental, and rigorously unpretentious,” and someone who dismissed any notions of guru-dom bestowed upon her by actors. Her mantra, as Doran pointed out, came from a line in Thomas Kyd’s play, The Spanish Tragedy, and summed up her political philosophy perfectly. ‘Where words prevail not,’ goes the line, ‘violence prevails.’ Another line, this time her own from Voice in the Actor, similarly summed up Berry’s lifelong approach to her work. ‘Speaking is a part of the whole,’ she wrote, ‘an expression of the inner life.’

Berry is survived by her three children, Aaron, Simeon and Sara, four grand-children and two great-grandchildren. Her husband Harry Moore pre-deceased her in 1978.

The Herald, October 23rd 2018


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