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31/07/2015 09:07

Benedict Cumberbatch has 1,480 lines in Hamlet - so what's t...

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-danc...

Arts + Ents > Theatre & Dance > Features

Benedict Cumberbatch has 1,480 lines in Hamlet


- so what's the secret to actors' memory skills?

Benedict Cumberbatch has to remember 1,480 lines to give his new


'Hamlet'. An orchestra is performing a whole symphony by heart for the
Proms. How do they do it, and why is it so good for their brains and
ours? Boyd Tonkin elucidates
BOYD TONKIN

Friday 31 July 2015

PRINT

"Remember me!" At midnight, on the battlements of Elsinore,


his father's restless spirit transfixes Hamlet with that command.
"Remember thee!" Hamlet reflects: "Ay, thou poor ghost, while
memory holds a seat/ In this distracted globe." Summoned to
vengeance, the Prince of Denmark decides that in order to fulfil
his mission, he must clear out his memory-banks. He should
erase all the knowledge installed by an elite Renaissance
education: "I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,/ All saws of
books, all forms, all pressures past,/ That youth and observation
copied there".
The duty of revenge means unlearning all that Hamlet knows by
heart a big deal, around 1600. In the second act, memorisation
again becomes a plot-pivot. Hamlet writes a speech for the First
Player which, he hopes, will terrify stepfather Claudius into
admitting guilt: "You could, for a need,/ study a speech of some
dozen or sixteen lines, which/ I would set down and insert in't,
could you not?" A cinch. In the London theatre Shakespeare
knew, star performers had to commit bulky parts to memory
within days. Richard Burbage, for whom he probably wrote
Hamlet, was a legend for his repertoire of supersized roles.
Next week, 415 years on, Benedict Cumberbatch will become the
latest actor to scale the peak of Hamlet when he begins his
sold-out run at the Barbican Theatre in London. Every Hamlet
has to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines.

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31/07/2015 09:07

Benedict Cumberbatch has 1,480 lines in Hamlet - so what's t...

The count will vary a little according to the edition used.


Compared with this epic stretch, Shakespeare's other tragic leads
look almost lightweight: Othello with 890, King Lear 750,
Macbeth a slimline 710. If Hamlet stands at the pinnacle of the
actor's art for its emotional and intellectual range, it also
activates and exercises the hippocampus the area in the brain
that converts short-term into long-term memory as few other
roles ever will.

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For civilians, the feats of large-scale memorisation that actors


and musicians routinely accomplish remain a mystery and a
marvel. In another art form, this Sunday the Aurora Orchestra
and its principal conductor, Nicholas Collon, will perform
Beethoven's sixth symphony, the Pastoral, entirely from memory
at the BBC Proms. This concert follows the acclaim that greeted a
similar gig at last year's Proms, which saw the Aurora play
Mozart's 40th symphony without scores. Collon writes that the
event "ranked as one of our most intense and rewarding musical
experiences. In every way it deepened and enriched our
relationship with this extraordinary piece of music, forcing us to
internalise nuances that can be easily glossed over when reading
from the page."
We don't take this heroic level of recall and retrieval on trust in
the theatre and the concert-hall alone. The humble hotel-lounge
pianist will often know hundreds of pieces by heart, as will the
folk singer. The questions "How do they do it?" and "Could
everyone do the same?" sound painfully jejune. Yet they
fascinate lay people. The actor Michael Pennington was a

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31/07/2015 09:07

Benedict Cumberbatch has 1,480 lines in Hamlet - so what's t...

distinguished Hamlet for the RSC in the 1980s, celebrated for his
intelligence and clarity. Since then he has not only practised his
art but dissected it in a series of incisive books. "It is the question
that everyone asks at a party," Pennington says about the
everyday miracle of learning and retaining lines. "It defines the
job; it's the bare necessity. But it's still the thing that amazes
other people."
Learning by heart continues to thrive in many cultures. Islamic
custom cherishes the achievement of the "Hafiz" the guardian
who can recite from memory every verse of the Koran. Scholars
suggest that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey crystallised in their
written form around 750BC, out of an already ancient school of
oral transmission. In Serbia, as late as the 1930s, the Homeric
investigator Milman Parry came across folk bards who could
recall, and embroider, traditional stories thousands of lines long.
In the West, however, what was dismissively labelled as "rote
learning" began to fade from public education early in the 20th
century. For all his back-to-basics rhetoric, Michael Gove's
reforms to the GCSE syllabus did not reinstate mass recitation in
the classroom, though they do insist that pupils should know
well "no fewer than 15 poems". Meanwhile, the Poetry by Heart
competition begun in 2012 by former Poet Laureate Andrew
Motion this year encouraged pupils from 333 schools to rekindle
the ancient art not as an empty ritual, but as a creative means,
argues Motion, of "finding pleasure and confidence in a part of
the curriculum where such things can be in short supply". The
2015 national winner was Emily Dunstan of Graveney School in
Tooting, who performed poems by Elizabeth Bishop, John Keats
and Siegfried Sassoon.

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Forget me not: though phrenology located it in the forehead, the seat of


memory is actually the hippocampus, deep inside the brain (Alamy)

So actors and musicians use admittedly, at an extraordinary


pitch a near-universal facility that just happens to have fallen
out of favour. And the more you hear any text, the easier it
becomes to ingest for good. Michael Pennington reports that,
when he first studied Hamlet as a professional actor, long years
of exposure to the play meant that the part posed no special
problems. "By that time, I'd heard it played over and over again,
in my mouth and other people's mouths. I hardly had to learn it
at all." In contrast to the abstractions and complexities of, say,
King Lear or Macbeth, he also found that the punch and snap of
Hamlet's own speech helped to make the role stick. "Although
it's very long, the language is surprisingly simple to learn it's
very practical, down-to-earth language. What could be simpler

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than 'To be or not to be ...'?"


Do actors and musicians command a special treasury of recalland-retrieval secrets dark arts invisible to awestruck
spectators? Almost certainly not. When the leading Shakespeare
scholar Professor Peter Holland researched memory and
forgetting on the stage, he wrote that: "What I found most
remarkable is the virtual silence in the books on actor training on
how to remember the lines". By and large, that's still the case.
Handbooks of technique will briefly round up useful tips but
then move on to website management or the benefits of yoga.
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For most performers, the mantra remains what Pennington calls


"Repetition, repetition, repetition". Yet that discipline can take a
myriad of forms. One size of memorisation by no means fits all.
Pennington says that "I always learn late at night. Some people
prefer the morning, when you're fresh .... Everyone has their own
system, especially when they come across passages that are
particularly tricky for them." He recommends acrostics and
mnemonics that associate troublesome passages with a
memorable story: an approach rooted in the Renaissance "art of
memory" that flourished in Shakespeare's day.
Recordings of a single part or of an entire play, committed to
MP3 players and listened to over and over again, also find
favour. This record-and-repeat method has a long pedigree, but
Peter Allday's LineLearner app brings it into the download age.
Older forms of technology also have their fans. Lenny Henry
speaks for many actors when, in Laura Barnett's book Advice
from the Players, he advises: "Try writing down your lines, at
least 10 times for each scene." Moving around also helps to fix
the words. It seems that the hippocampus likes to have other
senses busy while it works. Helga Noice, professor of psychology
at Elmhurst College in Illinois, discovered that the physical
actions that partner words have a crucial effect in sealing the
deal for long-term memory.
All actors agree, however, that the key to mastering lines is not to
treat them as lines, but as the ingredients of a character and a
story. Grasp the total meaning, and the words will swiftly follow.
For Michael Pennington, "You come to know the character that
much better. It's like the engineering of a car: you get to see what
goes on under the bonnet. It's a matter of cosying up the author
you see how they do it, and you develop a feeling for the music
of the language".

That "music" will often serve as Super Glue for memory. As


anyone who knows the simplest poem by heart will recognise, we
seldom remember via micro-units of sense but through chunks,
phrases and patterns, often hammered into place by metre or by
rhyme: "Tyger, Tyger burning bright,/ In the forests of the
night:/ What immortal hand or eye,/ Dare frame thy fearful
symmetry?..."
Over in the musicians' rehearsal room, parallel rules apply. At
this year's BBC Proms lecture, neuroscientist and former rock

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Totall recall: the Aurora Orchestra, led by Nicholas Collon, perform Mozart
from memory in the Royal Albert Hall last year (Sarah Lee)

producer Professor Daniel Levitin author of This is Your Brain


on Music outlined the processes of prediction, recognition and
comparison that allow listeners to hear music and performers to
reproduce it. A region of the frontal cortex known as Brodmann
47 helps us to understand musical patterning. This inner ear for
chunks, lines and sequences will ease the path of singer and
soloist. Levitin even suggested that the shape-making capacity of
the brain means that Brodmann 47 may be "fundamental to the
survival of the species: the ability to predict what's going to come
next".
As with those actors who learn via gesture and movement,
Levitin reports that "motor memory" also plays its part. Fingers
and arms will recall what they did before, and how they did it, in
a known piece. "It's the same mechanism that keeps us from
falling off a bicycle." Meanwhile, all that predictive activity in
Brodmann 47 sensitises musicians to the chords, sequences and
scales within a given form. That will work for music that sticks to
the harmonic norms. But how much Stockhausen or Boulez
could you confidently learn by heart?
On Sunday, Nicholas Collon and the Aurora players will tackle
from memory the 40-odd minutes of Beethoven's Pastoral. As
the conductor acknowledges when I talk to him during a break
between rehearsals, "This is never going to be a very easy or
practical thing to do. No beating about the bush: it's a big job."
Singers and soloists, he notes, will frequently master recitals,
concerti and operas that call for a prodigious exercise of
memory. For full-size orchestras and entire symphonies,
however, the scoreless performance remains a rare bird.
The Aurora's triumph with memorised Mozart convinced him of
its value. "It was an experiment, but it was such a joyful process
.... Everyone was immersed in the music in a much deeper way.
It forces you to learn the structure of the piece," right down to
the tiniest details. "You actually have to embody every note."
Collon adds that, "There's one very obvious benefit: the visual
communication between the orchestra and the audience. There's
no barrier between them no music stands." For him, the
expressive quality of a scoreless concert matters far more than
the element of high-wire act without a safety net: "I have tried to
get away from thinking about this as a feat or as a challenge."
Rather, "It gets you thinking about the music in a different way".

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Michael Gambon in 2013 his fading memory has forced him to give up
stage roles (Anthony Woods)

However much we know about the universal endowments of the


brain, a sense of mystery still lingers. With that comes the
ancient dread of forgetting. Peter Holland cites a story about the
great 18th-century Shakespearean actor Charles Macklin. One
night, when he was already in his late eighties, after more than
half a century of playing Shylock, Macklin dried on stage. The
beloved veteran turned to the audience to apologise, for "a terror
of mind I never in my life felt before. It has totally destroyed my
corporeal as well as mental faculties."
Every performer will carry a fragment of that terror even
Cumberbatch, when, with a mountain in front of him, he first
whispers, "A little more than kin, and less than kind." Michael
Pennington says: "It's vast. It's huge. A real nightmare it's like
falling at Becher's Brook." In fact, audiences will often overlook
slips and lapses: "I've heard people deliver five or 10 lines of
made-up blank verse before they get back on track. But it's still
what we most fear."
Age does make a difference. For Pennington's acclaimed King
Lear in New York in 2013, "I had to take precautions". Lines that
in youth adhere effortlessly have to be chased, captured and
securely locked down. In his recent book about playing Falstaff,
Year of the Fat Knight, Antony Sher recalls how he used to scoff
at the nave playgoer's query, "How do you learn all those lines?"
Now, "I've stopped laughing. It's an age thing." Earlier this year,
Michael Gambon revealed that he has given up stage roles
because of creeping memory loss: "It's a horrible thing to admit,
but I can't do it. It breaks my heart."
Such a cri de coeur ought to remind us how much we take for
granted. Every night, we expect art, practice, training, teamwork
and trust to fuse seamlessly into a note-perfect or line-perfect
rendition. "I don't know how it's done," muses Michael
Pennington. "It just becomes as normal as breathing." In the
meantime, those of us who never hold a tune or tread the boards
could still do more to keep that hippocampus happy. Pennington
notes that the actor Dame Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, who lived to
the age of 101, never ceased to commit fresh lines to memory.
"She would learn a new piece of poetry every day until she died.
It has got to be good for the brain."
'Hamlet', with Benedict Cumberbatch, runs at the Barbican
Theatre 5 August-31 October, with live transmission to cinemas
nationwide on 15 October. BBC Prom 22, with the Aurora

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Orchestra and Nicholas Collon, is at the Royal Albert Hall at


3.30pm on Sunday 2 August, with a BBC4 broadcast on Sunday
9 August. Michael Pennington's book 'Let me Play the Lion Too:
How To Be an Actor' is published by Faber & Faber. He will be
appearing in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company's
production of Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale', which opens at
the Garrick Theatre on 17 October

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