How would Shakespeare shoot it?

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Cuts need to be motivated. That’s one of the first things you learn about filmmaking. There has to be a reason for every edit.

Often it’s speech. In reverses, for example, where you’re shooting a dialogue between two people, you’ll hear the off-camera person’s voice a fraction of a section before you cut to show their face (ie, a J-cut). Hearing the voice makes the audience want to see who’s talking, and then you satisfy that desire with the cut.

But what if only one person is talking?

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet (not delivering a soliloquy).

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet (not delivering a soliloquy).

Shakespeare largely invented the soliloquy as we know it. And it came into full flower with Hamlet.

Plays had had speeches before, and even monologues that provided insight into the character’s thinking, as a way of moving the plot along or justifying later actions. There’s Mark Anthony’s ‘dogs of war’ speech and Brutus musing, “It must be by his death, and for my part I know no personal cause to spurn at him But for the general. He would be crowned.”

But it wasn’t until Hamlet that the soliloquy acquired the power to deliver a true picture of a character’s psychological state. It comes from the Latin solus (alone) and loqui (to talk). It is an interior monologue in which the character speaks to him/herself rather than the audience.

A while back, my friend and regular Zolascope actor John asked a simple but insightful question: “What are the challenges in filming a soliloquy?”

I’m sure I managed some kind of answer at the time, but the truth is I didn’t know. Still don’t to be honest. But it’s something we plan to find out.

The problem, as I see it, is how you structure your shots. Do you attempt to do it all in one take? Perhaps in medium shot? You’d lose a lot of impact that way. That’s the kind of approach you see often used by stage directors who’ve turned to film. They think that the power lies purely in the words and performance, and sacrifice the more filmic aspects, including the close-up and the meaning and impact that can be delivered through camera angle, camera movement and cuts.

But how do you motivate the cut? Some speeches may provide opportunities. Richard III’s opening monologue provides just such a moment. “But I that am not shaped for sportive tricks” is a switch in mood that just cries out for more intimate framing.

Monologues are easier than soliloquies, though. They give you the option to have the speech delivered straight to camera, as Laurence Olivier did in his film version of Richard III. You can do that with a soliloquy, I guess, but it risks diluting the power that comes from a character wrestling with himself (and in Shakespeare, it usually is a he – women don’t get much in the way of soliloquies).

The risk may lie in finding bits of business for the actor to do that would motivate cuts and also echo the psychological state.

This is something we plan to explore at Zolascope. Other the coming months, we hope to film some soliloquies and monologues as part of a series of workshops. Stay tuned…

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