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Elizabeth Hawksley: Reading Aloud

May 21, 2011

One year, when I was about fourteen and at boarding school, I won two bronze medals. The first was for a London Academy for Music and Dramatic Art exam, and the other for a public speaking competition (youth section) at the Cheltenham Music Festival. I’m not sure how, because I certainly can’t act for toffee, but I learnt that I was good at reading out loud. There was, I discovered, a knack to it. You had to be able to see a line or so ahead and anticipate which words need to be stressed and to have the confidence to convey the appropriate emotion.

It also helps if you can, somehow, put yourself into the background. You are not doing it to glorify yourself, you are doing it for the author whose work you are reading.

Recently, I was asked to read aloud in extraordinary circumstances.

I have just returned from holiday in Turkey with an archaeological group. We visited a number of classical sites:  some famous, like Troy and Ephesus, others little visited, like the ruined city of Priene nestling on a wooded hillside overlooking the river Mæander. I was asked to read an extract from Euripides’ Agamemnon in the theatre there. Greek theatres have fantastic acoustics – guides often demonstrate this by sending visitors up to the top whilst they remain centre stage. They then light a match – and you can hear it clearly.

Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity.

The group scattered about the theatre. I drew a deep breath, told myself that this was for Euripides – a playwright I much admire – and walked onto the stage.

The passage I’d been given was the herald’s return to Mycenae to tell the queen, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus, that King Agamemnon is coming home from Troy, victorious. Of course, the original audience (and mine) knew that Agamemnon and his captive, the Trojan princess Cassandra, would be murdered: Clytemnestra had not forgiven him for sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia, to get a fair wind toTroy. The herald’s speech, therefore, needed an undertone of dramatic irony.

 I launched into a paean of victory: I proclaimed, triumphantly – with suitable gestures –  that Paris was dead, Hector was slain, andTroy totally destroyed. Agamemnon, King of Men, the son of Atreus, was victorious! (Boasting was obviously part of the herald’s job description.)

Then came my big speech. I raised my arms to heaven and called on Zeus, Apollo and Hermes to hear me. (I could hear my words ring round the theatre in such a way that I half-expected a thunderbolt from Olympus.) I ended with an exhortation: Welcome Agamemnon! Welcome the victor home!

You could have heard a pin drop. It was hugely satisfying.

Photo by Jane Burns

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2011 10:48 am

    What a great moment that must have been! I too have seen some wonderful ancient Greek theatres but I didn’t take the opportunity to declaim. My husband did, as he is very keen on acting. (I prefer writing.) I think our visit to Ephesus was one of the most memorable visits I have made. You brought the whole atmosphere back to me. Thanks.

  2. Children's Author permalink
    May 23, 2011 10:18 am

    Thanks, Odette. Ephesus was wonderful but, even though we went as soon as it opened, it was very over-crowded. I preferred some of the out of the way sites – the lost city of Nysa, for example, standing amidst olive groves and spring flowers with butterflies dancing around. Unforgettable!

    Elizabeth

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