We’re nearly halfway through rehearsals for The Whipping Man and we’ve moved on from last week’s table work to getting the actors on their feet and beginning to shape the show – and we’re not only starting to get a sense of what performances will look like, but what they’ll sound like. Whilst last week we were visited by experts who taught the company how to conduct traditional Jewish celebrations, or how to recognise gangrene, this week we’ve had sessions with the show’s dialect coach, who’s been helping the cast create authentic 19th century Virginian accents.
Learning – and performing in – an accent is one of those things that involves a huge amount of work to make it seem like it takes no effort at all. This goes beyond just thinking how words sound, too – the three characters of the play, despite all growing up in Richmond, Virginia, have slight variations in accent, all because of differences in their personal histories. Their families, their status, their education – all these change how each man speaks and expresses himself.
I’ve assisted directors in the past who’ve made actors rehearse entire scenes in accents other than their own, purely because of how much a different accent can change people, physically and emotionally. Some accents relax and open people up or make them hyper-alert, whilst others will create very agitated and tense personas or make people suddenly shy. The different places that accents can ‘sit’ (the point of the body where it feels like you’re propelling the words from) has a big effect on people’s bodies too. It’s been great to see the cast adopt their new Virginian accents (which ‘sit’ in the chest) and little shifts begin to happen in how they walk and move.
Accents feel especially significant with The Whipping Man not just because of its precise setting, but because it’s a play that is so concerned with the power of words. Storytelling is used as celebration, letter-writing as therapy, and three seemingly innocuous words become potentially deadly weapons. The play considers the words we can define ourselves by – master, slave, soldier, Jew – and how slippery their meanings can be; so too for the words that define our actions (one character who’s constantly out looting has a brilliant selection of euphemisms for the word ‘steal’).
Taking place in the days immediately after the Civil War, The Whipping Man gives an insight into the fallout following conflict. The physical action and violence of the war has been called to an end, but the men we meet still have painful and unavoidable problems to grapple with – and words become the most effective weapons and protection available to them, used to their full and devastating effect. So it only seems apt that those words and how they’re said is being pored over with such care and effort, meaning there’s not just a vivid story to be watched, but to be heard too.