A Question of Emphasis

14 Sep

One of the things my church has done to help people feel connected during the last year and a half of craziness is get a variety of members to do readings. They don’t give the reader’s name, but you often recognise the voices, which is nice, or you spend the entire reading going “whose voice is that?”, which is a little distracting. Anyway, as part of this I recently recorded a looong Bible reading for my church (Jeremiah 7, if you’re interested – it’s available on YouTube).

(If you’re very impressed, I should admit that I audio-edited it to remove a half-second where I fluffed a name – ah, modern technology!)

It’s strange listening to yourself reading, because it never sounds how you think it sounds. I mean, I thought I had put in quite a lot of emphasis, maybe too much (especially on “burn!”) but listening to it again it doesn’t seem that way. This may explain why Bible readings and liturgy reading often sound so dull; maybe the reader is putting in what seems a normal amount of emphasis in their head, but it doesn’t come across. It doesn’t explain that other quirk of Christian readings, though, where the last three words are always massively slowed down and read in in a falling intonation,




Another thing you may not notice yourself is if you have a special posh voice that you keep for public use. I know my mum does, as she had elocution lessons as a child, so she sounds completely different when she does any public speaking. I didn’t think I did, so much, but then someone commented that I sounded “very RP” on Sunday. Which kind of makes me wonder what my everyday voice sounds like. Maybe I speak like Mary Doll from Rab C. Nesbitt.

I’m not an actor, but perhaps what it takes to be an actor is the self-consciousness bypass to add tonnes of emphasis to your voice and big movement to your gestures without feeling like a prat – or without communicating the fact that you feel like a prat, anyway. I remember at university being massively impressed by a dramatic reading of scripture, with the guy (a fourth year from my hall, St Salvators, whose name I sadly forget) stalking across the stage and being quite scary at the shouty bits – although not as scary as Mike Warren, who used to tell Bible stories for children in Yorkshire and who would get VERY LOUD when he was being a scary character. Think Brian Blessed loud.

And perhaps the secret to being a very good actor is doing all that without it sounding the least bit weird or unnatural. I know there are people who rave about Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Hamlet, but to me it’s a bit shouty, sweaty, foaming-at-the-mouthy. Whereas Andrew Scott (whom I have seen described rather aptly as “intense but delicate”) manages to convey the famous To Be or Not To Be soliloquy as if the thought are just occurring to him for the first time in the history of mankind.* And somehow, that makes it far easier to understand what the words actually mean. That’s sometimes regarded as a secondary detail in productions of Shakespeare, in my experience, but it shouldn’t be.

So I’ll leave you with his wonderful interpretation, and leave it to you to judge whether his Hamlet, or my Jeremiah, was the better performance 🤣

* To be fair to both these men, I’ve only seem clips of their performance, not the whole thing.


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