24 April 2012

Shakespeare's ambassador

Cicely Berry

“Thou must be my ambassador to them.” – Troilus and Cressida, III.iii.
The journey I make to Cicely Berry’s house is short, but sensational. Trundle from Barford toward Wellesbourne, whiz through that tiny, bustling village - pass the Co-op, then a sharp left. Suddenly and stunningly, the Warwickshire landscape opens wide to view, in all its verdant lushness. On a rainy, Spring day, the flooded road to Walton forces me to inch along its winding road gingerly, under sudden squalls and through pond-sized puddles, whilst skillfully avoiding the oncoming path of less cautious drivers.
Swish, swish, swish  – and then finally I arrive at the beautiful, Victorian schoolhouse that is Cicely’s home. An appropriately dramatic route to visit a woman whose remarkable life has been full of far more extraordinary and epic journeys, as one of Shakespeare’s most passionate ambassadors.
As the legendary Voice Director of the RSC, Cicely has spent over forty years training and coaching a pantheon of stars, politicians, and royalty: HRH Prince Charles and Neil Kinnock (“I tried to teach them both how to relax,” she said.), Judi Dench, Sean Connery, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen – the list of her pupils is truly inexhaustible. However, driven by her uncompromising politics, Cicely’s true mission has been that of sharing the joy and pleasure of Shakespeare around the globe.
A tiny, but formidable octogenarian, Cicely regularly travels far from this bucolic setting, with its stunning views across the fields of Walton, to prisons, detention centres, and some of the most remote and dangerous areas on the planet, such as Zagreb, Zimbabwe, China, Brazil (another inexhaustible list). She ventures to these places preaching the gospel of words, and using Shakespeare as a tool of empowerment. As she often explains, “Everyone has the right to speak. Everyone has a right to Shakespeare.” For Cicely, Shakespeare’s words are indispensible channels of expression, and she believes it is by freeing the voice through work on such full, rich and political language that ultimately allows one the freedom to express the inner self.
“Where words prevail not, violence prevails.”                                                                                             –  Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Kyd
Over steaming cups of Lapsang souchong in Cicely’s cosy sitting room, I once again state my desire to accompany her on one of her trips to Brazil, to observe her in action. “Oh, that would be great, darling!” she says, enthusiastically. “But,” she adds ruefully, “You must understand, it is not safe at all.”   
A scene from Nos de Morro's "Two Gentlemen of Verona"
Since 1997, Cicely has conducted workshops with “Nós de Morro” (“We are from the hillside”), a theatre group based in Vidigal, one of the slums (favelas) in the hills that surround the beautiful and opulent city of Rio de Janeiro. It is a place run by drug cartels, replete with guns, gangs, and violence. It is place into which police do not venture except in armoured cars. And, yet, in this place, armed with the works of Shakespeare, Cicely confidently competes with the drug lords for the hearts, minds and souls of the favelados (young people living in the slums). Life is these favelas has been depicted vividly in the brutal, but truthful film City of God (2002). I remember watching that film, and being dumbstruck at the thought of precious Cicely traversing such a place. Indeed, if I’m honest, my heart sinks a little whenever she informs me she’s headed there.
As the world comes to Stratford-upon-Avon this month for start of the World Shakespeare Festival (happening here through October 2012), my thoughts are drawn to the indefatigable Warwickshire woman who champions Shakespeare around the world routinely. Her politics, her honesty, dedication and bravery (though she denies it) are awe-inspiring. She leads by example, wherever her Shakespeare journey takes her - and Shakespeare could not ask for a better messenger.