Remembering RSC’s legendary Cicely Berry

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Cis Berry
Michael Boyd

Legendary Royal Shakespeare Voice Coach Cicely Berry died peacefully in her sleep on Monday, 15th October, in the care home in Cornwall where her family settled her earlier this year. She was 92. The RSC broke the news with a tribute written by RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran on the company’s website. Here Michael Boyd, the company’s artistic director from 2002 to 2012, pays tribute to her:

There’s a white-washed room in a favela called Vidigal in Rio de Janeiro where young people go to practise speaking out loud to a photograph of Cicely Berry. Underneath Cis’s picture is inscribed her favourite quote from Thomas Kyd’s A Spanish Tragedy: “Where words prevail not, violence prevails”. It’s like a chapel, a shrine to an atheist voice teacher, in one of the poorest parts of Rio, and it’s there as a result of a long-standing relationship between her and the community theatre company Nos do Morro, which was seeded and nurtured by Artistic Director Guti Fraga out of the stony soil of poverty and drugs and violence. This instinctive and inspirational relationship resulted in a generation of young disenfranchised Brazilians not only mastering Shakespeare in Portuguese, but loving him as one of their own, giving them an empowering voice to describe and better understand their, often difficult, lives.

Cis had a little sign by the toilet in the bathroom of her lovely home near Stratford upon Avon which said “I don’t own my home and I don’t give a f**k what your house in London is worth so please don’t f*****g talk to me about it”. Her famous cussing and swearing were the disarming and levelling flags of a demanding subversive at the heart of an English institution, and they also carried something of the sergeant major as she cajoled us into clarity and meaning for our own good.

She was a bracing and profoundly political text and voice teacher, and at the heart of her work with the RSC was her belief that we all have the capacity and the right to speak powerfully and beautifully. All actors and all people. One of her greatest gifts to us is the extent to which she has opened access to the “literary heights” and the authority of Shakespeare’s language to generations of performers from all economic and educational backgrounds, but she was equally passionate about communication in all forms of English, and a forceful campaigner on the threat to human expression presented by the endangered status of so many languages in the world.

Cis’s rehearsal room is one where everyone is required and enabled to be both rigorous, and completely themselves. The verse, the argument, the body, and the space, are at our disposal, and Hell mend us if we don’t make good use of all of them. Her physical exercises are wake-up calls to thought, forcing and enabling us to bypass inhibition and the fog of generalised thought to talk to each other with clarity and specificity, and find ourselves making logical, moral and emotional choices, in time with the music of our own souls and Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.

To begin with, I was a bit scared when Cis came into my rehearsal room. She felt like the venerable Woman from Del Monte who might find my oranges unworthy, and say so. Soon I grew immensely fond of her, and learned to cherish the robust challenge she brought through the door. The inspiration, and the conscience. The constant reminder of how important and valuable our work could be.

Long may her restless presence still be felt, in all our rooms.