RSC celebrates life of legendary head of voice Cis Berry

Cis's family, RSC actors and staff past and present gathered outside the Swan Theatre by the cherry tree dedicated in her memory. PHOTO RSC

Cheers and cherries for cherished Cis

Cis Berry

On Sunday, 19th May, there was what can best be described as ‘a happening’ to honour Cicely Berry, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s legendary Head of Voice who passed away last October aged 92.

Cis – as she was widely known – joined the RSC in 1969 and over five decades revolutionised the way voice and text were thought about.

In the 1950s artist Allan Kaprow came up with the idea of the ‘happening’. Much favoured by the hippy generation, it describes a situation that could be considered art – often multi-disciplinary and with a nonlinear narrative.

How wonderful it was to be at The Other Place for this celebratory ‘happening’, which had a lovely seeming spontaneity to it and which was packed with Cis’ family, including her three children, Aaron, Simeon and Sara, friends and actors and RSC people.

Long lost friends greeted one another as guests gathered in the foyer as wine and canapés were enjoyed.

Juliet Stevenson

On a small stage in the foyer Diogo Sales of Brazilian theatre group Nos de Morro (who Cis worked with) sat playing a berimbau – the stringed instrument, which makes a slightly strange insistent yet alluring sound. Elsewhere a screen showed Cis reading Shakespeare’s sonnets.

None of us were in a hurry, just enjoying the vibe and spotting familiar faces in the gathering crowd. At some point RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran took to the small stage to tell us, casually, the sort of order of the day. He shared a story which concerned Cis’ forceful use of a certain expletive to describe obvious innuendo in Shakespeare’s text, much to everyone’s amusement as they fondly remembered their own anecdotes about the much-loved and respected Cis.

Gregory pointed out that there were Post-it notes and bits of paper doted around for everyone to write down those memories of Cis – these would be gathered for a memory book. Before heading to unveil a plaque by a newly planted cherry tree in Cis’ honour in front of The Swan Theatre, we were to enjoy readings of some of her favourite poems, passages and speeches. “It’s sharing and informal,” announced Greg. “Cis would love that.”

With this we mooched into the theatre space. There, as in the foyer, strings of white and pink blooms streamed down from the ceiling and cabaret tables were set with copies of Shakespeare’s texts, letter confetti, and vases with speech balloons instead of flowers. On a small raised area, splattered with pinkish paint, a comfy chair and a lectern awaited the illustrious readers.

Overhead was a banner which read ‘Where words prevail not, violence prevails’ a clever quote from Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, and admired by Cis.

So many clever and moving readings followed, read by 28 actors through the afternoon, and broken up by informal breaks. John Shrapnel, Adjoa Andoh, Owen Teale, Lindsay Duncan, Juliet Stevenson, Joan blackham, Jonathan Slinger, Barrie Rutter, et al – the list of fabulous actors who spoke was amazing. And of course they read beautifully, perhaps especially alert to their cadences considering who was being honoured!

Many shared memories before reading. One that stood out was Ron Cook’s story before he read The Mouse’s Nest by John Clare. He shared:

“I joined the company as a young actor in 1978, and we were all scheduled to have a one-to-one session with Cis in the old large rehearsal room (now the Swan). I was quite apprehensive, which she picked up on. ‘You look nervous’ she said. ‘I am’ I said. ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I don’t think I have a very good voice, especially for Shakespeare.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because they told me at Drama School. I couldn’t get the hang of all that rib reserve technique stuff’. She said ‘Do you play any sports?’ ‘Yes.’ I said ‘Football, cricket, squash.’ ‘Any good?’ ‘Not bad’ She went to the corner of the room picked up a football and threw it at me. ‘Show me what you can do’ I played a bit of keepy-uppy and passed the ball around. ‘I’m not that impressed’ she said. So I really went for it, dashing around the room, slamming the ball against the wall, heading it back, dribbling in and out of chairs. It went on for quite a while. Suddenly she stopped me and held a piece of paper in front of my face with a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem on it. ‘Read that!’ she said ‘it doesn’t matter what it means!’ And this voice came out of my mouth that I had never heard before. ‘Remember this!’ She said ‘THAT IS YOUR VOICE!’ Don’t believe anyone who says you can’t do it!’ I’m certain there are many actors who will have similar stories to tell of how Cis influenced their lives.”

What memories were shared on a day full of smiles, tears and verse… Which closed with a rousing cheer by Cis’ cherry tree.

After the event, Gregory said: “It was wonderful to celebrate the life and legacy of Cicely Berry, at The Other Place on Sunday. Particular highlights for me, amongst a host of others, included Lindsay Duncan’s delivery of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, which seemed exactly to express Cis’ politics and passion; Ron Cook remembering how Cis gave him the right to speak and find his own voice; and Juliet Stevenson making perfect sense of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. A glorious evocation of a wonderful woman.”