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Polonius Production Diary: mouth

I have been thinking, over the weekend, about Polonius’ mouth.

I mean, about his voice and his character, but specifically about his mouth. How he holds his jaw, his lips, where his voice comes from. I haven’t been playing with it at rehearsals yet, but I have to decide something at some point.

Polonius is old, he is described as old by other characters, and he mentions it himself more than once. I myself am middle-aged, not yet fifty. I am not even technically old enough to be the father of the actress playing Ophelia, although she plays younger than her actual age. I need to play older than mine, though, to make it work, and that’s not something I usually do. Well, and Selsdon, but that was farce, and a proscenium besides. I don’t think we want Polonius to shuffle and limp, if only to the whole play doesn’t come to a halt waiting for me to get where I’m going. My hair is already grey (and I will color my beard and mustache to match—do any of y’all have any recommendations? Ben Nye v. Mehron?) and my face is not smooth. The main tool that I’m going to have is my voice; I will need to age that enough to be the subject of jokes.

My initial thought, actually, was to play Polonius as a stroke survivor, with one corner of the mouth permanently pulled down. That leads to a little mumbling and loss of volume, which is kinda character-y but not really much fun for the audiences, is it? That’s the sort of plausible self-indulgence that gets right up my nose—and, to carry on from the last note, distracts from the story the play is telling. I’m not saying it can’t be done well, but the odds are against it.

Another thought about Polonius and his character: I have increasingly come to think that the keynote to Polonius is fear. I haven’t got through II,ii yet here, but it seems to me that Polonius is dithering out of fear. He has a dangerous thing to tell Claudius (and Gertrude) and dreads the consequences of saying it and also of not saying it. Polonius being also windy, pedantic and prone to repetition, the result is the dialogue that Gertrude finds so frustrating. And having felt that fear at that moment, it seems to me to pervade his scenes—to be specific, his life and his position are both in jeopardy after the regime change; Claudius might experience some political cost to having him killed or imprisoned but could very easily have him ruined and his children impoverished. Ophelia’s marital prospects are hurt by rumor and scandal, and if Claudius gets it into his head that either Ophelia or Laertes are a threat to his throne… From his point of view, everything is a threat. Old Hamlet’s death throws Elsinore into disarray, and Polonius, whatever else he is, is smart enough to know how little security he and his children have in Claudius’ Denmark.

The question is: how does such a fearful person hold his mouth?

Malvolio’s mouth was held very tightly, with pursed lips and downturned corners. Brooker’s jaw jutted forward. Babe smiled a lot. Buckingham smiled incessantly, with the cheeks raised and eyes squinted. Valmont sneered—the corners of the mouth drooped, but the mouth was held more loosely than Malvolio. I don’t know yet how Polonius holds his mouth. The position of the mouth, of course, affects the sound of speech as well as the expressions on the face. I don’t have a settled accent yet, either, which will have to accompany the set of the mouth. What aspects of Polonius do I want his accent to emphasize? His background, his pretensions, his loyalties? I have been more or less imagining Polonius with a kind of stiff-upper-lip receding-chin rabbity face—more Frank Middlemass than David Bradley. But during our actual rehearsals (and keeping in mind that we are really just getting started) I haven’t been able to keep the face in mind as I am doing the lines. That may be that I’m rushing the process, or it may be that my instincts are telling me that I am headed in the wrong direction there. Time will tell.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I had some meandering thoughts about mouth shape and breathing, but you're the actor and I'd just be shooting the proverbial. Looking forward to hearing what you develop!

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