KU production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to feature original dialect

One cast member likened it to a kind of “Pirate Irish.”

Those putting on the upcoming production of the Shakespeare play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Kansas University will be speaking using a dialect that’s rarely been heard in the last 400 years.

They’re using the so-called “original pronunciation” — an effort to recreate what the play would have sounded like performed at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s day.

So when Puck utters the famous line, “Lord, what fools these mortals be,” the word “fools” sounds more like “foals,” and the word “be” becomes “bay.”

Still, the dialect is understandable to audiences — if it weren’t there’d be no point in putting on the production, said director Paul Meier, a KU theater professor and dialect expert.

The cast worked with David Crystal, a British expert on original pronunciation, who told them that they would be staging the first full-length Shakespeare production completely in original pronunciation in North America.

“He held the key to unlocking a portal back to 1600,” Meier said.

The cast also worked with scripts with vowels written phonetically, accompanied by recordings of the entire script made by Crystal.

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard,” said Matt Gieschen, a senior from Overland Park who plays Theseus. He then paused for a bit. “Well, it’s like everything you’ve ever heard, really.”

Other cast members described auditions where one person lapsed into a thick Irish brogue, and another fell into a Jamaican accent.

It’s about pacing — it’s quicker and more guttural than the refined Shakespeare of Sir John Gielgud, Meier said.

The stage becomes Meier’s laboratory, and the play a science experiment — but it’s worth the extra work, the actors said.

“All the rhymes work,” said Festus Shaughnessy, a junior English major from St. Louis. After all, he said, those couplets are meant to rhyme, and it’s not like Shakespeare was a bad poet.

And it unlocks a new set of double entendres that were always meant to be there, but weren’t quite understandable before.

For instance, Shaughnessy said, in one play, a scene makes light of the fact that the word “hour” and “whore” are pronounced the same. That works when you use the original pronunciation, as both words sound close to the word “oar.”

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 11-13 and Nov. 19-20, and at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 14 and Nov. 21, in the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in KU’s Murphy Hall.

The cast will spend several days in the recording studios at Kansas Public Radio creating a radio drama production with music and sound effects.

That production will be available through radio broadcast, podcasts and a CD.