Do accents matter? The question is not entirely academic for actors and directors engaged in classic British works on the American stage. These days, though, it’s a superfluous one, says British actor-director Richard Clifford. He will direct Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” with a largely American cast at the Folger Theatre beginning Feb. 23.
“I’ve been in three Shakespeare films, two of them with a divided cast, and I feel finally it makes no difference,” he says. “There are differences in accents, but one sort of transcends this.”
Part of the reason is “globalization” the ease of travel and interchange among countries.
The Folger cast of 12 includes well-known Washington actors Ralph Cosham and Catherine Flye, who were born in England, and Washingtonian David Fendig, who studied drama in England for one year “and whose accent is marvelous,” Mr. Clifford says.
The real question is how to deal with the language in the text because the play is set in northern England but also includes visitors from the “town” of London. “Townies’ speech is quite different from that of the country people,” Mr. Clifford notes.
“I was happy to do it with American accents,” he says, but the work, a favorite 18th-century comedy of manners, is being done instead as a period piece in what the director refers to as “standard” English.
“We’re playing standard English for town and doing not a north [of London] but a north-of-the-country accent for the rural characters, and I feel people will notice the difference between,” he says. He describes the latter accent as having “the flat A sound.”
Mr. Clifford’s career mirrors the close Anglo-American ties of the theater world. The son of a tea planter, he was born in India, went to England when he was 6 and later attended drama school in London. At one point, he toured Europe and this country as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has performed in and directed plays and films on both sides of the Atlantic in the company of many of Britain’s most distinguished contemporary actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi. He visits this country often and was at the Folger last spring to direct the masque play “Comus,” performed by the Folger Consort.
Folger Shakespeare Library Director Werner Gundersheimer teamed up with Mr. Clifford late Tuesday afternoon for a question-and-answer session before a Folger support group called the Gathering of Friends. Most of Mr. Clifford’s time these days is spent rehearsing “She Stoops to Conquer,” which will run through March 31.
Next on his plate is a feature-film project for a recently formed company called Bits and Pieces Picture Co, which he began with two partners, one of them the American actor Rob Morrow. Called “Traveling Alone,” the film will be based in London with scenes set in America.