Tuesday 13 November was the funeral of our former Head of Voice, Cicely Berry, who died in October. Here's what some of those who knew her had to say.

Cicely joined the RSC in 1969. Over the next five decades she changed the way we thought about voice and text. Here are a few tributes from the many actors, directors and playwrights on whom she had a lasting impact.  

Cicely Berry, 2008
Cicely Berry in 2008
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

Trevor Nunn - Director

Cicely Berry … Cis as everybody always called her … was quite simply part of my life. In the theatre, we make so many friends during rehearsal, and we work frequently with the same colleagues, feeling the camaraderie of being, once again, in harness together. But much more rarely, a working relationship becomes part, not just of your professional life, but of your social, your daily, your real life. Cis was indeed my close colleague but also my dear friend, my confidante, my confessor, my advisor … my support.

I had decided that if the RSC were to remain the best trained, most qualified classical theatre ensemble in the world, then we needed a permanent voice coach to mould the company’s approach to complex language, both technically and imaginatively. I interviewed many candidates, realising as I did so that I knew very little about what I was looking for.

The last candidate arrived … rather late. She was wearing a leather motorbike jacket, and she was smoking, to the point where she frequently coughed while replying to me. It wasn’t looking good.

But then, somehow, through an anecdote she told, I found I was laughing, and half an hour later, we were both still laughing and based on nothing but instinct, I knew she had the job.

I had very luckily hit the jackpot. Cicely Berry entranced the company; nobody ever had to be cajoled to attend her sessions. She was unconventional in every aspect of her work, which was frequently physical and improvisational, and always entertaining.

Over the years we had countless dinners, as she smoked countless cigarettes, and exchanged our thoughts on every aspect of work and life. Over time, her fame and influence spread, to the point where her name and her techniques were known in many different countries in the world. Indeed, I had the great honour of presenting her with a Lifetime Achievement Award given to her by the New York company, Theatre for a New Audience, with whom she had also done prodigious work.

One of our last meetings was in a remote cafe in Cornwall. Everything about our surroundings was different from anywhere we had ever met before. But the joy, the fun, the laughter, and the no holds barred critical opinions, were as if no time at all had passed since the day I first met this wonderful woman.

Her books are matchless. Her achievement was unique. Her death is unutterably sad. Her name will live on.

Terry Hands - Director

Another of the old RSC Greats has gone. Cis was so extraordinary that it is difficult to know quite what to say or where to begin. She was a loyal professional colleague and sensitive personal friend, a generous and selfless helper and giver, a genuine guru. She was unique. I doubt that we shall ever see her like again.

Michael Boyd - Director

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 which said “I don’t own my home and I don’t give a fuck what your house in London is worth so please don’t fucking 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.

Juliet Stevenson - Actor

I can’t bear to think of the planet without Cis Berry in it.

Many ardent tributes will flood in. So I feel what I write here will be just one of many. But for me, it is unquestionably true to say that she was a greater influence on me as an actor than anyone has ever been.The greatest, by a huge margin. Everything  I know, feel and understand in my bones and blood about text, rhythm, thought and the meaning that lies in the physicality of  language, is all owed to her. And that understanding, over the  years, has taken root and spread and grown to become almost a philosophy of life.

I was 20 years old when I arrived, fresh from RADA and an unhatched egg, at the RSC in Stratford. She was there, holding voice and text sessions every morning at 9am before rehearsals started at 10. Prowling and growling her way around the conference hall space, a full-strength lit Marlborough cig clamped between her lips (oh the joy of discovering that the RSC’s voice coach was a chain smoker) she changed my thinking and my life forever. What she revealed to me has fed into my work continually ever since. Not a working day goes by - whatever the material, even average TV scripts - when what she taught me doesn’t feed and shape everything I do. I have discovered them to be the deepest truths.

For a long time  I was so in awe of her that fear was always a part of the relationship, but it only served to make me strive to achieve her approval - rarely expressed fully, so that when it did occasionally come it was like gold, and made me giddy with joy. As did her sudden spasms of rasping laughter, and darts of affection, even occasionally love. What she understood about text and breath and thought was her original discovery, and if others since have taken that and run with it, they know they owe it to her.

Her politics too were a continual source of happiness and affirmation to me. Inclined by nature to eschew the middle ground, and wanting to reach for more radical thinking to meet the need for change that I felt I saw around me, I loved her commitment to far left politics. Actually, as I remember, Cis was so far left of centre that she was pretty much as anarchist. I have an abiding memory of a rather uncomfortable event at the Royal Academy involving the Queen some years ago. I felt somewhat compromised by being there, never having been much of a royalist. But vanity had got the better of me when saying yes to the invite. Towards the end of the lengthy do, I came across a raging Cis in a corner, furious and exhausted and needing a chair (having not been allowed to sit in the presence of HM ) - anger which I took to stem from self-irritation at having agreed to come in the first place. She was probably additionally infuriated by not being allowed to smoke. Directing this rather complicated rage at the random passers-by, she was effing and blinding her head off, so Harriet (Walter) and I got her sat in a corner on the floor while we ran around Piccadilly tracking down a taxi for her – these were pre-Uber days. Cis kept up her glorious republican rant all the way down the stairs, Harriet holding one arm and I the other, and was still swearing and cursing as we piled her into the cab and waved her off. We could only hope that the taxi driver was not an ardent monarchist.

Beloved Cis.  I have no idea how to honour her now, or do justice to her profound influence on me. Her value to me and thousands like me is immeasurable. I wish I had been able to tell her that. Though I’m sure that if I had, she would have swivelled her head round, hawk-like, to engage me in a frostily quizzical stare, and told me not to be so fucking stupid.

Patsy Rodenburg - Voice Coach and Director 

Cicely Berry changed voice work forever. She released the voice from the sometimes rigid cage of speaking ‘properly’ or beautifully. She taught about the powerful need to communicate not how you should sound but the passion that compels the voice and words.

Cis understood that the work not only empowered all humans but was fundamentally political.

I have vivid memories of teaching Teachers with her and knew that she had huge gravitas about her work but observed her shock, with a wicked irreverence ,any teacher who wanted to limit voice to a prescribed and beautiful set of vowels. She had a mischievous anarchy that could reduce any grandiose comment to dust.

In theatre she brought voice work out of a isolated studio into the rehearsal room and alongside the Director. She gave it a respected and honoured place. She connected voice to the text and poetry to our shared humanity. Her impact lives in theatre, education and prison reform. Much gratitude and love dear Cis. We all stand on your shoulders and honour your legacy.

Peter Flannery - Playwright

She gave me the best piece of advice I ever got when she found me wandering around Stratford before the first preview of my play Singer in The Swan in 1989. I said "Cis, I don't know how to cope with tonight". "Just pretend to be somebody else, Peter". I've done that ever since.

Patrick Stewart - Actor

Cis was a vital, vivid and provocative part of my RSC experience from the day she arrived. She would focus a problem simply, accurately and, sometimes, lewdly. How many times while lying on the floor of her studio did I hear her ask me; 'How's your sex life, darlin?.' while dropping cigarette ash on my chest. She is an integral part of great days in the life of the RSC.

Ron Cook - Actor

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.

Adrian Noble - Director

Cis occupied a unique space in the life of the RSC and in the lives of many of us who hold that company dear. She was at one and the same time the artistic and moral conscience of the company and also the tireless practitioner of the crafts that lay at the heart of our work.

She achieved almost mythic status inside the RSC and in the wider world. (I once dubbed her ‘Our Lady of the Diphthong’); but she was also ‘Our Cis’ kneeling over a prone actor, fag in mouth, imploring them to swing their ribs and breathe deeply.

I was lucky. In my first few weeks as an Assistant Director I was persuaded by Bill Wilkinson to do a workshop with his theatre group in Leamington Spa with Cis Berry, who I’d never met but whose legendary  reputation cast a long shadow. She was charming, generous and eager to embrace my ideas. We invented some exercises which I use to this day. When I became a grown up director in the Main House we fashioned a whole chorus of voices for my production of King Lear. The “voice of the storm” we proudly called it.

It’s hard not to  feel  that something has passed away with her death and with Peter’s [Peter Hall] and John’s [John Barton]. Perhaps I’m wrong. There is a flame that illuminates all the work of the company; sometimes it burns brightly, sometimes it gutters and nearly disappears. It is the belief that classical theatre can illuminate and change the world by sharpening our emotional intelligence. And language is the principal medium of classical theatre. Without language there can be no morality; without morality there can be no justice.

A search for justice was the motivating force of all her work. It’s why she was cussed, annoying, enlightening and invariably spot on in her criticisms. Art, Politics and Craft were inextricably bound in her being.

The space left by her departure has been mightily filled by her legacy, felt in a thousand ways in theatres around the world. Night night sweet Cicely.

Mark Rylance - Actor

An extraordinary woman and artist. Many blessings on her soul.