“There’s a lot of similarity between acting and the law,” says Victoria Ross.
It is an observation many lawyers may make at leisure, but Ross is coming at it from a different perspective: she is one of around 40 students at Rada who spent a couple of hours last week with Richard Lissack QC of Outer Temple Chambers in a session on advocacy and rhetoric.
Rada’s advocacy workshop is now in its second year. There is a growing recognition among theatre directors that rhetoric should be reintroduced into drama training; the Royal Shakespeare Company recently brought in rhetoric classes for its acting ensemble, for example.
“There’s a concern expressed by some of the great and the good within Rada that modern acting students are less well-equipped than one might think for classical speech because they live in an immediate communication generation,” explains Lissack.
Cut to last Tuesday (15 June). In a rehearsal studio in central London, the head of Rada Ed Kemp is underlining Lissack’s point, telling his students: “There’s a renascent interest in the world of theatre about rhetoric, about how we change the world with words. It’s something actors do and lawyers constantly do, and we learn from each other.”
He introduces Lissack, who launches into a session designed to introduce the students to some tricks of courtroom delivery. The students have been given three scenarios to prepare in advance, all picked from Lissack’s career, enabling him to give some personal insight into his thoughts in terms of preparation and exactly who in the courtroom he is trying to persuade.
The first scenario is based on Lissack’s opening at the Shipman Inquiry, in which he acted for the families. In the hand-out material the information on the circumstances of the deaths of four of Shipman’s victims (Sidney Smith, Thomas and Elsie Cheetham and Kenneth Smith) are given in bullet points. Lissack runs through two of his scenarios. His delivery is measured but resonant, never overegging the horrific content – it is the words you focus on, not the delivery.
Five students in turn take some parts of that opening, each creating a short speech based on those bullet points. The first student plays it straight but fluently. The second, while avoiding histrionics, has a marginally more actressy delivery, but keeps things in check. Enthusiasm begins to build within the room; Lissack asks for another volunteer and hands shoot up. A student climbs over chairs in his eagerness and takes his turn. Two more follow. All tend to observe full stops where Lissack does not and their deliveries vary; some trip over their words slightly, others keep the pace steady, but the atmosphere in this session of semi-improvisation is supportive and respectful of the grim material.
The second set piece is a long cross-examination taken from the Maxwell trial, when Lissack was examining financier Roger Tamraz as part of the SFO prosecution. Students are paired randomly together and, as the story unfolds, they become more aware of the volatile chemistry between barrister and witness.
Ross, who is one of the students who takes Lissack’s role for part of it, says later: “He obviously does a load of planning before a cross-examination, just like we know our lines and cues, but we never have to improvise like that. You still have to be in the moment and react to what you’re given.”
The third set piece draws on the Teebay Rail Inquiry and the students are again given bullet points and asked to construct a speech.
The questions to Lissack come thick and fast. Do you play the argument or the man? How much attention do you pay to the body language of the witness? Is there any client you have turned down?
Ross says that after the session a few of her friends were so enthused by their exposure to courtroom advocacy they were almost tempted to become barristers.
“What was interesting about the day was that [Lissack] never pushed or emoted too much on certain points,” she says. “Our temptation is always to find
the dramatic moment or play emotion really strongly, and that element of restraint is important. That’s something I learnt from watching him.”