This is Liam's fifth blog entry for the 2003 production of Richard II in which he talks about rehearsing and performing at Middle Temple Hall.
Transcript of Podcast
Two weeks ago we came to Middle Temple Hall to begin our technical rehearsals for Richard II. By that time I was feeling reasonably familiar with the space as we’d been there a couple of times during our rehearsals and it was beginning to feel more comfortable. There are times at Middle Temple Hall when one feels a little constrained in the playing space. Small physical actions in that space such as raising an arm can make you feel like a big army tank – everything seems out of proportion. And sometimes when you are striding around in there you are very, very close to the front row of the audience. When I have the big spear in my hand for the joust it can feel a bit tight moving around. If you were really going to physically and vocally express yourself, in the ways that your instincts are telling you to, then I think it would just be a bit too much for the people closest to the stage. We found that things needed to be toned down a little - not so that we became artificial - but just so we were not too over-powering. And so the playing of the space seemed quite straightforward but, as always, the big shock was that we only had around thirty hours of tech to get used to working with the costumes and swords and properties and all that stuff. You feel suddenly so alien, and that is a horrible feeling. There are some nice things about a tech but that's the really unsettling, unpleasant thing. You suddenly think ‘everything feels so new’ and you have such a short period of time to adjust and get comfortable with the performance again. When you are wary of all the new practical things it can really throw you off-track with all the hard work you have done previously in rehearsal. You get this horrible feeling that you’ve left all the really important things back in the rehearsal room because you’re worrying about all this new stuff. You just have to trust, I suppose, that all of the character work is there in your head and your heart; even though you’re distracted by the new things you’ve actually got your character and all of the relationships with you. But we had two full days of tech and so by the time we came to the first preview, although it still felt very fresh and alien, hopefully we created the impression that it wasn’t looking too difficult or unfamiliar. It was satisfying to find that all of the preliminary work I did for the role of Bolingbroke could survive difficulties such as a big silly hat that I never envisaged would be that size, or a pair of boots that don’t quite fit as well as I’d hoped, or a sword which is heavier than I imagined. I just put my head down and got through all that.
We squeezed in a first dress rehearsal on the Tuesday evening. We were all very tired at the end of the day and it was really depressing as it didn’t go very well. Everyone was stumbling over all of the new things – swords and costumes and props. We had our main dress rehearsal on the Wednesday afternoon and it was really like doing an actual performance because we had a full audience there. It was a very partisan audience as it was an open dress rehearsal for anyone connected with the Globe who wanted to come; however, I wasn’t particularly aware of who was there because I can’t see faces clearly in an audience without my glasses on! So it was just a kind of anonymous audience for me. It was terrifying to have an audience there for our dress rehearsal but people seemed to really enjoy it. They were very supportive and it must have just been very focussing to have people there as it suddenly seemed to go quite well. There is something very helpful about having an audience there to speak to: there eventually comes a point in rehearsals when you’re looking into a director's eyes, or your fellow actor's eyes, and it just goes beyond the believable because they become too informed about the play's events and your character is too familiar to them. So it is actually really refreshing to be speaking to people who haven’t ever heard it all before. I think the audience can give you crucial notes on your performance if you are sensitive enough to pick up on them; for example, an audience can tell you when you should get a move on and when perhaps you should take things a little slower. They can tell you when they completely understand and you can sense when you’ve lost them a bit. As they are very close to you at Middle Temple Hall you can actually see the people in the first few rows and see when they are smiling and hear when they are laughing, which is very useful. The first audience at the dress rehearsal did affect my performance in some subtle ways. I think the notes they gave kind of told me to relax a little and trust what I was doing. I found I was going a little too fast a couple of times - not so that they didn’t understand what I was saying - but just that it was OK for me to take some time over speeches in certain places and at certain key points. When you first meet an audience you get a little bit self-conscious and my typical reaction to that is to go too quickly: when you do have people there to speak to they actually listen to you and then they kind of let you know what a natural, normal speaking pace should be.
We then did our first performance immediately after the dress rehearsal on the Wednesday evening. It didn’t give us a lot of time to reflect on what had just happened. The dress rehearsal finished at 5pm and then by the time we’d changed out of our costumes it was 5.30pm, and we were getting ready again for the first preview at 6.45pm. But it was an exciting day. The first performance of a show is always a very focussing experience, and it's never quite like that again. You’re very nervous on one level but on another level you’ve got this kind of cold calm. It's all very intense - a kind of intensity you’ll never really capture again. The intensity's not a completely bad thing and yet it's not completely helpful either to feel that tense. It does make everything feel quite exciting though!
I like to get in early before each performance – usually about two hours before. First of all I just relax and have a coffee. I like to have some time alone with my thoughts so that I can focus on the play and my role. I don’t do much of a physical warm-up but I always do some kind of vocal warm-up and run through most of my lines, particularly my big speeches. For me it all depends on what I have to do in the first scene: if I start tired and dishevelled and dirty then I’ll do very little before the show, whereas if I have to come on for my first scene and be all zingy and fresh then I’ll have a shower to wake myself up and I’ll usually walk quickly to work. In this way I can kind of replicate how my character should feel physically. For Bolingbroke I take a shower because he's very alter and alive, and I have to keep that energy throughout the first scenes. I’m usually in my costume early, and especially with these original practices costumes you have to leave time as you need a lot of help to get dressed. I like to be all ready about an hour before so that I have time to adjust. I like to spend the half an hour before the show by myself: some actors do groups warm-ups, but I’m not really into that and prefer to withdraw and keep quite quiet. For the Middle Temple production it is unusual because we have the audience filing through the dressing room as they enter the Hall. There are two dressing rooms and they mostly go through the main one, but they pass by mine too. It is a bit strange but I’m kind of used to it now. It is surprising that they seem to be very quiet; I suppose there is quite a lot for them to look at and it is presumably unusual for them to see actors preparing for a show. I’m sure it's not a traditional practice. The purpose of them walking through is to make the whole experience special for them. Also, because what we are wearing is so beautiful and complicated the designers wanted to make sure there is a chance for the audience to see all of that work. I think the audience enjoy it, although personally as an audience member I enjoy the freshness of someone just walking out onto the stage and then taking them as the person that they are in the play. I’m not sure I’d like to see the actor as himself before-hand.
We’ve done fourteen performances now at Middle Temple Hall and hopefully it's growing in confidence and strength all the time. It is oddly temporary though because we all know we’re only at Middle Temple Hall until the end of this week and then it's all change again when we move to the Globe. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. We’ve got our first rehearsal on the Globe stage today and we have another three afternoon sessions there this week. Basically we are working on making the transition. I think it will be easier for those of us who have played the stage before: I guess that those who haven’t are a little more nervous than those of us who have. I’m going to miss playing at the Middle Temple though. It's a beautiful, beautiful place and it has been a real treat to be working there. It really is something quite special and unique.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.
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