"It’s fantastic when people laugh in strange places." In a special phone interview from Turkey, Bethan talks about the different audience reactions she's experienced while on tour. She also discusses the role that costumes played in helping her get deeper into her characters.
Time: 8 minutes 15 seconds
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Transcript of Podcast
This week, we conducted a special phone interview with Bethan Cullinane while she’s on tour with King Lear in Turkey.
So, my first question for you is: what happens in tech week?
We got to Margate, which was lovely. And so, we arrived at this theatre and the guys already set up everything because we haven’t been on the set before. We haven’t even seen it – we have seen pictures and we’ve seen the model be we hadn’t been on it. So, it’s kind of just getting used to how everything’s set up because it’s not a very technical show: there’s no lights or music cues, we do everything. I’m just getting a sense of it, as well, and how the set supports you. And it felt really good, actually, to get into costume and look at everyone in costume – everybody looks brilliant. And straight away, for me, getting into costume just really solidified the work that we’ve been doing. So, we pretty much just started running the play through. As problems came up, we’d fix it or we’d try to fix it. But yeah, it was actually a really lovely week.
Well, what have been the challenges of putting the production finally together?
I think the biggest challenge is the fact that we haven’t been on the set and there are changes that sort of happen on stage. Working out the logistics of that and the fact that other people are doing costume changes at the same time and you don’t have a huge space to do it in. So, working out how to do those efficiently without knocking each other over, which happens several times. Then, within the next day, we’ve nailed it. And, obviously, there are still things that we are working on now, but we really just have to adapt the performance for the space completely. And also, the people up in the gods [at Theatre Royal Margate] can’t see the top of the stage because of sightlines. So, a lot of things where we climb up to the top we’ve had to rework, which is really exhilarating. It’s just really fun because you know wherever you go – whichever venue you go to – you must be flexible enough to change what you’re doing. And I suppose that one of the other biggest challenges is going into a theatre, rather than into a rehearsal room. And working out what travels: how loud you need to be, how precise you need to be, and then getting an audience in, which felt brilliant. I think that was sort of the final piece, experiencing how to bring an audience into the world of the play.
You mentioned costume changes. What is your costume like? And how does wearing it help you interpret your characters?
Well, my costume for Cordelia is a really lovely yellow summer dress. And then for the fool I just have a giant pair of trousers that you could easily get three of me in. So, it completely transforms my figurette(sic) immediately. I look about ten stone heavier. Just straightaway, whenever I see my fool’s hat (a little woolly balaclava), as soon as I’ve put that on, my head is covered and all you see is my face and I feel like a little boy, rather than as Cordelia. And then when I come in the first time as Cordelia, I have the gorgeous turquoise that just straightaway gives me this feel of authority as it trails behind me. The costumes really, really help. So many quick changes in rehearsals you really have to think about what can I use to snap into character instantly? And the costumes, on top of the work that you’re doing already, are the obvious answer.
What scenes are still proving difficult to unlock?
I would say a couple of scenes, definitely with the fool’s stuff. As soon as I got an audience in, it came alive for me and everything fell into place and made sense, which is really rewarding. But you try to make sense of the jokes rather than just being funny and it is difficult. It’s meant to be a light, funny character and your confidence can kind of take a battering. But I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s not about that. I need to just communicate my wants and if it’s funny, it’s funny. It’s fine, it doesn’t have to be. And then as soon as we got in front of an audience I did exactly that and there was this amazing response, which just felt incredible and really paid off. But then, obviously, coming to Turkey, there are different cultures and so that’s been really interesting. So, I suppose with the fool’s stuff, just learning the pace of it, really. Not getting carried away with being funny – and that can happen when an audience starts laughing at you, as well. So, I think a lot of the difficult stuff to unlock is adapting to doing it in front of an audience. I felt like the emotional stuff was all there. And then you have to be able to maintain the emotional stuff yet allow an audience to be there with you, which means you have to act to them more. That’s something I’m working on.
You mentioned that you’re in Turkey right now, and that you were on tour in Margate, as well. What has it been like to do Shakespeare in these areas?
They’re very, very different places. And we’ve yet to play in Adana – we’ve just come from Istanbul and we drove to Adana this morning – so, I don’t really know what Adana’s going to be like. I imagine it’ll be completely different from Istanbul. But Margate, the crowds were just amazing. Going out in the pre-show just to chat to people, everyone is so interested and so interesting as well. They’re such a welcoming audience and we’ve had amazing receptions and standing ovations. It was really quite overwhelming. Margate, I think because they’re our first venue, it felt like they were there with us supporting us, as well. It was a really, really lovely audience up there. And then Turkey was completely different. Really interesting that they find different things funny. It’s fantastic when people laugh in strange places. You’re kind of like, “oh! I never thought of it that way.” But it’s great that they do because it makes you think of it that way. But, in the same way, they are so welcoming and such a warm reception. People were up on their feet last night with bouquets of flowers. I can’t quite believe it. Obviously, they love Shakespeare in Margate and Turkey. They really go for it. Just to get the response at the end after they’ve sat through for the three hours of it, is just really lovely, really nice.
And how have these venues impacted your performance?
In Margate, the gods are very, very high up. So, you really have to open up and be a lot more available, rather than in your own emotional world with the other actors. You kind of have to take it out a lot more. And then in Istanbul, in Hagia Irene – this incredible, incredible place with incredible echoes – it was very difficult, in terms of sound. You couldn’t run across the stage without “ba, ba, ba, ba, boom.” And when someone hits the drums, you can’t speak for a couple of seconds. So, it was a very big challenge. It’s about diction and following right through to the end of the line, which, to be honest, at this stage in the tour was brilliant. You have to do that or they couldn’t hear you. And to be forced to do that was wonderful because you’re refreshing all the work that you’ve done and learning that you can be very technical and muscular but still emotional. And, on the first night, I really struggled with it. I found it a bit awkward and I didn’t feel the emotion that I usually feel in the scenes. And then on the second night, I really felt that muscularity can support your emotion and what you’re doing. It’s difficult, very difficult, but really, really amazing learning experience as well.
Well, my last question is: what types of audiences have you encountered on the tour?
What is really interest is in Margate I think it’s a crowd who know the Globe and know how the audience participate in a Globe performance. And I don’t think it’s a difference in cultures, I actually think it’s more to do with the space. Whereas in Hagia Irene in Istanbul it definitely felt like they were there with us absolutely. But, you know, moments with the fool they weren’t sort of as involved. And I think that’s to do with the fact that they were a lot further away in a huge space – it’s sort of harder to reach them. And that’s more to do with me, as an actor, as well, in that I had to work a lot harder and maybe wasn’t as effective as I was in Margate. And then we had subtitles in Istanbul, which was really interesting. And, unfortunately, I don’t speak Turkish because I’d love to know what the subtitles translated to because I was getting laughs for my jokes. And I’d love to know whether it’s because they’re reading it or, if they do speak English, whether it’s the way that I play it that reads in their culture as well.