This is Rachel's first blog post. This week she discusses returning to the Globe, preparing for her part, and the start of rehearsals.
Transcript of Podcast
Back at the Globe
I only found out I was coming back to the Globe a week and a half before rehearsals started, so there wasn’t much time to digest the news before I turned up! Of course, I’m pleased to be back because you learn so much working here alongside the Masters of Voice, Verse, Movement, Dance and Clothing… it was an amazing experience to have so much expert knowledge on hand last year. Sometimes it feels strange that you’re paid for taking in all this training and information. There's a great atmosphere here, too – it's friendly and very supportive which encourages you to take risks but means you’ll be okay on the bad days as well. The place can hold it all.
There are some differences that make working on the Globe stage unique. You have to be extra-accurate with your words and movements because this is what the audience are concentrating on and there's not the spectacle of an elaborate set to distract their focus. Of course, everyone should concentrate on words and movements anyway; a set won’t tell the story of the play for you. So in one sense a bare stage shouldn’t make much of a difference… but then it does make a difference because this stage in particular demands laser precision rather than asking for it politely. Audiences here will notice if you’re not absolutely truthful in the way you show relationships between characters, or if you say something without quite understanding what it is you’re saying. I suppose the fundamentals of acting don’t change just because you’re on the Globe stage – I’ve performed on bare stages in studios before – but here you find yourself committing to those fundamentals all over again.
The audience is very close and the whole theatre is lit so you can see every single person there and they can see you. You know whether they’re following the story, and they know whether you’re being open-hearted and truthful. Some people have the misconception that because the groundlings are standing, they’ll always be prone to shuffle around. Actually, the groundlings will stand still for the whole hour and a half if you’re open-hearted and truthful – if you put on a good enough production. I think that's our aim; to enthral the audience so completely with our story that they only realise they’ve been standing for two hours when the show is over. I know from my own experience as a groundling that you do get enthralled when everything works on that stage. I watched Twelfth Night in the 2002 season and I remember being absolutely transfixed by the drinking scenes with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. A lot of the action was very still – drunken men sitting around and being funny – but I could see quite small movements. The remarkable thing was the way my imagination kicked in. You listen to the words and you start imagining a world – that's where Shakespeare's scenery is, when he needs it. I was drawn into Sir Toby's little hall. The actors weren’t pushing it out or trying too hard… they were just being truthful and it was really engaging. It reminded me of radio – the more you listen, the more you use your mind's eye and visualise the world that the characters inhabit. It's not even something that you do consciously; suddenly you’re in a palace or a garden and the description will have slipped into your head along with the story.
Normally I like to do a lot of research before rehearsals start because then you’ve got a good base of ideas to work on. Preparation for this job has been a bit different because I only found out I’d got the part a week and a half before rehearsals began. Actually, it's a little frustrating. Maybe some actors don’t do any preparation and they just turn up, but I like to know the play and I try to do some background work – looking at the period when the play was set, for example. I don’t mean that I read the whole history of renaissance Europe because the facts themselves aren’t going to give you any answers about how to play the part, but background knowledge might inspire you. Research sometimes helps you bring out aspects of the character you otherwise might have missed. It helps to get your imagination going. I find myself making links between different pieces of information from the text, from my research and from the sessions we have on voice, movement and verse. For instance, we had a voice session today with Mark [Rylance, Artistic Director and Master of Voice for the White Company]. He spoke about the words going through your body – filling the spaces in front of you and behind you as well. That made me think about the part when Don John talks about being born under the influence of Saturn [I.3], and the way the Elizabethans thought other forces could move through a person's body… astronomical forces like the stars, or perhaps witchcraft. That link struck me: maybe Don John would get into witchcraft. Maybe he would choose to let something evil work through him. They’re all ideas that go into the mix. I won’t necessarily use them.
I read the play and I went through the scenes before we came in for rehearsal. I wrote a synopsis of each scene to get an idea of the play's journey and the specific journey of my character through the play. I found where Don John's journey starts off and where it ends, and where the play starts off and where that ends. A mind-map helps you keep track of where you are in the play. I don’t actually learn the lines, but I read and re-read them to build up a picture of my character. Asking questions is really helpful: where is my character at emotionally? What is affecting them? What is upsetting them? Where are they going? Why are they doing or saying what they’re saying? What do they want? Usually the answers are right there in the lines, so concentrating on the text is a good start.
I played Clarence at the Globe last year [Richard III] and there were times when I had to remind myself to be quite basic. My head gets a real mess when I start rehearsing because there are so many ideas to explore and different things to focus on. It's like scrambled eggs up there! So I find it really important to remember the simple things. For example, my key facts for Clarence were that a) he is a duke, b) he is in a prison, c) he has a bad dream and d) he thinks he's going to hell. Bam, bam, bam, bam – never forget those things and their implications. If he's a duke, he's going to be aristocratic. If he's in prison, he's having a bad time. If he's just woken up from a dream, he's probably bleary-eyed and confused. You can do a lot of chatting and discussing, but at the end of the day, it's a prison: how would you feel if you were in a prison? That's the core of it and that's what you act. I’ve started to do something similar for Don John – I wrote down my first impressions in the back of my script: bastard prince, malcontent, bored until doing mischief, gets a kick out of it. So I’m illegitimate and feel like the lowest of the low inside, but at the same time I’m a prince with a lot of privileges. I’m very resentful about my situation and I’m most alive when I’m doing something bad. It's important to write it down because you forget your first thoughts very quickly.
Don John is somebody who feels very hurt. Emotionally speaking, he's a mess; he feels like a freak and an outcast. He thinks his illegitimacy means he's never going to be accepted, which breeds a lot of resentment. He's trapped by the circumstances of his birth: on one hand, he's illegitimate and feels ugly inside, but on the other hand, he is a prince and has the privileges due to royalty. The contradiction sets him apart and Don Pedro keeps him on a tight rein because he's shown himself to be a threat. I think Don John's like a trapped animal and actually makes this comparison in Act I, scene 3
I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. (I.3.80-3)
I imagine him like a vicious sort of cat that you wouldn’t want to let out of a cage. He's very destructive and his actions say very clearly ‘I am not going to play by their rules. I am going to cause trouble whenever I get the opportunity. I am waiting for the opportunity.’ What interests me is that although he hasn’t chosen to be what he is, he does choose to behave in this destructive way. Don John seems to challenge the very ideas of conformity and a perfect lineage by doing his ‘liking’. I can see that his relationship with his brother [Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon] is going to be very important.
Belinda [Davidson, Don Pedro] and I have just started to talk about the relationship between the brothers. We don’t know where we’re going with this, or what exactly that dynamic will be. I imagine Don John is very jealous of his perfect brother. One of the questions we’ve been thinking about is the war that the soldiers are returning from in Act I, scene 1. Who was the enemy in this war? Shakespeare isn’t specific, but in Act I, scene 3, I talk to Borachio about Claudio. I say:
That young start-up hath all the glory of my overthrow; if I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way. (I.3.61-2)
It's been suggested that Don John has raised a rebellion against his brother, but the text isn’t that specific. Don John feels usurped by Claudio and that could be interpreted literally – Claudio has helped squash the rebellion – or metaphorically, in that Claudio has usurped his place as Don Pedro's right hand. Maybe it's both of those things. We have to decide whether the war was specifically caused by Don John, or whether they fought another enemy.
Belinda feels very strongly that Don Pedro is keeping Don John close because he's dangerous. He's an enemy that Don Pedro needs to keep an eye on. He needs to be kept on a tight rein to prevent him causing trouble. At the same time, Don John is a strange kind of royalty so Don Pedro has to be careful about how he treats me. The relationship is tricky. I am the illegitimate brother and at the same time I am part of the royal family. These things pull against each other: on one hand, Don Pedro has to acknowledge me to some extent, but I’m never going to be accepted as part of the royal line as a legitimate brother. We’re never going to be like Princes William and Harry. I think Don John feels that conflict very deeply, and maybe that's where the character's going: he questions the perfect, uniform order of things that has rejected him. Why do we have to have this perfect lineage? Why does everyone have to be so conformist? You end up back at the fact that although he hasn’t chosen to be what he is, he has made a definite choice to behave in the way he does. The other thing that influences that idea of agency is the stars. Don John says to Borachio:
I wonder that thou – being, as thou sayest thou art, born under Saturn – goest about to apply a moral medicine to a mortifying mischief. I cannot hide what I am. (I.3.10-12)
Saturn is the dark planet as far as I know – associated with sadness, moodiness and a heavy disposition. I’ll to get on the internet and do some more research, but basically I think the question here is whether Don John really believes that the stars control your destiny and your actions. He might be speaking ironically, or perhaps making excuses for his actions – as though he's shifting the blame. I haven’t looked into this much yet.
Playing a villain in a comedy is interesting. Don John isn’t brought back into the community of the play; he remains an outsider. I’m approaching him as a character that does bad things for a reason. I have to know that there's a reason behind his actions for the performance to be truthful – it doesn’t matter whether the audience know what the reasons are. They can see him solely as a villain if they choose, but I think of him as a character rather than a plot function: he is someone who feels awful about themselves therefore behaves badly. I think he enjoys the power that destructive behaviour lends him, however temporarily. He gets a kick out of it. These are all ideas that are flying round my head at the moment. I spoke to a friend who asked ‘Why is he evil?’ and since then I’ve been thinking ‘I’ve got to know, I’ve got to know!’ So far, I think he wants to break the pattern and order that he cannot be a part of – going against the grain and behaving badly are statements. His behaviour is a sort of a perverse attempt to get involved in the order that he challenges – and at the same time it's a real protest against that order, asking ‘Why does it have to be like this?' It seems to me that these reasons clash: a real desire for acceptance and a hatred of the fact that social order has to work in a certain way. It's only because he wants to be accepted that he hates the perfect order so much. It's all a bit confusing! But I think the contradiction of a non-conformist who, on the inside, just wants to conform isn’t so strange.
Claudio is also going to be very important for my character. It's obvious I really hate him and this week we’ve started to properly discuss the reasons why. Ann [Ogbomo, Claudio], Belinda [Davidson, Don Pedro] and I have talked this through and we’ve come up with the solution rooted in envy. What has actually happened in the story to explain Don John's hatred of Claudio apart from the fact that Claudio is very close to the Prince? Claudio has usurped my place. In the first scene, everyone hears about how well Claudio has acquitted himself in the wars and how well Don Pedro has rewarded him:
Leonato: I find here that Don Pedro hath bestowed much honour on a young Florentine called Claudio.
Messenger: Much deserved on his part and equally remembered by Don Pedro. He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion; he hath indeed better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how. (I.1.9-16)
Later Borachio describes Claudio to Don John as ‘Your brother's right hand’. Claudio is close to Don Pedro in a way that Don John will never be. Another thought was that perhaps Don John was in love with Hero? He's not married and as an illegitimate son he's not a good prospect for the nobility. Although I suppose he's a prince; he would have money and I imagine him being quite attractive… but his exclusion from the perfect royal lineage would have been a sort of brand that balanced or outweighed any of his advantages. Even if he had legitimate children, that wouldn’t alter his status. I just feel that Don John is a very isolated character and the prospect of Claudio's happy union would increase his envy. It's a thought that I’m putting on the back burner right now, because working out his jealousies will be very complicated. I’ll come back to that when I’ve got some other things straight!
I’m looking forward to my costume fittings. That's one great thing about original practices – the costumes look fantastic. It's a matter of marrying the stage, the costumes and the acting… they have to work together. The stage looks amazing, the costume department produces brilliant pieces of clothing using the same techniques and materials as the Elizabethans would have used – it's up to us to make sure the acting comes together. I think sometimes the temptation is to be careful when you’re wearing beautiful things, but it's wrong to be shy of treating them like any other costume: ‘Oh I can’t do that. I mustn’t fall over and roll around on the floor…’ It can’t become excuse or a barrier. The costumes are to be worn whilst you act. Audiences would get bored very quickly if it was just about modelling with some lines! There's also some leeway. Last season I wore a sports bra underneath my doublet which was less than Elizabethan. Basically, original practices is great as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your thought process, or your intention. The Tudor Group came in last season to talk to us about Elizabethan etiquette and how to handle a sword properly, which was really interesting (I think they’re coming again next week), but at the end of the day the audience haven’t come to see people take swords out of sheaths – they’ve come to see a story acted well. The best thing is when original practices gets your imagination going, like when you realise ‘Oh hell. Those swords are really sharp.’ When anyone gets threatened with a sword onstage, you have to believe that it could go pfft, straight through your body. When you get familiar with the swords Elizabethans would have used in real life, rather than blunted stage swords, it sort of brings the danger of a scene home which is helpful.
Start of rehearsals
We didn’t do a normal ‘sit-down’ read-through on the first day. Instead we went through the play doing different exercises; we sat in a circle and went into the centre ‘stage’ area to say our lines. Every time you referred to another character, you had to point at them and they had to stand up. That emphasised just how often characters talk about people offstage – there's so much eavesdropping and gossip and scheming. Don John wasn’t pointed at very much, whilst characters like Claudio and Hero were standing up, sitting down, standing up, sitting down. It reinforced my idea of Don John as an outsider who causes trouble partly to force himself into their world.
The games feed into your thoughts about a character or the way you play a scene… another exercise I found very useful was ‘trigger words’. We went through the text and looked at the words that triggered our characters’ lines, so for example when Borachio asks me ‘Can you make no use of your discontent?’ in Act I, scene 3, I have to pick out the word in that line that motivates my response ‘I can make all use of it, for I use it only.’ I think trigger word there is ‘use’; that's what Don John picks up and repeats. It helped us think about why we were saying lines – people talk for a reason in real life, so to find reasons for speaking each line will help us to be truthful.
We’ve also started work on individual scenes. I’ve just come from a session on Act II, scene 2: Borachio and I are scheming. Tamara [Harvey, Master of Play] asked us both to make non-verbal noises before each our lines. We had to find a different sound every time and discovered a comic tone that really worked for parts of that scene. When Borachio starts explaining his plan
I think I told you lordship a year since, how much I am in the favour of Margaret, the waiting-gentlewoman to Hero. (II.2.11-2)
Borachio made a simpering sound as though he was very pleased with himself and I made an exasperated sound before responding ‘I remember’, as though I’d been hearing of nothing but Margaret, Margaret, Margaret for the whole of that year and it was driving me up the wall! Having to find the right sounds before you speak also puts back some of spontaneity that you can perhaps lose when you know what you’re going to say next.
I’ve been talking things over with Belinda [Davidson, Don Pedro]. It's important that we work out the specifics of what has happened between the brothers even if that's unclear in the play-text, because our understanding will make their relationship clearer in the playing. There's a lot to talk through and one of the ways we approached this was ‘hot-seating’. Each character took a turn in the hot seat and answered the other character's questions: how do you feel about your brother? What is your relationship like? I enjoyed interrogating Don Pedro – when Don John was asking the questions, it felt like he was in control. Don Pedro felt Don John had put him in an uncomfortable position; he had to be given the respect proper to a prince, but also represented an unpleasant threat. When Belinda asked me how I felt, I explained about my resentment and bitterness, and that I felt ugly and hurt and deeply unhappy. It wasn’t just what we said to each other, though. Body language and tone were really interesting – I found that I had crossed my arms and sat back in the chair, which is quite a defensive position. Don John wouldn’t just open up and pour out his heart to his brother, so my replies were quite abrupt and terse to begin with.
Hot-seating made me wonder about what happens to Don John at the end of the play. Don Pedro is part of the final celebrations but Don John just disappears after Act IV, scene 1. It's like he's become an evil force at large in the world, waiting for the opportunity to cause trouble. I would say I’m about three quarters of the way through piecing together his back-history. One of my questions for next week might be ‘What happens next?’ I’ve also been reading through the wedding scene and I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into that in rehearsal.
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.