This is Gareth's second blog post. This week he discusses his character, the stage design and the difficulties involved in learning verse.
Transcript of Podcast
My character is called Sir Hugh Evans, but the ‘sir’ is an honorary title, it not ennobling. It’s a term of respect. I suppose he’s the Reverend. I was a little nervous when I first spoke to Chris [Luscombe] about it. He was thinking of setting the production a hundred years earlier but my character wouldn’t make any sense because he has to be post-Reformation, he’s not a Catholic priest. He’s much more the sort of vicar that Shakespeare would have had in Stratford and a teacher as well, although we’ve cut the schoolroom scene.
The First Week of Rehearsals
On the first day after the meet and greet, we sat round a table and did a read through. Then for nearly the whole week we went through the play scene by scene, line by line, making sure that we all understood what each line meant. It was very useful, especially with a play like this. I was certainly clear what my character was saying and mostly clear what the other characters were saying, but not entirely. A lot of my questions were prompted by weaknesses in the plot: ‘How does he know that?’ or ‘How does she know that?’, or ‘Why doesn’t he know that she knows that?’ – those sort of questions. Not all were resolved in that session, but when we start to stage it, those things will become clear. It’s a disputed text, because it’s mostly in prose.
Blocking the play
We went back to the very beginning again on Friday and started working, blocking it. Chris [Luscombe, director] works in a very conventional way, in that he blocks the whole play first, then he’ll come back and we’ll work through scene by scene. People think it’s a bit of an old-fashioned way, but it’s the way I’m much happier with. We got as far as Act 1 Scene 3 that day, and now we’ve got to the end of Act 3 scene 3.
The set design includes a walkway which ingeniously brings the action out into the courtyard. At the end of the walkway is a garden; initially, it’s a flat space but it flips over and becomes a knot garden where the wives first meet. Most of the cast get on it at some point. It gives a geography of Windsor; we have the imaginary Thames between the main stage and the central fixed piece. Then there are arcs that come out and join onto the stage. You can do a full circle. You can come in through the courtyard and you come up some steps onto this raised part. I think Chris’s idea was that, rather than have actors in the courtyard at the same height as the groundlings, we should always keep ourselves visible by being however high the walkway is, about five feet. I don’t have strong feelings about original practices, but I suppose there will be some people who will be upset.
Of course, we don’t have the walkway in the rehearsal room, we just have the floor. So we’ve marked it out with tape. All you can’t see is the hole to your left and right. But you know that you have to keep it in that perimeter.
We haven’t blocked the interior of Ford’s house yet. I know there is a staircase on stage left, obviously we will be using that when we go to search the house for Falstaff and presumably also using the gallery as the upstairs of the house.
Jigs and Costumes
There’s always a jig and I think this play is very celebratory so it is even more appropriate. But I’m certainly not a dancer. I think I might struggle!
We haven’t had any costume fittings yet. Although we’ve spoken about them and seen drawings. My character is a clergyman so will be dressed in black. Except at the end, when they all come on in disguise to taunt Falstaff; he gets dressed up as a satyr wearing a fawn-like costume, like Mr Tumnus from Narnia. He has those sort of home-made trousers and a mask. He’s the one who brings the children on to pinch Falstaff as part of his punishment for trying to seduce the mistresses.
Giles [Block, text expert] came in and gave us a talk about the language in the play, the prose and verse. Giles is great; I keep grabbing him and asking him questions. He doesn’t seem to mind. Ninety percent of the language in The Merry Wives of Windsor is prose. That’s unique: the most prose in a Shakespeare play. Apparently Twelfth Night is sixty percent prose. It’s funny because I don’t think of Twelfth Night as a prose-y play at all. The bits one remembers are the memorable verse I suppose. He has those stats at his fingertips; it’s all very interesting.
I find prose much less accessible than verse. I can always unravel verse. Somehow there’s a key to verse but there isn’t always a key to prose. At least I haven’t found it. I look forward to talking more to Giles [Block, text expert] about that. It’s the verse that attracts me to Shakespeare, and Evans doesn’t have a single line of verse. There’s a little ditty I sing in the middle of the play, a little song that’s in nonsense verse, but the rest of it’s in prose. I liken it to having a wonderful meal, but minus the glass of wine. You don’t get the chance to speak the language, which is the thing that makes it really worthwhile. Also I find verse much easier to learn because of the rhythm and the occasional rhyme.
I do remember some prose speeches though, for example Shylock’s ‘I am a Jew’ speech. Interestingly, at one of our first meetings Giles asked us if we knew why some things are written in prose and some are in verse and we came up with the usual answers: verse is for noble characters or lovers, not comedy. Giles cited Shylock’s speech, and talked about how Shylock is mad at that point, and prose being the language of the mind. I thought that was really interesting. I played Prospero not that long ago and I found his verse incredibly hard to learn. In Shakespeare’s earlier stuff the writing is so much more regular, and as Giles was saying, the thought starts at the beginning and ends at the end of the line, whereas in the later plays the thought finishes in the middle of the line. That makes it much tougher to learn.
The running time of the play
I’ve no idea about the running time of the play, but it’ll be short. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was two hours. We’re still cutting and of course pleading to have scenes back. You have a totally different perspective of a play when you’re directing from when you are acting. You just want to get on with it. If you’re acting in it you think, hey, why has that scene gone, why have they cut that scene? Two of my subplots have gone and Evans is not a big part anyway. There’s a schoolroom scene between Mistress Quickly and a little boy, where we meet Hugh Evans as a teacher rather than a preacher. He would have been the schoolmaster in Windsor as well as the preacher, because all teachers were in orders, I think. He didn’t go back to the monastery, he clearly likes being part of town life, he loves eating and drinking and going out to dinner and all that sort of thing. I wasn’t that bothered about the schoolroom scene because it doesn’t do anything for the plot and the jokes are pretty lame and very difficult to understand, dated and mostly in Latin! Then there’s another scene, which again is pretty incomprehensible. It’s about Germans and it’s all based on something that’s happened at the time. Maybe even in Windsor. Some cheating Germans trying to get horses off the host. It’s so memorable I can’t even put it into words! Nobody has missed that scene.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.