This is Rawiri's performance bulletin, he discusses opening night, press night, the audience and his policy on not reading reviews.
Transcript of Podcast
Opening night was a long time ago but I remember it well. I had come down with something that attacked my throat and so I was quite worried about whether I would have enough voice. I got a lot of help from Jan Haydn-Rowles [voice coach], I tried to focus on sensible living; having honey and lemon, shutting up during the day, saving my voice and trying not to let it get on top of me mentally. I managed to get through opening night with enough voice. I had some very special friends in the audience: my wife, one of our daughters and three friends from Germany were all there and it went really well. It was great being backstage beforehand, there is a special feeling there. Everyone is hanging around the little monitor watching it, then it comes to the fight and that’s when it’s getting close to my part, I have to walk around outside for my entrance. Opening night was a real buzz.
Warm ups and pre-show rituals
I do lots of stretches. Also, I asked the young actors “Do you mind if I warm up with you?” just to learn some new exercises. Definitely vocal exercises too – finding “that note” as Jan puts it – spending time on the stage before the audience get, just general actor warm-ups. I also established a little ritual which I’ve kept all the way through. I’ve got lots of drawings from my grandchildren which arrived a few days before opening night, so I put those all up around my place in the dressing room. One of them is my grandson’s handprints, so each night before I go out there I touch his hands. Then before I go into the yard, just outside in the courtyard I stand on Sam Wanamaker’s brick, on the pavement, I just stand there and just go “Come on old fella, help me out here!” That was the ritual that I set for myself on that first night, as well as the ongoing ritual of doing warm-ups with all the others.
For me, quite a bit changed in the first week. I still hadn’t got on top of the lines and I wasn’t as at home as I would have liked to have been. I was not really ‘game fit’ as a stage performer, so I lost my way quite a few times and hit the panic button. That week was fantastic to find my feet and get used to cues. Also, Dominic [Dromgoole, director] watched all those first shows and several into the run as well and did some work with us to try to tighten up the entrances and cues. We were getting notes every day from him, which were fantastic.
I am pretty hard on myself; I think all actors are. You’re aiming for the perfect, error-free performance. In the first few performances I would actually mark the mistakes, in terms of slips with lines. For example, sometimes I said the wrong word, or missed a word, or stumbled, and I was making between ten and twenty mistakes per show. By the time we got through the previews I had got that down to under five. No one else noticed, but I was still searching for an error-free round, that didn’t come until about two weeks into it.
There were lots of nerves backstage and lots of excitement! That’s the true opening night! There is also the exchanging of gifts. Because I’m playing the Friar I had got little cards with St. Francis’ prayer which I was able to leave on people’s places. I tried to thank everybody who had been involved in the show, not only the people on stage but people in the office as well. I received lots of beautiful stuff from the cast and others as well, it’s a wonderful thing, there was just such an outpouring of love and support – its how the world should be! Press night was great, I had more really close friends watching and it is always special when there are people there. It is so different to New Zealand: the press arrive on the first night there because the runs are so short, so you need to get the press out as soon as possible. So it is a luxurious thing to have such a long run and to be able to have ten preview shows. By then the show was in really good shape, I was feeling really confident and my voice was strong. I’d set myself a pretty strenuous physical regime, I dropped from 101kg to 88kg for the show. By the time we got to press night I was feeling fit, my voice was great and I was match fit. I was happy with my own contribution to a fantastic show.
I don’t read reviews. I got into that habit a long time ago. As a young actor, I was playing Edgar in King Lear and I’d worked very hard and I was incredibly proud of it. In Auckland at that time there were only two papers– the morning paper and the afternoon paper - and both of them slated me. They pulled me out in particular and were really harsh: it absolutely destroyed me. That was my second year in the theatre; it depressed me and then affected my performance so I decided then that I was just not going to read reviews again.
I am aware that the reviews for this show were mixed, although I haven’t read any. By accident I picked up a free paper on a train, I read a review and it was particularly cruel about Ellie [Kendrick, Juliet] and Adetomiwa [Edun, Romeo] and it was completely in opposition to what I felt. The same old thing happened to me – it really affected me and I wanted to be protective of these two young actors and let them know they shouldn’t believe it!
As an old actor looking at their work, it is such a pleasure to work with them and Ellie has pulled out a magnificent Juliet, a Juliet that will be looked back in time as one of the greats. I absolutely believe that. Similarly for Adetomiwa. The two of them are going to go off and become exceptionally well known and beautifully appreciated. So I felt deeply concerned for them. But then a few days later I read the posters. The publicity department pulls out the best reviews and there were some shining reviews for both Adetomiwa and Ellie, so I thought “Well that’s ok, there is a balance there” and they’re doing fine. My children went on the internet back in New Zealand and they emailed me to say that I had been mentioned in some good reviews, which is nice, but I’m not going to let that affect me either. So you miss out on the nice stuff too!
It is glorious finally being on that stage in front of an audience! The audience is the final piece, the essential piece; without that it isn’t theatre. You can work for years if you like but it’s not going to become a piece of theatre until you share it with an audience. So the most special time for a production, I believe, is starting to feel the audience’s contribution. The audiences here are just so different. They are there because they want to be there, they want to be in this particular theatre and that is so obvious by the way that they respond.
My entire first scene is direct conversation with the audience and I actually touch them as I walk through and look them in the eye as I pass by them. I speak in mock Italian and mock Latin. I use a line that I said as Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew, “Mi perdonato, gentle master mine” which simply means “Pardon me, my master.” So I’ve just stolen another little bit of Shakespeare there. I also bless people as they look at me, I use “Benedicite” from the first scene and “Blessed be upon you” from the tomb scene. It is a glorious entrance that Dominic has given me, I’ve got a heavenly choir and then I address the audience as I start. It is a beautiful entrance so if you muck that up you’re not really worth much! Then I am able to look at people and address the entire audience, I take my time through that. I literally work my way down from the top gallery, through the middle gallery and down to the yard. I offer a flower, usually to a girl, or a woman; occasionally there aren’t any there, but I prefer to because the line works better with a girl. So I have that direct touch, and it is a glorious way to start to feel at home.
There was a period around about show number fifty where I started getting worried that I was on automatic. Actually the whole company started to feel that. Also, the show has got a little bit longer in the first half, so we were wondering what had happened. The fastest our first half has been is 1 hour 35 and slowest 1 hour 42, at the moment we are running consistently at 1 hour 41. We all listen intently when we’re given the times, we stop in the dressing rooms because we’re all trying to get it. I reckon that a good three minutes of that extra five minutes is the audience’s contribution, so I’ve stopped worrying about it.
There is a little moment in the first scene with Romeo where I do a little look to the audience and it gets a delicious laugh; I’m loathed to let it go, but I may have to for time. I timed it for myself at home and I worked out that it added about six to eight seconds. There are sixteen of us onstage and that is just one of my moments, so multiply that by sixteen, that’s getting up there for a few minutes, if we’ve all got those moments and lots of us have got many of them. Fergal [McElherron, Peter] is wonderful at comedy and the audiences adore him, he has got so many of those moments, so what do we do? We’re not going to take all of those out, because we’ve worked hard at earning them. The only reason for us to take them out is if they are detracting from the lines, or if we’re milking it for no reason.
This is the longest run that I’ve ever had for a show; in total so far we’ve probably performed to more than a hundred thousand people! I’m being recognised all around London, not for Whalerider (which I had been anyway), and not by New Zealanders who know me from various television things, but by people who have seen me in Romeo and Juliet! I am easily recognisable because I don’t wear any makeup or look different onstage, I look like me onstage. And I love that!
We are near the end of the run now. This company has just melded so well. Penny [Layden, Nurse] was saying that she had never been in a company where there was so much love for each other. We all enjoy each other’s company, we enjoy working with each other onstage, we make each other laugh – it’s just a great company. It is going to be a really sad, tearful last night and we’re already gearing up for it. I’ve made some beautiful friends. Ian Redford [Capulet] who is a wonderful actor and a lovely guy, has become a friend that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I’m going to enjoy watching all of these young actors’ careers bloom. Ukweli [Roach, Tybalt] is off to do a film after this and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the beginning of the path to film stardom for him. Philip Cumbus [Mercutio] is probably one of the most intelligent young actors I’ve ever worked with and he is a gentleman as well as a ridiculously good-humoured young man. Adetomiwa [Edun, Romeo] is just such good fun, I really enjoy sitting down after a show every now and then and sharing a glass of wine with them and enjoying their company.
These comments are the actor's thoughts and ideas about the part as s / he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his / her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsals progress.