This is John's fifth and final blog entry for the 2003 production of Richard II in which he talks about preparing for the company's next production- Edward II, differences between performing at the Globe and at Middle Temple Hall, and particular scenes he's been working on.
Transcript of Podcast
There are three weeks left before Edward II opens but I haven’t been called for many rehearsals – apart from the battle jig practices. This is a choreographed dance that represents a fight: we gesture as though we’re slashing, advancing and defending; it has a ritual feel because of the three-time rhythm which is very solemn and powerful. I won’t actually be dancing though, because at that point I’m Spencer Senior and full body armour doesn’t let you move in a very sprightly way! Instead I bang out the rhythm with the drummers. I’m playing several small parts in Edward II – Spencer Senior, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lightborne. Lightborne's scenes at the end of the play are just lovely. He's an assassin; my first impression was that he was incredibly spooky and clever. He belongs in the shadows, and keeps his methods secret. I’ve done some historical research, but I’ve not got bogged down in it because the history behind Edward II has been so compressed and re-worked. Personally I felt that rehearsals began with the read-through which helped clarify the action; Edward II has twenty-five short scenes and there are no locations to help keep track of the action via the setting. I’m in twelve of the twenty-five scenes, playing three different characters so it's crucial that I get to grips with the thread of the story in my own mind.
Richard II is going well. Instead of feeling nervous on our first night at the Globe, I felt very secure. I always rather dread the huge ‘this England’ speech [II.1] just because it is so famous, but I find it easier to relax at the Globe. I treat the audience that surrounds me as ‘this England’ and when they respond, I get that extra sense of connection which lends a real security. It makes it easier to say the lines as simply and deftly as possible; they feel like they come naturally. The transfer from Middle Temple Hall to the Globe stage has really been quite smooth; only the jig caused problems. I couldn’t visualise the lateral arrangement we had at Middle Temple Hall in another space: to make it fit, we had to split the original arrangement in half and turn it round the other way, if that makes sense. It has taken us ages to figure out which directions we should be moving in, because we seem to begin in a completely different formation. During tech week, I had to transpose one space onto the other whenever we got to the jig: ‘now I’m facing down Middle Temple Hall, now I’m facing across Middle Temple Hall stage’. The choreography of the rest of the play wasn’t a problem, as most of the company are familiar with the Globe space and know what to look out for. Our movements aren’t rigidly blocked – we don’t follow the same movements every night which keeps everyone on their toes. Some things happen stage left one night, then stage right the next and I enjoy reacting to these changes. The transfer also made me notice how phenomenally focused the audience is here, with so many potential distractions – especially the aeroplanes and helicopters! That is one thing I certainly did not miss playing at Middle Temple Hall. The helicopters seem to pick the most awkward moments to hover over us, and it drives me mad.
Act I, scene 2
Earlier in the run at Middle Temple Hall, I was unhappy with Act I, scene 2 [Richard II]. I’m pleased that the scene has found where it wants to be on the Globe stage. At Middle Temple Hall, I felt that the distance between Gaunt and the Duchess of Gloucester was too great. She moved down to the end of the Hall, and my instinct was always to go and comfort her – ‘I know what its like, be brave, it must be terrible’ – but the distance meant I couldn’t. Gaunt's wife died (he probably commissioned Chaucer to write The Book of the Duchess in honour of her memory), so he did know what it was like to lose someone so close. It's important that she's seen as isolated, but she had a very long exit, from one end of the Hall to the other, after her final lines:
Desolate, desolate will I hence and die.
The last leave of thee takes my weeping eye.
We do play it quite far apart at the Globe, but there is a better balance. I go and hold her hands when she talks about her empty House at Pleshy:
Alack, and what shall good old York there see
But empty lodgings and unfurnished walls,
Unpeopled offices, untrodden stones,
And what hear there for welcome but my groans?
I express frustration, because ultimately she is having a go at me, but there's tenderness and compassion in the mix too, and I hope my movements reflect that. I’ve noticed the scene doesn’t really move the audience; this is the first time they see a man playing a female part in Richard II and the novelty perhaps takes them by surprise: they have to get used to a different convention. There have been a couple of laughs, but Peter [Shorey, the Duchess of York] does a great job. Also, I think it's too early in the play to expect the audience to be truly moved; they don’t know the character. Her grief is really something that comes out of history – the audience don’t see it emerge.
The Garden Scene
If I’m honest, I’d have to say I’m not very happy with the Garden scene [III.4, Richard II] at the moment. Maybe it's a personal preference – I’ve played the Gardener before and I just don’t find the scene very funny. There is usually a slight laugh when the Queen says ‘Pray God the plants thou graftest may never grow’ (l.101) and I cross myself as though that is the most horrific curse imaginable. I feel like the play doesn’t really need the scene, but it is important in the realization the Queen's tragedy. You have to look at how each scene fits into the overall structure of the play. My costume for the Gardener is made of wool, which doesn’t make the scene easier to play in the height of summer. My Gaunt outfit is lined and the heat just disperses, so that's much more comfortable.
Performing at the Globe
I’d have to say that I prefer playing at the Globe, despite the helicopters! Middle Temple Hall was a treat to perform in – the sense of history that comes with the knowledge that you are playing where Shakespeare himself performed is quite amazing. However, you just don’t get the same reactions from the audience. Middle Temple Hall is beautiful, but it is a formal kind of beauty that encourages awe rather than participation. The seats were more expensive so the audience is less diverse. I think it's the groundlings that really make the show; they’re fantastic! Their reactions help keep the play fresh, not that I think there's any chance of Richard II getting stale: every time I go onstage, I think ‘I’m going to forget my words’. I have to concentrate hard, although the lines feel like they’re embedded in my mind by now. It's a lovely position to be in; we’re completely confidant about Richard II and we’re constantly facing fresh challenges in rehearsals for Edward II. There's another big hurdle looming in the shape of press week, which is helping to keep me focused on Edward II. Having the same company is also useful in terms of the rehearsal process. Tim [Walker, Master of Play] got straight down to the text with us, putting it on the floor – whereas we did a lot of background work for Richard II. I’m enjoying the atmosphere in rehearsals, and it's nice to be familiar with what is required of you early on. A danger could be that we might possibly get stale, but I don’t think we will. The play is big enough to need all the work and hours God sends!