This is John's first blog entry for the 2003 production of Richard II in which he talks about the characters he'll be playing, preparation so far and original practices, amongst other things.
Transcript of Podcast
I will be playing three roles in Richard II: John of Gaunt, the head Gardener and the keeper of the prison at Pomfret, where Richard is murdered. It's the second time I’ve played the last two roles; I was in Deborah Warner's 1995 production of Richard II at the National Theatre when Fiona Shaw played the king. In that production, I played Lord Willoughby together with the Gardener and the keeper of Pomfret prison, so this production is going to be the first in which I’m preparing roles for a second time and I’m really looking forward to it. I suppose that, because I’ve played the roles before, I am slightly more relaxed about playing them than I am about playing John of Gaunt, but that doesn’t mean that they’re anything less than a huge challenge. It's very important that I approach them afresh, as any decisions that I made about those characters in 1995 won’t necessarily apply for this production. For example, the director and I decided then that the Gardener was a middle-status character, a gentleman, not a ‘country bumpkin’ and should therefore speak with an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent. This may be how Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] envisages the Gardener in this production, but we may decide to develop the character in a totally different way, so, we’ll see.
Middle Temple Hall
I’m very excited about playing Middle Temple Hall. I went there for the first time with the rest of the company on our first day of rehearsals. It's a thrilling space, especially when you consider that Shakespeare himself played there. Of course, the space presents us with specific challenges; we’re going to have to be very careful not to hit the front row of the audience when we’re wearing swords. I also noticed that the ceiling is very high, creating a slight echo when you speak. This means we will have to work on making sure that every sound, every word, every consonant we make is very clearly pronounced so that the audience can understand every word of what we’re saying.
At the moment, I’m concentrating on the character I play at the start; John of Gaunt. Last week, the company went away on residential to a large building called ‘Gaunt's House’. I was amazed to find that it was indeed Gaunt's house; it was built on the old estate of John of Gaunt. I also noticed this morning that on my way home each day, I travel down a road called ‘Gaunt Street, formerly Lancaster’. I think somebody's trying to tell me something…
Whilst we were at Gaunt's house, we did a lot of work on the pre-history of Richard II. As part of this work, we all sat down one evening and read another play, called Woodstock, which details the events immediately before Richard II starts, in particular the death of Richard's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, who was also known as Woodstock. It's a fantastic, very well crafted play, and reading it was a great help in understanding some of the issues that are discussed in Richard II, such as whether, or to what extent, Richard was involved in the murder of his uncle, as well as the complex family structure that underpins the play. So many of the characters are closely related; I think this play is fundamentally about a family in crisis.
Understanding Characters' Relationships
We also did several other exercises to help us understand the relationships between our characters, and what they’re trying to achieve during the play. In one exercise, we all sat around in a circle and, one by one, stood up in character and explained our relationship to certain other characters. I stood up as John of Gaunt and said, ‘I am Bolingbroke's father, brother to the Duke of York and uncle to Aumerle and King Richard’. We also then did the same exercise again, but this time referring to status and intention, so everybody would stand up, look at another character and say ‘I am your superior/inferior/equal, and I want you to do x’. For example, I stood up as the Gardener, looked at Queen Isabel and said ‘I am your inferior, and I want you to tell King Richard to stop wasting so much money’. Status is very important in this play, but if you are trying to affect a change in someone else, their status doesn’t affect the fact that you want to change them or their opinions, only the way you choose to go about doing this. Exercises such as that are a great help in understanding the relationships between each character and the truth of particular situations, and the knowledge we took away from that exercise will be of great value when we come to explore different scenes in more detail.
Whilst we were at Gaunt's House, we were visited by experts in the Tudor/Jacobean period, who taught us about daily life 400 years ago. Military specialists came and taught us about the etiquette of wearing swords; for instance, to place your right hand on the handle of your sword was considered highly confrontational. We were also visited by the Tudor Group, who are amazing; you can ask them about any topic relevant to Tudor England and they know everything about it. I asked them about herbs, as I have a line, as the Gardener, describing where I will plant some rue:
Here did she fall a tear; here in this place I
’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace.
(iii.4 ll 104-105)
They told us that rue was associated with healing and purification, and that people would often hang some rue in their houses to drive away grief and sorrow. However, the herb itself has the capacity for harm; if you rub it on your skin it causes blistering and burning. It's always useful to know these things.
I am looking forward to being in an original practices production again. For one thing, the clothes are fantastically comfortable, as they’ve been made specifically to fit you. In fact, the other day, Jenny [Tiramani, Master of Clothing and Properties] showed me the shoes I wore as Pistol in Henry V (1997); they’re going to adapt them for me to wear this year, possibly as the Gardener. They’re wonderful; although they’re only very simple leather shoes, they’re so comfortable!