This is Mark's final blog post. This week he discusses how the first performances went, unexpected responses to his character's anti-Semitism and having to perform with a different actress playing Nerissa.
Transcript of Podcast
The First Performance
The very first night was slightly terrifying because we’d only had one dress rehearsal and then it was straight into the first performance. It was all going well and then in Act 5 we got an enormous response from the audience with the whole ring business. They were laughing so much that we were really thrown by it. It felt like we had to fight to get the stuff out and the words heard. That was a real shock but also really exciting.
We’ve pretty much had the same response at most performances. It’s especially surprising – maybe it’s got something to do with it coming after the trial scene – like a release. After the end of the trial scene (Act 4 Scene 1), there is quite big shift. The Duke says “Sir, I entreat you home with me to dinner”. It feels funny, this sudden shift into comedy. When Portia tries to get Bassanio’s ring the audience seem to love it straight away and totally accept this big shift in tone. I guess in rehearsal you don’t think all that misunderstanding is funny. The biggest laugh, of many big laughs, is when Bassanio says ‘‘were you the doctor?’ in Act 5.
Timing the Laughter
There is a lot more laughter than I expected, for example – and its party because its an aside - when Portia and Nerissa are berating me about giving my ring away, Bassanio has slipped off to the side and says:
Why, I were best to cut my left hand off
And swear I lost the ring defending it. (Act 5 Scene 1)
My line is next where I say:
My Lord Bassanio gave his ring away
So I have to wait for that aside and then wait for the audience to stop laughing at that – some times it feels like I’m waiting for an eternity. I’ve talked before about having vocal worries – we talked about how to maintain my voice in the trial scene when I feel that I want to be very forceful. In actual fact, Act 5 has been the hardest to pitch over. You can’t wait for it all to die down as the energy will drop, but you have to pitch over the entire audience laughing.
It has changed the way I deliver my lines. It has also made me feel a little insecure about them; with all the audience laughing I wasn’t really enjoying doing this scene at first because it was so unexpected. Now I’m learning to control and time my lines better so that the audience still hear what’s going on.
Even more surprising is the fact that people have been laughing at Gratiano’s anti-Semitic comments in the trial. I feel that the harder I try to be nasty, genuinely nasty, the more they seem to laugh! And I’ve been thinking is this the right thing? I was hoping to chill them with the force of my hatred. It’s quite a long time before Gratiano speaks and I was using that time to get more and more irate and frustrated with them by not speaking. When I finally do speak I felt that all this emotion had built up. The way we’re playing it – that Portia realises how to get out of it only at the last minute – there is a real sense that Antonio is going to die and so this bile that comes out from Gratiano. But the more hatred I play – the more they laugh which is very very odd. I think its good, but its one of those areas where you think about the reaction. Maybe it’s like an original Shakespearian audience reaction. I imagine Shakespeare’s audience may really have laughed, but to have that from a modern audience is really bizarre.
The same thing happens when I say “But who comes here? Lorenzo and his infidel’ (Act 3 Scene 2). There’s always a big laugh there. It’s actually quite useful there though because what I play is big and excited like ‘Ah hooray it’s Lorenzo and his infidel’ and in the time that they’re laughing I see Solerio and think ‘oh it’s not good that he’s here’. The laugh is good to signify the shift in tone because then it turns to ‘oh God what’s going on?’ So the laughing helps the action. So I started thinking about when they laugh in the trial scene. I want to see how far I can push it because if they’re still laughing at the end that doesn’t seem right to me because they’re not engaging with the seriousness of the situation.
The preview period has been longer and more hectic because the actress playing Portia was indisposed and left the production at the end of the first week. It was all very strange because Kirsty Besterman, who had been playing Nerissa, is now playing Portia. It was weird because having someone who on stage I’d been having to fall in love with – love at first sight - suddenly seeing her being with this other guy was strange. At that time Pippa Nixon, who plays Jessica, was playing Nerissa in performances in the evening and a new company member Jennifer Kidd was rehearsing Nerissa in the day. By the time Act 5 came I realised that all three of the girls I’d kissed in the last twenty four hours! I got very confused because I’d be on stage looking around and thinking ‘who is Nerissa now?!’ That was really strange.
It shows you the power of pretending. Even if you’re pretending that you have these feelings, the fact that you get used to attaching them to people – or not even to people – there’s this time when Kirsty was wearing her Nerissa costume when she was playing Portia and even that was strange because I got used to that costume being on my wife! Now Jennifer has the same costume Kirsty had and Kirsty wears a new costume as Portia. It sounds a bit naff that it was a bit odd but it’s settling down now, although we are still having rehearsals with Jennifer.
Jennifer did her first performance after four days of rehearsing and I started to think do you really need six weeks of rehearsals to set something up? And then I thought ‘no you do’ because the relationship that I’d built up with Kirsty as Nerissa has been an extremely gradual one of making tiny little steps up towards finding something. Also, in that time, we’d been agreeing it together. I can’t say to ‘this is how we found it and this is what it is’ to Jennifer because it’s not fair. Certainly the first few days we tried to cram all these ideas into her head. That doesn’t work - you have to discover it rather than describe it. Even if we’re encouraging her to come to the same discoveries, she still has to find them for herself. And of course she wants to interpret the role as her own and not to copy what Kirsty did.
It’s all been much stranger than I thought it would be. The power of the things that you’re saying like ‘you loved….I loved’- I sort of felt it undermines all that in a way because you build up this thing where you think it’s alright to say and express these big emotions to someone. Saying them to someone new and different is odd at first.
We have also started to rehearse another play. It’s a new play called Holding Fire! by Jack Shepherd and it’s about a nineteenth century political party called the chartists. There are five more actors who are new to the company. They have more specific and bigger parts than the rest of us in general. I thought I was playing a certain character which I’d done some research on, particularly accent research because it was a person with a particular accent, but literally a couple of days after we started the director told me I’m playing another part! Because it’s a brand new play scenes are being re-written all the time and on some days a totally new scene will appear. It’s a shame that we’ve still had to keep rehearsing Merchant because there is not time to do the same amount of preparation and research that you would normally do. By its very nature, the play is something you need to do a lot of research for to understand the background of and to be honest I haven’t had much time. But I have got a couple of nice parts, but with the whole re-casting of Nerissa and everything, it has put us back and it will all have to be a lot quicker. Because I’m playing two characters in Holding Fire! I rehearsed three different characters today so it’s all really confusing at the moment!
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.