This is Kanunu's sixth blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which she talks about the first live performance, the previews and audience reactions.
Transcript of Podcast
Before the performance I was nervous, very nervous! I think all the things that happened to my costume in the dress rehearsal were a sign of nerves; my bum-pads fell out onstage and my veil came off! The clothes are so strong and gorgeous and beautifully made – you have to take hold of them and wear them properly, even though all the tying and buttoning do make you a bit careful at first. It's only when you’re being wishy-washy that things go wrong!
It's funny; we’ve spent so long preparing, rehearsing and thinking things through that I thought I knew what to expect from the first performance. But then you come into this space and there are so many people – it's like nothing else. There are so many people and you can see them all. That's just amazing. I had forgotten what it feels like to have an audience on so many different levels. Words to describe it… I’d say mad, weird, and stunning! I think I spent the first few minutes just noticing, ‘Oh, there's someone hidden right at the corner, at the back’ or ‘Look, there's someone to my left, standing just an arm's length away.’ I found the range of distances most overwhelming; there are so many different people in so many different places and you have to try and reach them all at once. I think I have to work on reaching everyone with my voice, because sound is the only thing that will reach everyone. I know that when I get nervous, I start worrying about where everybody is and I look around, trying to find out exactly where they are. I suppose I should just relax: the more relaxed I am, the better I’ll be able to use my voice and hopefully I’ll reach more people. That doesn’t mean you have to shout; you just have to use your support – if your voice comes from somewhere quite strong, then there shouldn’t be a problem.
There's a really great energy when the theatre is full. We rehearsed on stage but I couldn’t really anticipate or imagine what the space would be like with over a thousand people in it. There's an echo when it's empty and you can see so much wood. The yard looks huge. It all changes when there are people – there's a focus on the middle of the stage because everybody in the audience is facing that way, into the centre of the circle. Before a show, we’ll look out of the grilles in the tiring house doors and you can see a world of people chatting, flirting, day-dreaming… that's a world we’re about to enter. I like seeing them before we go onstage. I don’t know whether it makes it more or less intense when you do step out into that circle. Is it more or less scary than another theatre? Perhaps at other places that take the lights down when the show starts, it's easier to ignore the audience until the end. Here, you’re always aware of the audience which does make performing more extreme. I feel things more intensely because I think about each feeling amplified – for instance, if I’m feeling hot, I’ll wonder if everyone else is hot too. There are so many people to whom you can relate about even the littlest things.
I’ve been quite surprised about how much people have been laughing, especially when the theatre is packed. People laughed a lot in the first balcony scene and that was good, because we were a bit worried about whether the humour would read. Romeo and Juliet are young and they’re in love, which is fun amongst other things. When they come to say goodbye, Romeo kisses his mask and throws it up to me on the balcony, then I kiss it and throw it back down to him. We do that a couple of times, but I leave as he throws it up one last time and the mask is stranded. That kind of thing means our balcony scene is quite funny. I didn’t feel like we had to do much work to make the scene seem young and fun, because the audience were quite ready to laugh. I think it was Mark [Rylance, Artistic Director] who said before we started that the audience is another character in the play; the play is never fully rehearsed or planned because you’ve got to wait until that final character joins you. They are such a huge presence and you can’t imagine the reaction beforehand. The comedy is lovely – generally I don’t have too much of it in my scenes, but it's great to hear the response to the other scenes. Laughter is good, and it's such a contrast to what comes later.
Laughter in Strange Places
Although the response to the second half of the play generally seems quieter, there have been laughs at some odd moments. For instance, the last scene [V.3] is strange. Usually there is quiet and the tension is tangible – perhaps I get a stronger sense of the tension because I’m lying down and I can really feel the atmosphere. [V.3: Having killed Paris, Romeo descends through the trap as though into the tomb: the tomb is then wheeled on. Juliet is laid out on top, her feet pointing upstage. Romeo enters.] However, there have been a few performances where really people have laughed in odd places. The other night I stabbed myself and I heard someone go ‘huh-huh’. I immediately thought ‘Oh no, that was obviously a bad stab!’ but Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] reassured me. The stab was good, but sometimes people will laugh in response to tense situations, as a kind of release. A few days ago, Tom [Burke, Romeo] drank the poison and a small child in the front went ‘Ugghh!’ and everyone laughed. The boy knew it was something that Romeo shouldn’t be drinking and his response allowed laughter in an odd place. It can come in funny spats, but generally that doesn't worry me. It just reaffirms the fact that the connection with the audience here is very special and unique.
We’re still rehearsing bits and pieces when we haven’t got a performance on. The play is just settling in. I think I need to relax! Sometimes I find myself saying ‘I need to do this and this and this,’ but you can’t really drive on like that here because there are such a lot of unknowns. You just have to be quite flexible and try things out as they present themselves. The best thing about being here is that the more open you are to the unknowns around you – people, planes, weather, whatever – the better the play gets. Generally I’ve been ok with planes and other ‘outside’ distractions, although there was one helicopter a couple of days ago that hovered over us for about half an hour. Yes, I could have done without that!
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.