This is Kananu's second blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, where she talks about learning lines, rehearsal games, original practices, and the challenges of the rehearsal process so far.
Transcript of Podcast
I’m pleased that we’ve finished the first read-through of the play – now we’re familiar with the arc of the story, we can get on with learning our lines. I don’t tend to do that before I come into rehearsals; part of me thinks it would be sensible but too much preparation makes me nervous. I like being open to any ideas or suggestions come along. I don’t actually mind learning lines, although my method seems to change with each production. This afternoon I found the iambic pentameter beat helpful, because the words fitted into a pattern of stresses. Rote learning is much easier when you learn the stress pattern as well.
Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] is keen for us to explore the stresses in the lines and we’ve been doing lots of verse work in rehearsal. For instance, we did scenes in pairs: one person spoke their lines and the other person picked the words from those lines that stood out most… the words that had the greatest affect on their character. Tom [Burke, Romeo] might say ‘Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me’ [II.2] and I might choose ‘kinsmen’ as the most important word that causes Juliet's reaction: ‘If they do see thee, they will murder thee.’ Tom [Cornford], our Assistant Director, gave us the list of words we had chosen and when we did the speeches again, we had to pause before we said those words. What surprised me was that the pauses made the lines sound more human. When we talk, we have to try and find the right words to match a feeling inside. It's not a mechanical or automatic match – sometimes you do have to pause or struggle for the right word. Taking a pause made me aware of what Juliet might be feeling inside when she says those lines; it gave me space to think about what's going on underneath the words rather than concentrating on which word comes next.
Another useful game we played earlier in the week involved throwing a ball up in the air on the last stress of every line and catching it on the first stress of the next line. I’d like to do more of this – it gave me a physical sense of where lines ended without turning them into an intellectual worry; line endings are really important and people have suggestions about how you can make the most of them! The throwing and catching game helped me discover that in a simple way.
The Tudor Group came in this week to talk to us about Elizabethan life – it's really useful background for original practices. I’d heard about this group of people who live as Tudors for two days a week, but I wasn’t sure what to expect: it sounds like a slightly odd thing to do! They turned out to be lovely and the amount of information they had about Tudor life was astounding. They know so much because, as far as is possible, they actually live that life and have lived it for over twenty years. They wear the clothes in the way the Tudors would have done (lots of layers and no underwear) and use Tudor etiquette. It made the period seem very human and immediate instead of a distant other world.
Ruth [member of the Tudor Group] talked to us about all sorts of things relating to the period of the play: what I found really interesting was what she said about early modern suicide rates. Obviously suicide is a part of Romeo and Juliet, but it's easy to think of it as quite a modern problem, like drug abuse or technology. Ruth told us that death records from the Elizabethan period show that there was a very high suicide rate, I think it was somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of recorded deaths. Apparently death records are some of the most useful documents from that time because they were regularly filled out and they didn’t have an elite bias: in other records, the people writing about the nobility were members of that class, so their own interests might have coloured their accounts. Death records are different. It's weird to think that people struggled with the same issues. It's easy to think of that time in a simplistic way, like a film version of the ‘olde worlde’ – everyone is drinking ale and having a good time. To realise that the audiences who watched Romeo and Juliet for the first time were actual people who got depressed was a bit of a shock. For instance, being caught up in a religious crisis might seem quite a modern problem, but the Tudors were faced with similar difficulties as Protestantism evolved; people didn’t know what to believe in.
When the Tudor Group talked about those things in such a human way, I realised that the emotional responses of the people in the play would have been similar to our own. There isn’t another kind of distant, historical kind of suicide and in one sense, that world is not too different from ours. That realisation will probably help me be more truthful: it was a good reminder that our own modern responses are still valid.
Whilst there are similarities, of course there are also big differences between the periods. Tudor etiquette, for one thing, was very complicated. They held themselves in a completely different way – their posture was very upright and their movements seem a lot more graceful than ours. Ruth showed me how women would have curtsied and the movement is really simple but I can’t get it right! You’re meant to keep a really straight back and bend like a ballet dancer when they do pile. I keep sticking my bottom out so my curtsey makes me look like a duck. I told Ruth that I didn’t feel very graceful doing the movements and she explained that was because modern posture encourages you to stick your chest out and sort of stick your bottom out, whereas the Elizabethans would have been in a better alignment. It's good to have something physical that I know I need to practice!
Correct etiquette was incredibly important for the Tudors – how you were treated signalled your place in the social hierarchy – so we did another exercise to familiarise ourselves with the different greetings appropriate to different the ranks of society. Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] gave us all a position within the social hierarchy and we had to walk around the room and greet each other. Women have an easy time of it because they just have to vary how much they bend their knees (how low the curtsey is), but for men it's more complicated. They have to kiss their hands, offer the hand with a kiss on it to the lady, then take a large step back. This is the Italian version: the English version involves taking your hat off and giving an elaborate flourish with your hand. The idea of the differences between English and Italian etiquette is interesting because obviously though Romeo and Juliet was written and performed in Britain, the action is set in Verona, Italy. It got me thinking about how setting and social ritual would influence Act I, scene 5… if we choose Italian forms of greeting in line with a Verona setting, then Romeo and Juliet's first touch is even more remarkable because in Italy you didn’t touch hands in greeting.
Another aspect of original practices which I’m really enjoying is the costume. I’ve had lots of fittings and the clothes are surprising comfortable. I expected the corset to be restrictive – the one I wore for Dangerous Liaisons came quite low down on my hips and that took a bit of getting used to – but this one is cut quite high in the waist and I can move my hips freely: moving around is much easier. It's also quite low cut across the chest, which was the fashion of the time. The colours are really gorgeous; bright red with orange underneath the corset and skirt, and the material is quite soft. Apparently, the fashion in England was for hard petticoats to hold the skirts out in a rigid shape, whilst in Italy they liked silk and flowing lines, so my costume is quite comfortable. The Tudor Group said that English audiences wouldn’t have known much about Italy but generally thought of it as an exotic, exciting place. The rich, bright colours and flowing silk will help create the setting. I won’t have any quick changes to negotiate. I know I’ve got another silver and white dress for my wedding/ death, but I haven’t seen that yet. I’m sure it will be beautiful because it's to be Juliet's best dress.
At the moment the biggest challenge in rehearsal is trying to find a balance between reading lines from the book and thinking about Juliet's reactions and movements. You find out that your husband has just died and there's an uncomfortable feeling of not being quite sure which line comes next. Should I be crying or should I read the line? This will sort itself out as I start memorising the part. You just have to put up with the in-between stage and try not to panic. Mostly I’ve been doing things in a very simple, straightforward way. I expect I’ll try different things as I get more familiar with the character: already I’m starting to feel more at home with Juliet.
Earlier on, there were some scenes that made me think ‘Oh, this is hard’ – especially the ones with a lot of crying, like Act III, scene 2, when Juliet thinks Romeo and Tybalt are dead – but the more I read the play, the more I get a sense of where those feelings are coming from. It's getting easier to put the wailing in context and I don’t know if that means the scene has gotten more complicated or more straightforward! In Act III, scene 2, for instance, Juliet isn’t just weeping. Even when something terrible happens, you still try to hold things together and take action to improve your situation… I don’t know what action that will turn out to be yet. We’ve only run through once, so I’m haven’t made many choices. It's great to see everyone getting into character – little details are starting to make a difference to the scenes and build up a world for the play. When we ran the feast scene [I.5] the other day, Cousin Capulet listened in to Lord Capulet's argument with Tybalt – as though he was keeping an eye on things.
Other things this week… well, we’ve been doing more dancing for the feast scene [1.5], as well as practicing the jig at the end of the play. The dance at the feast is a pavane, quite slow, graceful and smooth. It took me a while to get co-ordinated because I haven’t really done any dancing since drama school, but Sian [Williams, Master of Dance] is a great teacher and she breaks all the steps down into chunks. You hardly realise you’re doing the dance until everything suddenly fits together, and you think ‘Hang on a minute… when did that happen?!’
The jig is very different; there's lots of clapping, stomping, and linking arms with each other. Everyone takes part in jig rehearsals which is fun: you think you’re the only person who can’t remember yesterday's step, then you mention it and everyone admits they can’t remember either! It takes the pressure off and is quite relaxing. Movement sessions are also great for relaxation. Sometimes it's important to stop thinking so intently about the part and the play; you need to give your unformed thoughts some space and just let your body relax. We do stretches and breathing exercises – I had a session yesterday and came out feeling ready to go again!
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.