This is Penny's first blog post. This week she discusses returning to the Globe, being in an all-female company and how original practices impact upon the production.
Transcript of Podcast
Back at the Globe
Last year I joined the all-female company to play Lord Stanley in Richard III and Vincentio in The Taming of Shrew. I was really scared at first; I’d taken a break from acting when I became a mother so it had been a while since I had been onstage, but when I came back here it felt like I’d never been away. This year I was in the very happy position of being asked if I would like to come back. I was told Tamara [Harvey, Master of Play] wanted me to play Leonato… I didn’t know Much Ado About Nothing very well, so I went away and read it, and I fell in love with Leonato immediately. He's such a good man and so dignified – having said that, I’ll also need to investigate his darker side and try to understand the harshness of his response to Hero when she has just been denounced at the alter. I think his reaction in this scene is related to the importance of female honour and chastity in the context of Shakespeare's time, but that doesn’t fully explain the violence of his response… it's early days yet and the jury's still out. Anyhow, I saw he was a great character. He's funny, he obviously adores his daughter and even his darker side is interesting. I just liked him a lot; once I’d read the play, I couldn’t say ‘yes’ to Siobhan [Bracke, Casting Director] and Tamara quickly enough!
I’m very excited to be returning to the Globe – it's a stunning space. The first time I went out onstage and saw the audience all around me, I remember thinking ‘Oh no. I’m going to faint!’ [laughs] but after the initial wave of fear, it was wonderful. There are grilles in the tiring house doors and we watched people assembling in the yard and taking their seats; you get to see your audience before you go out onstage, which I think allows a rare kind of connection. You feel a little more secure stepping into that space and the audience reception is so warm when you get there that nerves quickly disappear. You can really focus on the relationships and situations in the play and in both plays last season, I found the level of communication with the audience just amazing. They’re unlike any audiences I’ve ever known, in that they’re extraordinarily willing to enjoy themselves: it's as though they come here to have a good time and they’re ready to actively seek that by engaging with the play. They don’t just sit back and wait.
Before rehearsals begin, I always like to map the journey of my character. I find the top of the hill or the peak of the part, so I don’t get there too soon. Most characters have their own arc within the larger journey of the play, so I go through each of my scenes and pinpoint the most important moments. Next I do the same thing to get a sense of my part within the arc of the play. Charting the character alongside the play like this helps me to get an idea of where the moment of greatest emotional intensity comes for me in the greater scheme of things. Once you’ve identified the peak, you can start to work out how you’re going to arrive at that point. Leonato's peak is probably in the wedding scene. After Hero has been denounced he seems to break up inside – but the peak and the journey become clearer as you explore the character during rehearsals. It's like when you decide you want to go on a long hike; the map is just a starting point for the journey, but you might take detours along the way or find some parts of the terrain smoother than others.
As far as learning lines goes, I don’t do that before rehearsals start. I just find it very difficult. Once I’ve rehearsed the lines for the first time it's easier because you can use the rhythms and put the lines in the context of the action, but Leonato's quite a big part… I know I’ve just got to plough on with learning it. There are several big speeches and my memory isn’t as nimble as it used to be! I don’t like learning lines really, but I’m going to have to make a start soon.
First day and first rehearsal
It was wonderful to arrive at the Meet and Greet and see so many old friends as well as lots of new faces – both in the cast and in the building. One of the really nice things about all the introductions is that you meet everybody who helps make this building work… from the theatre department and the other departments too. It makes you feel at home. The day is about bonding in a very easy relaxed way; we spent some time with Mark [Rylance, Artistic Director] and Tamara and the rest of the cast. We also had a small ceremony at the end of the day which sort of blessed what we were about to embark on. After that, the first day of rehearsals is great: you’re just dying to get on with it. We began by playing some games that helped us to relax and understand the play with a bit more clarity. The first exercise involved trigger-words. Everyone went through the play together and we had to listen for the words that triggered our speech in the lines spoken by the character directly before us. So for example, I might decide that Leonato's response is triggered by ‘lady’ in the Friar's speech:
Friar: Have comfort, lady.
Leonato: Dost thou look up? (IV.1)
Usually there's something pretty pertinent that spurs us to speak; the characters have reasons for speaking, as we do in real life. Once or twice I found my thinking ‘what on earth am I going to pick from that line?’ [laughs] Most of the time the trigger-word is clear and it gives you a good indication of the driving force behind a line.
We also did an exercise which involved coming in with your lines before the person before you had finished speaking. This means that everyone's speech overlaps and no one gets the chance to finish what they have to say, but the game is a good one because it makes you realise that in real-life people do often anticipate and don’t just stand silently waiting their turn. Some parts of the play sounded really good when we ran them this way, especially as we tried to speak at faster and faster speeds. Of course it won’t be right for every speech, but the idea that you can speak Shakespeare's lines in a ‘realistic’ way is very useful to bear in mind.
One of the things that I’m curious about is how much movement work we’ll do in rehearsals to explore ‘male’ physicality. We didn’t do much of that last year, although a specialist in commedia dell'Arte came in during rehearsals for The Taming of the Shrew and gave us some ideas along those lines. The question of whether a ‘male’ physicality as such even exists is an interesting one: there are certainly stereotypes, but I’m not sure how useful they are when you’re trying to get at the truth of a character. Glynn [MacDonald, Master of Movement] is very good at helping you to explore how you can express the different sides of yourself physically, but… I don’t know … I don’t think that complexity can be reduced to an opposition between male and female. We’ll see…
This year I feel there's a wonderful confidence about the company ‘We’re all women – so what?’ There's also a feeling that we don’t have to justify ourselves as a company any more than an all-male company; what matters is that we put on a fantastic play. Last year, the fact that we were all women did contribute something towards The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III – especially The Taming of the Shrew. I don’t think the additions were in terms of an explicit commentary on gender; instead it felt as though we offered a new angle that helped you watch the play with fresh eyes. As far as my approach was concerned, however, I never consciously thought to myself ‘I’m a woman playing a man’. I loved Lord Stanley's character, his political manoeuvring. I approached him as I would any other character regardless of their sex and the fact I was a woman really didn’t make any difference to me. I suppose part of that was making a conscious effort not to be overly feminine, but there's a difference between this and trying to be ‘masculine’, whatever that means.
Last year my greatest challenge in terms of a male role was the expression of Stanley's emotional state. In the banquet scene of Richard III, King Richard informed us that Hastings was going to be put to death. I decided Stanley was really quite upset at that point, but I had to think very hard about how I should show that as a man. How should it be different? The response inside me as a woman would not necessarily be different, but I think I would express it in a different way. This is a lot subtler than questions like ‘Oh, am I walking in a ‘male’ way?’ How much of your inner devastation do you allow the world to see? I can see a similar question recurring in Much Ado About Nothing: Leonato is clearly devastated on several levels when Hero is denounced in the wedding scene. He's devastated because she's his little girl, perhaps also because his position as Governor has been undermined by her loose behaviour, and because of the sheer weight of the betrayal. Yes… I think my response to that as a mother would show itself in a different way. It's only day three and no doubt things will become clearer as we start to work on the actual scenes.
Three times a week we’ll have a session with the Master of Voice, the Master of Movement or the Master of the Words; they help us to explore ways in which we can use the text to its best advantage – be that through our voices, bodies, or a better understanding of the form of the language. In rehearsal, what you’re doing is investigating situations and relationships. In a session with Giles [Master of the Words], we’ll look at how the lines themselves are structured. We don’t work on Much Ado About Nothing during these sessions because that gives you a sort of freedom to look at the structure of the words without getting sidetracked into thoughts about your character.
The way Much Ado About Nothing has been written really interests me. Over seventy percent of it is written in prose and I’ve been noticing that when Shakespeare does shift into verse, characters often seem to speak about themselves or their own feelings. Verse invites you to ask so many questions: which word did Shakespeare choose to place at the end of a line? Where does the emphasis fall? Why do some lines break in odd places? All these details can give you clues about what's going on with a character. It's very helpful stuff.
This year we’re asking to have a bit more ‘stage time’ before we go into tech week, so hopefully voice and movement work onstage will play a bigger part in the rehearsal process. It's a very strange and physical experience just to stand on that stage without the pressure of anyone judging you, and I think it's important we become familiar with the space in this way. I know I want to be absolutely sure of how much or how little voice I need to use to reach people whilst staying within a vocal range that's comfortable for me. I suppose this largely to do with security. When you finally get out there to do the performance, that understanding of the space gives you real confidence. Estimating how much voice you will need is hard to judge when the theatre is empty because the acoustics change when the space is packed with people. I’m lucky in that I’ve had a season's worth of experience playing to a full theatre here, but I’m not entirely happy with my voice work. I mean, in one sense, you’re never going to be entirely happy as you always want to push yourself further and get better and better… that's what I want to do this year.
I’ve started to have costume fittings; Luca [Costigliolo, Master of Clothing] has designed a wonderful new gown for Leonato and I’ll wear that over my trusty doublet and hose from last season. They were made for me and when I put them on it almost feels like home! I’ve also been looking at pictures of hats, and of course I’m going to have a beard because it gets referred to at some point in the play. I’m seen some pictures and I’m really looking forward to trying it on when it does materialise! I think 'original practices' solves an awful lot of problems that vex productions with modern settings. Particular references to items of clothing, for instance; it makes sense to refer to the style of someone's dress if they’re actually wearing those clothes. Also, original practices means scenery is kept to a minimum: you don’t have endless scene changes that interrupt the flow of the play. When you need to know where a scene is set, Shakespeare tells you in the language: Leonato is first to speak in act one scene one:
I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina. (I.1.1)
Then a messenger says:‘He was very near by this’ and straightaway everyone knows we’re in a place called Messina and someone is about to arrive. I don’t think you do need to know where exactly a scene is set all the time and excessive scenery just gets in the way.
Other things I love about original practices productions - the live music that's part of original practices and the fact that the musicians are onstage with you… what else? The fact that the auditorium isn’t darkened, because it means everyone can see each other and that special relationship between the actor and audience develops. Things like having to rely on daylight (or electric lights designed to seem like daylight for evening performances) might seem like restrictions at first. Occasionally you do think ‘Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have such-and-such… wouldn’t it help the scene?’ but usually you find a way around the restrictions and, because you’ve had to be more inventive, that different way often turns out to be more successful. The only downside is – and all of us will say this – that you can’t nip to the toilet during the play when you’ve got a costume with forty-four buttons! A few pages have been turned by the time you’ve finished undoing and doing that lot up again. It's pretty desperate!
Even though we’ve just started rehearsals, I’ve certainly got some questions about the back-history of the play. I want to try to understand the war that Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick have been fighting: I’ll need to do some research on that. I need to make some decisions about why Don Pedro's come to Messina – you know, you’d think if he's been involved in a long and terrible war, well, surely you’d want to go home afterwards? Well at least that's what I would want to do, so there's the question of what brings them to Messina? There's also Leonato's response to Hero's denunciation in the wedding scene and I’ll have to start thinking about just how nasty that is going to be… is it because he's upset or is he cruel? I don’t know what direction I’m going to take in that scene yet. We’ll have to see what happens over the next few weeks.
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.