In her fifth blog post Penny discusses working on the gulling of Benedick [II.3], how improvisation informs particular scenes, and the difficulties involved in making obscure lines clear.
Transcript of Podcast
This week we went through the entire play, beginning to end, and we had lots of jig rehearsals and some singing rehearsals too. I love those, though I do find the dancing a little more challenging than I used to. In my youth I starred in a musical, but I find steps much more difficult to learn nowadays. I plod along with my dancing, doing my best. It's starting to come together. I’m starting to get sections of it right; once if I get enough sections right, then I’ve just got to put them all together like a jigsaw, so I’m hopeful that will work out. The singing is lovely, though I’m not quite sure if the audience will notice that Leonato turns into a soprano! My speaking voice is relatively low when I’m playing a man, so I don’t know how that change will go down. I suppose they will hear the song and the tune rather than who is singing which individual part.
We have started going through the scenes more quickly. We’re taking it for granted that we know what we’re saying at any given point, what each of our characters wants from other people, what our intentions and needs are, and basically what's happening in each scene. Now it's a case of working out how we go about accomplishing those things as actors and characters. We have to start making choices. In a way this is the bit of rehearsal that I like best, when you get down to the nitty-gritty and try to make things work. That also means trying to remember your lines! I feel I’ve learned my lines quite thoroughly and I've certainly spent a lot of time on them, but learning them at home is very different from standing up onstage, where you have to think about other things like your position and the way you interact with other characters, as well as which words come next. I find that the most useful thing to do as you are learning lines is listen to what other characters say to you. It's very easy for your mind to go completely blank and to freeze when you’re confronted with actors saying their lines, but that is a sure way not to know what you’re going to say next. I just try to be brave enough to really concentrate and be right in the scene i.e. listen and react to other characters speaking, instead of just going through a set words and motions. You hope that what you have to say will come out, and you won't be stranded there thinking ‘What's my next line?’ or ‘Oh yes, I’ve got to say this next, I’ve got to say this next’ to the extent that you block everything else out until you hear something that you recognize! It's much better to concentrate on what the other characters say to prompt your lines.
This morning we’ve working on the scene that is proving the most difficult scene for me at the moment: it's the gulling of Benedick [II.3]. Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro know that Benedick is hiding, and they set about pretending that Beatrice is completely in love with him. That's a tricky scene because you have to work out what they’ve planned in advance, and until you work out what they have planned, none of it makes very much sense. You could say the lines and get through the scene, but the jokes don’t work unless you know what's going on. We decided this morning – of course, it may change – that perhaps Beatrice is most likely to talk to Hero about her feelings for Benedick (of course, this is not taken from the actual text). Hero might relate some of that to her father. We decided that would be most believable for Benedick, at least. The story for the gulling scene is that Hero has witnessed Beatrice writing love letters to Benedick and generally being in a terrible state about him – Hero tells Leonato and Claudio and we recount it all to Don Pedro. It becomes a bit of a show-off battle between Claudio and Leonato as to who knows most and who is allowed to do most acting in this little charade. There's a little bit of one-upmanship going on between Claudio and Leonato, so we hope that's going to be very funny.
Leonato's basically not too good at this game and he can’t remember what he's supposed to do next. For instance, when Don Pedro suggests Beatrice might be pretending, Leonato gets a bit carried away with his denial and that lands him in difficulty:
May be she doth but counterfeit.
Faith, like enough.
O God! Counterfeit? There was never counterfeit passion came so near the life of passion as she discovers it.
Why, what effects of passion shows she?
Claudio (to Don Pedro and Leonato)
Bait the hook well; this fish will bite.
What effects, my lord? She will sit you – you heard my daughter tell you how.
She did, indeed. [II.3.105-114]
Leonato can’t remember the effects of love that Beatrice has supposedly shown. He's absolutely put on the spot and can’t think of anything to say. We’ve interpreted that bit as though he's dried; he's forgotten his lines and Claudio has to come to the rescue. Each of us tried to find a little thread through, a story that we’re telling, and of course Benedick hears it all and there are little interjections from him that should be funny for the audience. We’ve got a bit of trellis work at the back on either side of the central doors – it's like a hedge, and you can just see Benedick's feet at the bottom. Occasionally he pulls the leaves apart so he can speak to the audience. When he first hears that Beatrice loves him, he makes an exclamation that he turns into a dog barking, but, of course, Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro can hardly keep their faces straight. Another thing we tried out this morning was a line up along the trellis with our feet in a row – so four pairs of feet but only three bodies – and we’ll look at his feet at the end. We hope that that's going to be hysterical!
We spent a long time on that scene, starting at ten in the morning and finishing at one in the afternoon, because it is a very difficult scene. Balthazar came in towards the end of that rehearsal, and we did the beginning of the scene again with song ‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more’. So we did the ending of the scene first, then we did the bit where Balthazar came in, and then we put it all together. Balthazar has a great bit of word-play with Don Pedro: they play with the different meanings of ‘note.’ Obviously, that's an important word for the rest of the play too: is it Much Ado About Nothing or Much Ado About Noting? Apparently in Elizabethan pronunciation, the two words might have sounded more similar than they do today.
Household scene and improvisation
Yesterday evening we did the scene after supper that starts with Leonato asking ‘Where was Count John at supper?’ [II.1.1]. I think of this as a household scene, a family scene for us. It's lovely – there are a couple more scenes a bit like it, where you just have the household: the girls (Beatrice, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula), dad (me) and uncle (Antonio). I feel we can be ourselves at these points, without the guests, without having to put on a polite show for anybody else. I think something similar happens in the first half of the first scene, though the Messenger comes into that scene with me. Anyway, Act two, scene one, is a domestic scene, where I’m free to say ‘Count John is a bit rude – he never even turned up for supper.’ So we worked through that and did an improvisation to discover how Hero feels about the possibility of being married off to the Prince, because we’ve got just a little inkling that she might have a fancy for Claudio. We set the improvisation between Act one and Act two: Antonio has told me what his man overheard in the orchard (that the Prince intends to marry Hero) and although I’m sceptical, it's a possibility that has to be provided for so I go and have a talk with Hero. The improvisation threw up lots of very good things. For instance, I found that I couldn’t ask Hero what she wanted, because it's unthinkable that the Prince should be refused. That really just is not an option for Leonato. I’ve brought her up to be obedient and to know her duty and all those sorts of things, but on the other hand, we’ve got a very good relationship, and we’re very close. She hasn’t got a mother, remember. The only way that I could avoid saying ‘You will do what I tell you to do’ is not to ask her what she actually wants. However, even if I did ask her, I think she would say ‘I want what you want for me.’ That's the type of close relationship they have.
Since the scene before our household scene is Don John, Borachio, and Conrade in the garden [I.3], Tamara [Harvey, Master of Play] had an idea that we start our scene [II.1] by coming out into the garden and Don John walking rather rudely past us. That's good because it prompts us to be unkind about him – ‘Was not Don John here at supper?’ Beatrice then says ‘He is a tart gentleman’ and we have a little banter about that. In that scene, my great objective is to get Beatrice married off. There's just this terrible anxiety that she mocks anyone who wants to come and marry her, and they won’t have anything to do with her. We have a long banter about that idea. There are lots of jokes in amongst that. We’ve also done a bit of work on when the revellers come in. When we rehearsed it, I realised that I didn’t have anything to say. All the couples have a little banter together in the dance, but I don’t. I just got the feeling that to begin with I would want to know very much what the Prince and Hero were talking about, because that's the big question for me: is he really going to ask her to marry him? So I listen to their talk. Then the next bit of talk is Margaret and Balthazar, so my attention's taken up, and I found myself wandering around the dancers. It reminded me a bit of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol – when he's being shown the future or the past. I think I probably will continue to do that, and on the Globe stage I suspect that will help with the focus because we don’t have any lighting. People don’t walk into a good light that draws the audience's attention to them, so that might be quite useful for me to do. At the moment, that's how we’re going.
Dealing with obscure lines
That's tricky. The last thing you should ever do is explain the line. That's a real pitfall, I think, because if you try to explain a joke (it's usually jokes in a witty play like Much Ado About Nothing), then it just stops being funny and you’re lost, done for. I think once you’ve understood a line or a joke, you just play it really. If there's anything esoteric, Giles [Block, Master of the Word] and Tamara are the people I go to, and there's things like CT Onions’ glossary, which is this wonderful little book that tells you what a lot of the words mean. The Shakespeare Concordance is also great: if you don’t know what a particular word means, then you look it up in your concordance, which will give you every instance in which that word has appeared in Shakespeare's plays. That often gives you clues about the sense of a particular word – the word ‘passing’ for example. There were several possible alternatives for the line ‘Cousin, you apprehend passing shrewdly,’ [II.1.72] but, having gone to the concordance, I feel that he mostly uses it with the meaning ‘very’. So that's helpful to clarify the sense of difficult lines too.
I’ve got a very beautiful, very long (floor-length) gown with very short sleeves, tiny little sleeves. It's black and the fabric is very beautiful, a reproduction of an original pattern that has been woven. It's got a little stand-up collar and lots of buttons down the front. My doublet and hose from last season (which I’m wearing again this season) has forty-five buttons to undo if I want to go to the toilet! This year, I’ve probably got another thirty buttons on top of that, so whether I’ll ever get there, I really don’t know! I certainly won’t get there any time but the interval. You have to remember that going to the toilet is not simply a case of taking one's trousers down: you’ve got to take everything off. But the gown is great – I love it. I’m all in black which I didn’t expect – I thought I was going to have a wine-coloured gown. I’ve got to go into mourning, though, and the gowns are very expensive and take a long time to make. You can’t just suddenly whip up another gown for an original practice production. As I’m going to have a black gown anyway, the mourning won’t be a problem. Luca [Costigliolo, Master of Clothing] has said that I might have worn some rosemary about me for a funeral. I think they used rosemary on all sorts of occasions, because in last year's The Taming of the Shrew, I seem to remember that we had some on the wedding table. The symbolism is interesting.
I wanted something to make me look a bit more festive for the wedding, because when I go to Dogberry I say ‘…you see it is a busy time with me.’ [III.5.94] Now, I could say ‘You see it is a busy time with me,’ without referring specifically to my clothes but because I’m so proud and happy that my daughter's getting married on this wonderful day, I wanted to give that line a more specific reference: ‘You see [referring to appearance], it is a busy time for me – my daughter's getting married!’ I think I’m going to wear my Chain of Office for that, which will hopefully make me look a more festive for the wedding.
I’m getting my eyebrows, as well – I had a fitting! I’ve got the same beard and moustache that I had as Vincentio [The Taming of the Shrew] last year, which I love, and I’ve got a very delicate pair of eyebrows, which I think will just do the trick without drawing the eye. They’ll just finish the picture without being obvious. They’re not comic eyebrows; they’re just very naturalistic, certainly those of an old gentleman.
I’m anticipating that we go on working through the scenes and pinning down more firmly where we’re going to be on the stage. That's not so much blocking as finding out which positions work best for us. I anticipate learning the jig and getting it right. Also I’m looking forward to a bit more singing. The main thing though is to just keep ploughing on with the play, and then of course at some point we’ll do a run-through. That can be very, very scary and sometimes it can be a bit depressing because the things you achieved in rehearsals sometimes get lost. The first run-through points out the bits that aren’t working, I think. There are some scenes where I’m still having trouble remembering the lines – I know the lines, it's just a matter of remembering precisely where they come. In terms of specific scenes, the gulling scene is quite hard, but that’ll come. We’ll just go on making it trip off our tongues because until those words come automatically, you spend your time thinking about the words rather than the thoughts behind the lines. The thoughts are the important things that you have to have at your disposal. I’m sure we’ll be great!
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.