This is James' second blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about The Tudor Group, stage fighting and what's coming up next, amongst other things.
Transcript of Podcast
Taking the Character Home
Some actors don’t leave their characters at work. A friend of mine heard David Suchet talk at LAMDA: he was playing Salieri in Amadeus at the time and he said that the character crept up on him during the day - as though Salieri possessed him like a monster from a horror-movie. I’m not having problems leaving Mercutio at work. I do find that I become rather introverted. Friends will be talking to me and suddenly I’ll have a thought about the part and become absorbed in that without realising that I’ve completely disengaged with the conversation. That's happening a lot at the moment but the character never takes me over as a possessive presence. Sometimes I can be onstage and it's still just me … I don’t feel as like I become Mercutio when I’m onstage yet. That might come later on.
There was a long discussion in rehearsal about who Mercutio actually is: we decided that the size of the character is completely disproportionate to the number of lines he actually speaks. You can see how, if you were that way inclined, he could become an overwhelming presence because that's the influence he sometimes has over the rest of the play. I’ve heard a few people will say Mercutio is their favourite part and that when he dies the whole thing tails off, which is a myth, but actually that impression of Mercutio as a large presence is generated without many lines. The same idea applies for Tybalt: someone mentioned in rehearsals the other day that people will always remember who played Tybalt, and they’ll think of Tybalt as quite a large character. When you actually look at the part, it's about thirty-five lines. There are two sword fights and I think that energy does heighten the stage presence of the characters involved, but ultimately Tybalt and Mercutio take on a significance way beyond the size of the parts. Paris always sticks in my mind too. That's something about this play that I’ve been noticing in the last week: so many of the characters in Romeo and Juliet really do seem to live. Maybe that's because so many of the issues that they’re concerned with have a very modern relevance.
In a sense, Mercutio is a very modern character and I think that's why he lives for audiences. He's accessible to us: he's openly bawdy and sexual in a way that we’re used to now but we don’t somehow expect that from earlier ages… there's no Victorian prudishness here. He does seem like a breath of fresh air. He's also very funny, and humour can make people seem larger than life. There's a mystery about him, too – he doesn’t tell us anything about himself and other characters say very little about him: that mystery is like a vacuum that things rush into, so an audience might do a lot of imaginative work filling in the gaps and sort of expand the part. The only person who really talks about him is Benvolio, but that's only after the fight sequences when Benvolio is trying to convince the Prince that Mercutio and Romeo are blameless: Mercutio gets described as ‘brave’, ‘bold’, ‘stout’ and ‘gallant’ [III.1] but that's about it.
Actually there's another line that I’ve been thinking about. When Mercutio has rattled the Nurse, Romeo pacifies her:
Out upon you! What a man are you!
One, gentlewoman, that God hath made for himself to mar.
I think that's a characteristic we all recognise. There are innumerable examples of extraordinarily talented people who had everything to live for, but manage to screw things up single-handedly. Peter Cook and George Best stick in my mind. Mercutio has that about him: there's the feeling that he wasted huge potential. I've known people whom I thought would do extraordinary things but it hasn't worked out. There are similarities with Mercutio – he has a tendency to rant and get terribly excited. It's very difficult to follow his train of thought because his mind moves far too quickly. A lot of the time Mercutio is talking to himself, working things through audibly but not necessarily communicating with characters onstage … the Queen Mab speech feels very much like that [I.4] – Romeo has stop him after about forty lines:
Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace!
Thou talkest of nothing.
I’m not certain it's correct to say that Mercutio runs away with Shakespeare or that Shakespeare has allowed him to take up a disproportionate amount of space in the play. He serves a definite function; his views on love and relationships provide a counter-argument to Romeo and the Nurse. I see him as a foil that emphasises other characters’ views through contrast. Having said that, this definite sense of a function is balanced against the idea of characters ‘living’ in Romeo and Juliet more than any of Shakespeare's other plays … the character has a function and a life. It's a strange combination, especially when you’re playing a part that is small in terms of lines but expands because the part seems to take on a life of its own.
The Tudor Group came in earlier this week; they spend so many months in the year living as Tudors so it was useful to hear them talk about what that was like and how things might have been in the Elizabethan period. I found the stuff about etiquette very interesting. There were several different ways you could bow, and each style has its own associations. The Italian bow is terribly overdone – very elaborate and precise. We decided this is the sort of thing Tybalt might do. The French bow is simpler and the English bow is very simple. We decided that Mercutio might use a very simple English bow, because it seemed to fit with his manner as well as the idea that he should contrast with Tybalt. So that was a nice little find. I’m sure there’ll be other things that come to the surface again as we go along.
We’ve been doing a lot of work on the fight scenes recently. Mercutio has a great fight with Tybalt and it's very precisely choreographed. Time pressures mean that you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to develop ideas about how your character would fight … ideally I’d love to approach the fight from an actor's point of view, which would involve thinking about Mercutio's individual style as well as the sequence of moves that you learn.
I’m finding the original practices aspect of the fight a bit frustrating. The Elizabethans used heavy swords so that's what we’re using too, but I’m not sure whether there's evidence for actors using these heavy swords onstage. Elizabethan actors would have been familiar with swordsmanship as a necessary skill, and maybe that meant they handled a variety of weapons. I don’t know … I’m just feeling quite clumsy and slow in my movements right now. I haven’t done this in a while. The whole sequence of the fight is broken down into moves and we go through these moves in slow motion, then speed them up and put it together. I suppose we’ll get faster with practice. It's tempting to try and go too fast too soon.
The temptation to speed things up won’t be curtailed because we’re using heavy swords. I remember at drama school we had an event called ‘Prize Fights’ where we had to present fight scenes. My partner and I decided to do several very, very short scenes spread throughout the evening. We used all sorts of weapons. When we rehearsed, we went straight from one fight to the next, and fighting with the broadsword always felt so slow that I found myself pushing up the speed… it almost becomes more dangerous because with fast weapons you’re very aware of the speed and you slow things down to keep it safe. My vague worry is that with these weapons, you can feel a bit overwhelmed by the pace. I’m sure it will be fine.
Fighting in character
I’m entirely obsessed with the acting of the fight scenes – the intention behind the move rather than the move itself. That's one way out of the pace issues: provided the audience can read what's going on, the pace can be quite slow. If you see where something's going and why it's dangerous, then that adds an exciting tension to the move. I’ve watched very slick fights that moved incredibly fast, and while that's impressive, after a while it isn’t very interesting to watch because it didn’t look real. The choreography rather than a sense of dramatic excitement was what made you think ‘Wow…’ You never felt the character was in danger. Ultimately, it is the intention that's exciting – you have to believe that people can kill each other. I was thinking yesterday: there's such a temptation to cheat with sword fights. As an actor, you learn the fight and then try to convince everybody how good you are with a sword. Whereas in a real fight, where death is a real possibility, no matter who you are or how skilled a swordsman, you are scared when you stand and fight. Given the choice, you wouldn’t do it and while you’re doing it, you want it to stop. Although Mercutio starts the fight with Tybalt, he doesn’t want to be doing it. To see that people are quite unhappy about having a sword-fight helps you believe that this is very scary and that people will get hurt; that tension makes it very exciting, dramatically. I think this is more exciting than people rushing at each other and executing fantastic moves without any sense of the motivation behind those movements. It's like when heavy-weight boxers go into the ring and you know they’ve been trained for the fight, but their spontaneity and tension lends it a special quality.
Mercutio and Romeo
The nature of the schedule has meant it's been a relatively quiet week for me. I had an incredibly useful individual session with Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] earlier in the week and that made me realise that I’d approached the part in quite a closed way. For instance, I hadn’t wanted to pay any attention to the argument that Mercutio is homosexual because I thought that interpretation was unhelpful. Now I think that important things got thrown out with that dismissal. Mercutio may well be in some sort of love with Romeo. It seems that there is an awful lot of use in that – what I’ve find really impressive is the scale and intensity of his love. If people choose to read it as homosexual, that's fine. I don’t know whether it is or not; even the indecision is interesting because in the early modern period there wasn’t the same sexual demarcation that there is today. Mercutio can be very confused and maybe slightly worried by the scale of his infatuation. Read in that way, all these references to women's genitals at II.1 and so on … well, at certain points they feel like a knee-jerk reaction, as though he's reminding himself of where his sexual interest lies. He sort of switches back and forth – after talking about Romeo, these references often become prevalent in his speech. At the moment, I think it might be quite useful to play Mercutio as someone who is not entirely certain about his sexual orientation. Uncertainty is more interesting, especially with Mercutio. Most of the time he seems so certain and confidant, as though he's somebody who knows what's going on. He's got a very knowing wit but I think that changes in relation to Romeo. There's actually an enormous amount of internal dialogue going on. He's someone who is very confused inside, although that's not what he presents to the rest of the world.
Problems and resources
Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] said the other day that a character's problems are your resources. A very simple thing which I’ve found helpful is just to go away and look at the lines, noticing whether there are any contradictions for the character in those lines: what could I be objecting to at this point? You suddenly find so many different ways of saying lines which might have got stuck down as you learn them with a certain intonation … I just realised odd words could be very different. For example, in Mercutio's first line:
Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.
What does that ‘must’ mean? Why must we have Romeo dance? It's very easy to say that line as though it's an announcement ‘here I am and this is my first line and I’m impressing upon you that I can give commands or be amusing … ’ but really it's much more interesting if you think about why Mercutio might be saying that. Shakespeare quite often gets a scene moving by giving someone a line that protests against something ‘No, actually’ – the contradiction raises questions which make you go ‘Well, okay but why are you saying that?’ I can see that Mercutio might be trying to enliven Romeo if Romeo is being dull, but the manner in which he chooses to do this is fascinating.
I’m not sure what the next stage will be. I suppose there's the temptation when you’re playing someone who is very quick-witted to exhibit that in their movements and to be jumpy and swift all the time. I think I’m going to try and be more relaxed about things. That would be good to bear in mind more generally. It's always funny when you first come into the rehearsal room and you’ve learnt your lines and you want to be impressive, or rather you want to demonstrate your capability. I was reading about Gareth Thomas actually, who got into trouble with the Welsh rugby team a few years ago because he was so keen to appear capable that he trained on his own. He got so caught up in it that he often turned up late for squad training sessions and eventually he got dropped because they thought he wasn’t committed whereas that couldn’t be further from the truth! There certainly comes a point when relaxing would be the most useful thing.