This is James' third blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about Mercutio's death scene, the Queen Mab speech, and costume.
Transcript of Podcast
I’ve just been working on the death scene with Tim [Carroll, Master of Play]. That scene [III.1] is very difficult. Or rather, it's one of the points in the play where it's easy to become quite clichéd: the line ‘A plague on both your houses’ leads you into anger very easily. There is also that wittiness to the lines which could make Mercutio's death seem languid. I don’t feel that either of those options – extreme anger or extreme languor – are necessarily right. I’m trying to find the truth underneath these things. In a ‘Queen Mab’ sort of way, Mercutio's death scene can seem like another opportunity to show off and I really don’t want to do that. You have to find the reasons for saying those things from the character's perspective, but without letting anybody see the work. Tim and I actually talked about the idea that, given what we know about Mercutio, he would probably find the prospect of being cast in a tragic role intensely boring and slightly vulgar – he's probably thinking ‘Oh lord, everyone's going to mourn for me at my funeral. This will be terribly tiresome – I rather expected to die and be mourned in a blaze of glory rather than this sort of accidental hideous death.’
We haven’t fixed anything as such. Tim and I just talked through the scene and… we didn’t block it per se, but we tried to plot where we thought the changes of mood might be. The ‘Plague on both your houses’ speech and the jokes have to be put into a context. I think Mercutio does a lot of those ‘showing off’ things partially as an attempt to deflect attention from his situation. Perhaps that's why the speech is written in a way that almost invites showing off in an actor. Mercutio jokes to make light of the situation as he dies, not in order to make people laugh, but to stop them fussing in such unbearable way. Maybe he's trying to stop the inevitable happening by behaving in a way that produces a different reaction.
Recently I’ve gotten rather excited about running around instead of lying still during the death scene [III.1]. It seems a bit clichéd to just lie on the floor and die, allowing everybody to gather round while you deliver the lines in a kind of ‘I am Valmont at the end of Dangerous Liaisons’ way. I don’t think that fits with Mercutio, so I’ve been up on my feet and moving round. It feels more exciting and unpredictable. The ideal is probably somewhere between the two extremes, but I think frantic movement is a more realistic reaction to pain – if you’re in a lot of pain, you often find yourself doing a kind of dance. We have an attic conversion at home and there's a trapdoor that comes down from the ceiling with stairs that lead up to my wife's office. Unfortunately the trap comes down at exactly head-height. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve smacked my head on the thing and every time I do it, it drives me insane with fury. I just go berserk. At the same time I know that if I really make a row, my wife will come down and ask me where it hurts and so on … you get caught between a feeling of extreme fury and the urge to belittle it because otherwise people try to make you feel better. Sometimes you don’t want that, especially if you’ve just done something stupid, and the only way you can stop people coming near you is to keep moving. Mercutio's situation is a bit similar: he doesn’t want anyone offering healing hands. Running round is like saying ‘Will you all just give me some air?’ I think Mercutio is also concerned that if he falls down to the ground then he might not get back up.
I remember doing Titus Andronicus in my first year at drama school; another actor got carried away in the heat of the moment and actually stabbed me in the leg with his wooden dagger. I was so angry that I bellowed something like ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ The surprise of getting hurt when I didn’t expect it was extraordinary. I was so cross. I was thinking about that today: Mercutio's anger doesn’t have to be righteous moral indignation at the pettiness of the feud that's taking his life. It might be shock. When you hit your head, you scream. There's an odd feeling that if you make a lot of noise then you can get the pain out – that screaming will make it feel better. You realise it doesn’t help and you go quiet again. All this stuff, the difficulty in Mercutio's reaction, makes you realise how good Shakespeare was at observing life.
I haven’t been in rehearsals a great deal because Mercutio is dead during the second half of the play. I did have a long session with Giles [Block, Master of the Words] on the Queen Mab speech [I.4] though, which was fascinating. Giles is like a key-master with a range of different techniques to unlock the sense behind what you’re saying. He's especially good with the technical aspects of verse, so it was very, very useful to go through the bits that are proving difficult and he suggested different ways into them. For instance, he talked about the importance of the final words in the lines: he asked me to use the final word as a cue into the next line, so you get a sense of where that line comes from. In the middle of the Mab speech, Mercutio says:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier's neck;
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscades, Spanish blades, […]
‘Neck’ prompts ‘foreign throats’ – blades cut throats so ‘throats’ leads to ‘blades’. One of the most helpful things I realised during the session was that speaking verse is all about having enough courage to ignore the fact that you know exactly what's coming next, and find each thought as it was written. Shakespeare was improvising just like Mercutio is improvising and you find the thread as you troll along. That idea was very encouraging. It makes the lines sound more natural.
Giles also brought up something that hadn’t occurred to me before – almost everything that Mercutio uses in his description of Queen Mab can be found in an English country garden. It felt rather like the end of the film The Usual Suspects when you realise that Kevin Spacey's character has made everything up and he's taken his cue from the wall in front of him. When you look at Mercutio's speech, you find him talking about crickets, spider webs, gnats, grass-hoppers and ‘moonshine's watery beams… all these things are actually found in a garden and the scene is presumably taking place outside, at dusk, in an English country garden. All the things Mercutio uses to describe Mab are things that he could literally see in the context of that scene. In fact, Giles told me that he’d been in the theatre at dusk a couple of nights ago and the air was full of gnats. There probably spiders’ webs there too. It's amazing to have that connection: I’d been talking to Tim about the Mab speech as a very conscious improvisation but it's good to be able to take your cues from the things around you. As an actor, one always wants to be able to picture the images as they are evoked in the lines. For this speech, instead of seeing Queen Mab first and then imagining her traces as the smallest spider webs, I see the spider web which cues Mercutio's comparison with Queen Mab. Mercutio wants Romeo to see Queen Mab's carriage but he's inventing it, so I find it more helpful to imagine a setting where I can go ‘Oh look, a hazelnut’ … “Her chariot is an empty hazelnut”. Then 'Oh, there's a squirrel … “Made by the joiner squirrel and …” hmm, woodworm in that tree the squirrel's on… “the old grub.”
Some of the things like gnats and spider webs will actually be in there in the theatre. I think this way round is more interesting than my having to construct Mab's carriage and then draw comparisons – much more interesting – and, hopefully, it will somehow distract the audience. He talks about Queen Mab in great detail but behind that he remains quite mysterious. That's the thing about Mercutio: he keeps secrets from the audience which makes him an intriguing figure. What the secrets actually are is almost irrelevant; what's important is that he's withholding something. I think that's why people are fond of portrayals of Mercutio as a homosexual, but I think it's a mistake to make the hidden thing terribly obvious. The hidden thing should be entirely hidden. The audience should always want to know what is going on, and they shouldn’t always be able to. You offer and withhold something at the same time. Like Mercutio says, ‘A visor for a visor…’ [I.4]
I haven’t seen how my costume is coming along but I’m never particularly anxious about that. I don’t find it enormously helpful to have early on nor do I get thrown when it turns up and you have to move in a different way. Those clothes very much define the way you move. You have to hold yourself straight. One good thing that I discovered this week is that I’ll be allowed to shave! Mercutio was going to have facial hair but I look like Private Walker [from Dad's Army] with a moustache, which I think is wrong for the character! [laughs] For a while, I was to have a moustache but Tom and Stef [Romeo and Benvolio] were allowed to shave – I thought that was good because it suggested Mercutio was slightly older than the others. Perhaps it also made me look like I’m more involved in this world, which might add something when Mercutio dies and they carry on. There's value in the characters looking different, but I don’t want Mercutio to seem vain… of course, he is vain to some extent but not in the same way that someone like Tybalt is vain. There's a kind of vigorous unpretension about Mercutio. He may be vain in the sense that he dresses well and he's quite flashy, but he's not pretentious. Facial hair would be difficult on Mercutio because I think that nowadays we live in a society where most people are clean-shaven and it's a conscious decision to grow facial hair. One imagines the reverse would be true in the Elizabethan era; you just let the stuff grow unless you decided otherwise– if you were trying to look young and boyish. I suppose by that rationale Mercutio should have facial hair, a big full beard that's kept in trim without being over the top. But nowadays, for a modern audience, that doesn’t necessarily work… the fact is my facial hair looked preposterous and I’m really pleased to be shaving it all off!
We’ll start to run the play soon. I’m very nervous about this at the moment, though I don’t know why… there always comes a point in the rehearsal process when you’ve probed every scene and, like Pandora's box, everything has spilt out. Now I’ve got all these different ideas about every single scene and I want to try and pull them together so they can actually feed into the play. Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] works in a way that actively discourages actors from making those decisions too early in the rehearsal process: he constantly gives you new exercises to do instead of letting you get things bedded in. The exercises help you explore new possibilities for a character, but you can feel a bit discombobulated, a bit nervous that things are not settled. I’m not a really a nervy actor. Obviously, going on stage in front of a lot of people makes you nervous because you want to get it right – it's like any situation where you’ve done a lot of preparation and you want to live up to that preparation - but I don’t get nervous before every show. I know some actors who do and it never leaves them, but I’m a very cold fish!