This is James' fourth blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about technical rehearsals, the audience and previews, amongst other things.
Transcript of Podcast
I got very lost at the end of rehearsals. I was getting very unhappy and very confused. That's something that hasn’t necessarily sorted itself out and I don’t know why. I think that when one works on individual scenes, one thinks about the character as a whole, but as you start running things together, you suddenly realise that the sum of the parts that you’ve been working on doesn’t necessarily add up to the performance that you expect it will. In one sense, that's a good thing because the people's personalities are not always unified: we all exhibit enormously different sides of ourselves in different circumstances. One doesn’t necessarily need to be overly worried about the level of consistency in one's characterisation. Having said that, I realised I was getting very aggressive and, more often than not, Mercutio was slightly violent. I don’t quite know why. You don’t necessarily want to lose the specific things you’re doing that may give such an aggressive impression, but I did want him to be a little more kind. You get on the stage and with the Globe audience it's easy to get swept up and away: I feel rather out of control.
Getting used to clothing
The principal thing is to get used to the costume as soon as possible, because it is so restrictive in terms of how you move. That's quite handy in a way; it informs your movement a lot and I found it made me more aristocratic all of a sudden. You’re standing in such an erect fashion that it feels like you’re back at school – I found myself talking in the way I might have done when I was at public school. I found myself becoming much more refined, and obviously because Mercutio is related to the Prince, that's not necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, you want to appeal to the audience too so I’ve been consciously pulling that back out again.
The costume completely alters your physicality and sword fighting is nigh-on impossible. The clothing has also influenced me in other ways that I wasn’t really expecting. I think I’ve got slightly more camp as a result of the costume because inevitably you have to stand as an Elizabethan gentleman would have done, with his hand on his hip. I have a very large pouffe or whatever you call it around the hips, which means I actually have to put my hand on the bottom of my ribs and that becomes very fey. You can’t put your other hand down, so it remains up. In the Elizabethan period, there's no reason why this would look effeminate or camp, but I think it does look that way to a contemporary eye. Even though you’ve got your cards out and you’re going to fight with swords, you’re standing in a terribly refined and delicate way. In your own contemporary mind you feel this is a bit fey and you worry that a contemporary eye will see it in the same way. That's something I have to sort of push to the back of my mind.
I think my costume is very impressive. I quite like the fact that the audience don’t see my hat or cape in the first scene [I.4]. I’m very conscious that I must cut a more impressive figure in the scene when I do come on fully regaled [II.4] and the hat and cape help with that, especially after the second scene [II.1] when I’m semi-drunk and out of control, slightly crazed. There's a sudden shift to a much more self-contained and impressive character.
Having worked here before, I was conscious of the fact that things change a little bit in the transition from the rehearsal room to the stage, because you realise that you have more space than you think you did. The shape of the stage is marked out on the rehearsal room floor, but the ceiling in IJ3 [rehearsal room] is lower and that restricts you. It makes you smaller in a peculiar way, so when you get onto the stage you suddenly feel able to move about more freely although you have exactly the same amount of floor space. Changes like that are inevitable and not necessarily that interesting. It's nice to have people in during the technical process – there are tours coming through the theatre during the tech. You can start to get an idea about how audiences might react and how you will talk to them, but really it's nothing like having seven hundred Groundlings standing in the yard and people all around.
I think the tech is almost more meaningless for an actor here than it is in any other theatre, because in other modern theatres, the tech is when you start to realise where the lighting is and how the thing is going to look in terms of costume and design. At the Globe, there are no special lighting effects and there is no elaborate set that you need to work around. It's the audience that are really going to change everything and you don’t get them until the first night. I spent my entire time trying to imagine people being there but obviously you have no conception of how they will actually behave.
We’re three performances in now and people react differently every time, but I’m starting to notice trends that you never could have predicted: the peculiar points that they find amusing or the peculiar points at which they go quiet. Earlier we were talking about the fact that ‘There's a French salutation to your French slop’ [II.4.43-4] has consistently got a laugh and I don’t know why. There's no way I could have predicted that would be one of the big lines. I don’t think the majority of people know that ‘slop’ was an Elizabethan word for loose trousers, though you get the general sense through gesture and tone. Maybe the sound of the word ‘slop’ is also funny. You couldn’t possibly expect to land all of Mercutio's jokes because of the different frame of reference; a lot of the puns aren’t readily accessible today, so a lot of his jokes or witticisms just go flat, as one expects them to. It's curious which ones do land. For instance, when Mercutio says
Why, thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard than thou hast. Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes.
The audience seems to like ‘Hazel eyes’ but not the joke in the line before. I don’t think it's the way I’m saying them, although of course there's an element of timing. Personally I find beards quite amusing and so I thought the ‘beards’ line was more interesting than the bad pun on ‘hazel eyes’! We don’t tend to laugh at puns anymore. Normally we groan, so I found the reaction to that line quite surprising. At the moment I’m just playing against that laugh as hard as I can!
The fighting is intensely difficult in the costume, but in a good way I think. Initially I was rather worried and annoyed by the costumes because you just couldn’t move. Since then a) the costumes have loosened up, b) we’ve got used to them and c) you realise that you’re as inhibited as your opponent which makes it slightly better. I was most irritated when I was in full costume but Simon [Muller, Tybalt] was not; he was thus able to move more easily and he was going faster than me. I couldn’t move and I just thought ‘I can’t do this,’ but the moment he was trussed up in the same way, we realised we were constricted at the same points. The discrepancies in speed and so on evaporated because we were both fighting the costumes to the same degree. The fight has slowed down a lot and in that sense it's less athletic, but in another sense it's actually more athletic: your movements have to be much clearer and more precise to clarify the intention and the points of attack. You have to work harder to get the sword there.
The audiences have been responding well to the fight scenes. I’m always funny about stage-fighting because I don’t think I’ve seen a play yet in which I’ve been impressed with the sword-fighting. Maybe that is the result of my being an appalling audience-member and knowing a bit about sword-fighting, but generally I watch the fights and I never believe them. So the minute I have to do a stage-fight, I think ‘They [the audience] aren’t going to be impressed by this.’ But they seem to be, so that's good.
The first night (Preview)
I was so relaxed. I was completely, completely relaxed. I’m not a particularly nervy actor, but normally on a first night I’ve got a slight frisson of something; I can feel the adrenaline kicking around. This time I was just ice-cold and I think Stef [Rhys Meredith, Benvolio] was too… he's an actor I’ve worked with before and I think he does usually get nervous, but he just seemed completely calm. Tom [Burke, Romeo] seemed remarkably calm for somebody who was going on for his first night as Romeo. Some people might have been nervous but I didn’t notice it. Everything felt very relaxed and healthy in that respect. And walking out as Mercutio: I barely thought about it, I just went… the only thing that surprised me about the performance was how relaxed I was, and I felt slightly confused by that. You come offstage and the scene's just happened and you go ‘Oh well, that happened.’ It's very difficult to judge what you’re doing – you lack that keen, critical appreciation if you’re quite relaxed, I think, so after the first night I didn’t really know how things had gone. I noted that the audience didn’t laugh as much as I might have hoped, but they laughed as much as I expected – especially given that I’m not doing a kind of ‘comedic performance’ as such. Also, I was very conscious that I didn’t have an angle on what the audience were thinking. Normally I know – or delude myself that I know – what they’re thinking and what they’re attitude is towards my character, but this time I couldn’t put my finger on it. In a way that's good because I don’t want to be playing a particular thing that would prompt a generalised reaction: I don’t want to attempt to make people like me instead of trusting to the fact that Mercutio is a relatively likeable character. I want him to be somebody who is quite confusing and probably quite dislikeable at certain points, but he's missed when he's dead because he was interesting.
My wife came to see the play but, as she says, she's sort of nervous coming and seeing it for the first time: she's checking up on all the things I’ve talked about and being slightly nervous for me, hoping that I don’t screw up, so she doesn’t really see the show for the first time. I think she enjoyed it, though she didn’t like my doing Queen Mab with the mask on [ready for Capulet's feast in the next scene, I.5]. Most of the audience at a first preview are hoping that the thing doesn’t fall apart, but most of the actors are just trying to get through it, so you’re not really seeing a performance in any sense. She’ll come and watch it when the show's bedded in and then she can actually concentrate on the play.
I think the show has moved on a long way since then, but I don’t think I have particularly. I’m still scrabbling about a bit and trying to decide what I’m doing. I play about with things quite a lot; I like to find things in the moment. There were a couple of small things I found in the last two shows which I might think about using again. For instance, in the fight scene [III.1], Tybalt draws a very flashy three-pronged dagger and I laugh at it then mimic it with my hand. That worked quite well – don’t know where it came from. I’m still not happy with everything overall. I saw Johnny Depp's latest film yesterday, Secret Window. The film is boring but he's quite interesting because there's always something that he doesn’t show you. There's an unfathomable quality about him, a coolness. Part of me thinks I haven’t got that yet with Mercutio. One could be tempted to play lots of jokes and laugh a lot with this part, but in a sense that makes you sort of irritating and bumptious. As Tim [Carroll, master of Play] said at one point, Mercutio probably doesn’t know that he's being clever and witty – he just happens to be clever and witty. I’ve been laughing at the three-pronged knife and it feels rather false. The audience is laughing for a start, so I don’t need to. I’ll stop doing that from now on.
There are other bits where I’m laughing or making lots of noise and I’m thinking maybe that's unnecessary; it's better to find other points where I can be surprising or show his irreverence. It seems to work well when I pull cups out of my trousers [at the end of the party scene, I.5: Mercutio has managed to steal goblets from Capulet's house during the party by hiding them in his hose: the audience don’t see him steal them, but as the masquers leave, he takes them out of his trousers]. I think it would work better if I hadn’t been so noisy during the party scene. The more you draw attention to yourself ‘Oo-hoo look, exciting character’, the harder it is to actually surprise people, and I think Mercutio should be constantly surprising rather than constantly amusing. The things I’m playing around with are mostly things like that. Not to go ‘Ooh yes, that got a good laugh: must keep that’ but to think carefully about each of those choices. For example, I slid off the side of the stage yesterday and that went down well (as it often does when an actor does something peculiar and looks like they’ve almost fallen apart whilst doing it). I’d like to keep that in, though I’m not sure if I will: it seems a bit too exuberant… the audience like it, but I don’t know how exuberant I want Mercutio to be. The challenge now is balancing the exuberance out and thinking ‘Have I done that anywhere else?’ If I have done it somewhere else, don’t do it again or else it will become predictable. Mercutio can’t become predictable because then he becomes boring. Halfway through this week I’ll mentally go through the performance and start cutting things out. That should create some space for new ideas to grow.