This is the first bulletin from Mercutio (Phil Cumbus). It covers Phil's experiences of Shakespeare and work leading up to the first day of rehearsals on this production.
Transcript of Podcast
Previous experience of Shakespeare
I was very lucky in that I grew up in the Cotswolds, in a little village in Oxfordshire, and so from an early age, my mum (who is a great English and drama teacher) would drive me to Stratford to see Shakespeare's plays at the RSC. Usually on the way she'd give me a précis of the story so that I'd have a clue of what was going on … and usually I'd watch them and still be pretty clueless! But I saw some great performances there and had a real taste of the excitement of seeing how performance could affect an audience.
I went to a stage school, so it was quite limited in terms of an academic or theoretical study, which is what most people tend to have at school. But we did do quite a lot of practical work on the plays. And then I went to RADA, which describes itself as a classical training, and there I worked on various speeches as well as playing Richard III in an in-house project at the end of my first year, which was great fun. So even though my experience of Shakespeare was quite varied, I suppose my background has always been one of performing it and accessing it from an acting point of view, rather than a textual study.
Saying that, I only really experienced performing Shakespeare to a public audience when I came to the Globe in 2007 and played Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. The brilliant support and inspiration from this building and the people in it, coupled with performing it in that arena, was something I'll never forget and taught me in an instant, I think, more than I could have possibly learnt from or about Shakespeare from years of study.
Preparation before rehearsals
I always do a similar process before rehearsals with whatever I work on, Shakespeare or not. I like to arrive having some ideas of the character, knowing a lot about the background to the play and enough of the social history to feel secure.
But I don't like to do too much; I find I do more harm than good if I work too much before the rehearsal period! I like to enter into those first few days, and those first few times of running through a scene and interacting with other characters, by just allowing that to be the moment where I go, “Ah, OK … maybe that's how that feels, or maybe that scene could take Mercutio down that road”. It makes it feel more like you are part of an active bit of storytelling, as opposed to arriving with something that you have rehearsed in your bedroom. Until I've met everybody and interacted and found out what Benvolio is like and what Romeo is like and what the world of the play is going to be like, I don't like to make too many decisions.
Having been on the stage before, it’s nice to know what its possibilities are this time round, especially playing a part like Mercutio, which has such scope to connect with the audience. But it's such an immediate space, you can't really prepare for it too much before you are on. Even over the run of three or four months during The Merchant of Venice, it never ever became regular. Every single time going on that stage I was terrified, and stuff would change every single performance. So I imagine that the process of learning about how the space works and how the audience becomes so much a part of a show will be as terrifying and as interesting as it was the first time.
Initial impressions of Mercutio
In some ways, it’s quite intimidating to be playing Mercutio, as most people who come to see this show will have a frame of reference for the play. And I have my own preconceptions about Mercutio: fiery; ephemeral; mercurial; party going; frenetic; a slightly subversive character who spices things up and acts as a catalyst to violence and sex and laughter; the whirlwind at the heart of the play. Certainly that is how I imagine it, my idea of him.
But even so, it’s amazing how the reality of the play can differ from what anybody's preconceptions about it are, or what they imagine it to be like. So actually seeing the whole thing performed might not actually be what people had imagined, or what everyone associates with Romeo and Juliet.
First day of rehearsals
The first day is quite possibly the most terrifying bit of the whole job! If you can imagine a room full of the most nervous people from all different aspects of the production, that’s what it’s like. Everyone hides it very well, but you’re worried about who you are going to be working with and if you are going to get on well with the people that you need to get on well with; it’s quite an intense, but very friendly atmosphere.
So we met, and had a cup of coffee and a biscuit and I tried to figure out who everybody was. What they do so well at the Globe is that they introduce you to the building and to all the different departments, so that everyone seems connected to the productions; everyone is meeting to help create the home that we are going to be in for the next few weeks and months.
After that, we descended on a room and did a read through. You are always told that you don't need to give a performance, that it's just about hearing the play once. And I've watched some amazing actors who are so confident and at ease with what they are going to develop over the next weeks, that they just read the lines out, playing it straight and not committing on anything. And I always think that's what I should do, and every single time I end up vomiting out a performance – I just can't help it! You get so excited and so nervous; you just want everyone to know that you are capable of something so you try to show off how much energy you have and how loud you can be, which is completely unnecessary. But I do love the read through, as it means you hear the play and hear everybody's voices saying those beautiful words for the first time. It's a mixture of brilliant excitement and terror and sweat.
These comments are the actor's thoughts and ideas about the part as he goes through the rehearsal process - they are simply his own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsals progress.