This is the second bulletin from Mercutio (Phil Cumbus). It covers Phil's first week of rehearsals, his developing sense of Mercutio's character, key relationships and dance rehearsals.
Transcript of Podcast
First week: Table sessions
Obviously a good place to start with Shakespeare is figuring out what exactly what all the lines mean; I need to know exactly what I’m saying to other people, and similarly, I need to know exactly what is being said to me. So, we worked through every single scene we were in, awkwardly paraphrasing what we're saying into modern English. And with Mercutio that has been particularly fun as he is the most filthy-minded individual I have ever come across! Almost every single line of his will contain some kind of sexual innuendo or reference to a bodily part. He's thrusting these sexual words everywhere, because that's his vocabulary, which means that I have had to sit in a room in front of people and then in a very dry academic tone talk about sexual organs and the like while trying to seem professional; so it’s been very difficult and induced lots of giggles.
But this process naturally opens up questions about who these people are, what their relationships are relationship like, and why they talk the way they do. So you start to enter into a dialogue about character and relationship which is useful. He's working on an opposite tangent to someone like Romeo who is full of lyricism and poetry and Petrarchan beauty and Mercutio is kind of a sexual antidote to all of that.
Developing the Character of Mercutio
Mercutio is an amazing character but one that's quite difficult to find a starting point for. Obviously, there are all these extremes in your head when you approach the part of Mercutio (any part in fact), and actually, the process of the first week of rehearsal is trying not to leap onto anything that you haven't discovered in the text; I have to begin by stripping it all back to the basics, which is asking questions like: How old is he? What's his background like? Why is he the way he is? It’s a case of going back to those and working out the foundations from which you can then build up a character. Otherwise you'll end up with something that is not based on truth and not based on Shakespeare, which is what we as actors are here to do – to tell the story to the audience as best we can.
So far, he seems to be slightly self-loathing and uncomfortable in his own skin, and yet at the same time extraordinarily comfortable. It’s an amazing contradiction going on at the very heart of him which seems to me why he's so torn; there's that push and pull that's going on inside of his brain, and which runs through his amazing imagery and his fantastic imagination.
As a result, I really want the audience, as well as Benvolio and Romeo, to really hate Mercutio at certain times. He’s one of those people that every social group tends to have who can be the life and soul of whatever room they happen to be in, and yet can also be completely obnoxious so that you would hate to hang out with them if they were in a particular mood. He’s both: he comes and goes; he’s hot and cold; he’s not just the young joker who runs around – he’s got a negative side to himself as well.
The trio of Benvolio, Romeo and Mercutio is really strong. We’ve talked about their history and why they hang out with each other and what it is they each bring to the trio that makes it a good friendship. With Mercutio, I think that he’s older than the other two – they are possibly nine or ten years younger than him – and he’s been in this town longer than them and that in some ways it’s ‘his’ gang. But the beautiful thing about this play is that it takes place at a time when those things are breaking up, at a time when Romeo is growing up and has a desire to fall in love and break away from them a little. And Mercutio clearly has deep, deep feelings for Romeo which he is simultaneously trying to protect and battle against. He’s trying to compensate for the fact that he is losing him, which leads later on to the duel and is partly the reason why he fights Tybalt instead of Romeo.
I think there is so much back story to these three friends which we are never told, and you have to imagine the ways that they came together, what sort of circumstances led them to be friends. They seem to work best as the three, when one of them is not there; they are always looking for the other one. There’s a scene which Shakespeare writes beautifully where Benvolio and Mercutio are on their own and then Romeo arrives and the three touch base again; they riff and have a series of witty exchanges which reminds Mercutio of how things were, when he says, “Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art” (2.4.89-90) – you get a little flash of his real feeling and his strong love for Romeo. But then, he has to counteract it himself by launching into some bawdy imagery to let us know, and to reassure himself that he’s not gay. And so that intimacy with Romeo changes when the Nurse enters.
Mercutio and Women
Mercutio’s scene with the Nurse is the only moment in the whole play when you get to see him with a woman, despite all his sexual language. There is a lot of wit in the exchange, and typically, the three boys ridicule, but I wanted to do something a bit stronger. There’s a moment when I make up this song about whores and money, and I had the idea that I really wanted to dominate the Nurse, that as soon as a woman enters this world, Mercutio launches himself into quite a misogynistic place, thrusting her up against one of the pillars because he can. He’s in great position of power – he is of noble birth, he’s rich, he can do whatever he wants – and so we get a little taste of what Mercutio is like with women, which is violent and disrespectful. I plant a huge kiss on her, which she doesn’t want, and then I leave.
If we set that up, that whole scene becomes terribly embarrassing for Romeo. Mercutio is aware of having done wrong, and it is this which helps to fuel the next scene where we see them all together, which is when Mercutio fights in Romeo’s place against Tyablt and dies. It’s trying to piece the scenes together and give them a cycle or a journey that makes sense.
Dancing – the Masked Ball
On the very first or second day, we had an initial dance rehearsal, which was a great icebreaker, jigging around and thigh slapping, and all that! Not only does every show at the Globe have a jig at the end (which is my favorite bit by far!), but also in Romeo and Juliet there’s the big party scene in the middle, so we’ve started choreographing some ideas for it. And what’s been nice is that as soon as you start to choreograph a dance, what immediately comes out is everyone thinking about the character, so you have an amazing dynamic where you not only work out the logistics of steps and staging, but also try to fill every move with story.
For example, I ended up without a partner on this particular day we were rehearsing the masked ball scene, so I thought that instead of staying in couples, Mercutio would dance round everybody else, checking some people out, being rude to others. And then I spotted Tybalt dancing very elegantly with Lady Capulet; obviously, Mercutio and Tybalt loathe each other, so I decided that Mercutio would just come in and steal Lady Capulet away! So I find combining the brilliant choreography to character work is great. Everything feeds into the world you are creating. Masked balls are part of what these people did. The party scene isn’t just a contrivance to move the story on; they are a reality in Verona for these young men, for the Nurse, for the parents – it’s all just part of their world and making believable is as fun as learning the steps.
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.