This is Bette's fifth and final blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks mainly about press night, technical rehearsals, audiences and feedback from the shows so far.
Transcript of Podcast
I’m surrounded by floral tributes! We had our opening last night, which everyone pretended to ignore. That's harder when people come round and mention that they’ll be there watching. ‘We’re in tonight’ – it's always well meant and some people do like to know when their friends or associates are in, but I’m neurotic about it. You can’t shake the feeling that people are coming to judge you. Far from being bullet-proof, I’m more terrified by the prospect of going out onstage as I get older: experience doesn’t make you less nervous. Now, I’m over sixty but in about an hour I shall still feel a slight sickness in the stomach, I’ll be scrambling through my script, wondering if I know the lines. That is a challenge in itself, to get all the lines in the right order every night.
I’ve been finding the comedy in Act two, scene four, a bit difficult because Tom [Burke, Romeo] walks away from me as I’m trying to explain to him what Juliet said: 'I desire some confidence with you' [II.4.124]. I had a chat to Tim about it and we decided to keep things as they were. Although the Nurse is a comic character to a certain extent, it is more important that the story of the play goes forward and I think Romeo's movement away from the Nurse just there does help to keep pace up. In one sense, it's a relief that you don’t have to be funny all the time: you don’t have to go for every laugh. If you’re known for doing comedy then there's the expectation of laughs somehow, but of course you can go and do things that aren’t necessarily comic. In fact, the nurse is quite a frightening character. She's like the Friar in that respect: I think they both let Romeo and Juliet down respectively. The Nurse lets Juliet down in terms of real values and the Friar lets Romeo down and then leaves Juliet in the tomb in this stupid, cowardly way because like the Nurse, he's basically self-seeking.
The tech was much more complicated than I expected, largely from a staging point of view. Mark Rylance [Artistic Director, Shakespeare's Globe] did go over the stage with us when we first came, but when you get to point of doing technical runs, everything has to change a bit. For example, the centre bit of the stage [upstage of the two pillars, between the pillars and the central doors] is probably one of the strongest positions because everybody in the audience can see you all the way round in the circle. Positioning on that stage was something I hadn’t thought very much about until we started the tech; that was something that Tim went over that with us the other day. You’ve also got learn how to make your frock work – your costume, or clothes as they’re called here. They’re based on designs from the 1590s, so the breathing becomes rather interesting! I wore corsets throughout rehearsals to get used to the restriction, but wearing them every night all evening for the entire play is a rather different matter: it's very difficult to reserve breath effortlessly. The thing about breathing is that if you don’t take enough breath for a sentence, the second or third part of the sentence gets thinner because you don’t have enough breath to see it through. The result of that is a lack of vitality, which means that the audience doesn’t listen as intently to the last part of the sentence as they do to the first part of the sentence. Say you have a speech with a sentence of say 8 lines of blank verse. You’ve got to get more interesting, not less, because often the point is towards the end of the sentence. It's like in Oscar Wilde where one says ‘Well, aim for the end of the lines,’ and you can’t do that if you don’t have enough breath. For me, the Tech is quite technical. I never accept that technical rehearsal is just for the technicians: I’m an actor and I want my tech too, my time in the tech (as I pointed out when we were being encouraged to get on with it!). I always think it would be a good idea to have a run-through just for the actors – not for the director, the assistant director, stage manager, technicians, the musicians, or photographers. That is – to my mind – essential. The other thing is that I like a production to be left alone for the last four/five days; I like it when directors don’t give any notes in that period, just let it cook and see what happens. Lots of amazing things cook, especially during the preview period and here we had seven or eight previews: it was a wonderful luxury to have so many previews because they’re like public rehearsals.
They’ve been thunderously wonderful. Here there's a feeling that there's a built-in enthusiasm; that's very different from any other theatre I’ve worked in. They’re very much here for you. They’re very much on the side of the performers, and I think it's to do with everybody being able to see everyone else – in the house and on the stage – there aren’t any divisions. It's all in daylight – or early evening light – so even in evening shows the focus is still all around. It's not just on the stage, so people come and there's a slightly jamboree atmosphere. People come and it's like going to a pop-concert: there's this incredible expectancy in the air, which is quite unique – especially in Shakespeare. People usually sit there in the dark and they think ‘I’ve paid rather a lot for this seat, you’d better be good!’
In most respects, the proximity between the actors and the audience is great, but there have been a couple of shows where I’ve found it rather distracting to have people talking to each other or explaining what's going on right next to me – especially in the scene where Capulet berates Juliet [III.5] when I’m standing on the side of the stage and Lady Capulet is over on the other side and by my left heel there is someone happily chatting away! It makes the difficult scenes even tougher. If the action is electrifying then quiet does descend, but there are some things that can't be helped: if someone's translating the show for somebody else then there is nothing you can do to get an absolute hush.
I pretend that I don’t read the critics’ reviews - I think that's fairly normal for actors. What I do instead is I wait to hear on the grapevine around the theatre whether a reviewer has been very kind about me and then I read the review. No one tells each other if someone's said something poisonous about you. Unless you ask, then you’re in really deep trouble. I don’t think critics feature in the same way here as they do at other theatres because people come to the Globe for the event. It's not like going to a play anywhere else; it's going to an event. That's the strongest feeling I get here. It's open-air, everyone can see each other, and people are standing with their drinks or their ice creams. I got quite a shock when I saw the litter on the floor after one show.
Instead of looking at reviews, I look to my partner for constructive criticism and feedback. Otherwise, friends and other actors don’t usually say anything unless you ask ‘Do you have any notes for me?’ You might ring them up the next day if they’re experienced, if you like them and rely on them and you know that they’re not going to lie to you. They’re going to say something like ‘Well, I didn’t understand why you did that,’ and you’re going to explain and discuss it and ignore the advice. It's your choice up to a point: of course, when you go into a production you agree to be directed by that director.
Tim's open to suggestions, though: I ask him ‘Are you very attached to this idea?’ and he always says ‘No, not particularly, if you want to try something else.’ He's keen on keeping the air coming into the production. He watches the actors do it and things grow from that, like seedlings. I prefer to be left alone for the last four days of rehearsal unless something's really wrong – unless you’ve completely changed the character and it's totally screwing up the production. It's especially nice to be left alone a bit when you’ve had a seven-week rehearsal process as we’ve had – then you can begin taking notes again during the previews.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.