This is Bette's first blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about his first thoughts on his character- The Nurse, playing a female role, casting in the production and his experiences of Shakespeare and the Globe previously.
Transcript of Podcast
I’ve been to about four plays here, I think: The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, the Scottish Play*, Julius Caesar, that's four isn’t it? At first I think I was rather sneering about the Globe, thinking it was a tourist attraction. Then I came to see a play here ... particularly when I saw The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra, I switched onto it as a place. People aren’t coming to see some old dead relics in the British Museum, they’re coming to see something that's living and so that's why I’m pleased to be here. I think from what I hear about the audience movement, particularly the groundlings, it's a little unnerving to have them so close and shifting about on three sides, but we’ll see. I mean, I’ve done a lot of cabaret and direct audience stuff, so we’ll see how that works out. I’m kind of looking forward to it and kind of terrified.
The first big Shakespearean role I played was in Southwark here at The George Inn (that's a very old pub which has a courtyard and a loading platform); I was sixteen and we played Romeo and Juliet on the platform. I did a lot of Shakespearean work in the South East London music festival in my teens and then I finally got into the Central School and did A Winter's Tale and various things there. More recently, I played Jaques in Regent's Park [As You Like It ]. I’ve been in the Scottish Play three times in three different theatres, played Hamlet when I was seventeen in London. More lately... I need to look at the list of plays: I’ve done loads of them...
Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] saw me in Neil Bartlett's production of Pericles last year and liked what I did, so that's why I’m here. And also Mark [Rylance, Artistic Director] and I have been talking about me working here over the last five or six years, but nothing suitable came up: there was something in 2000 which I didn’t feel right for, and so four years later we found something.
The Nurse: First Thoughts
What draws me to it? It's a marvellous part! I’ve seen a couple of wonderful nurses when I was young and then I got into playing more women's parts like Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. I’m very drawn to it; the Nurse is quite a complicated woman: she's sort of shockingly delicate at certain points and madly crude in others. I used to think she was stupid and I don’t think that's quite true, I think she sort of suddenly realises that Romeo and Juliet are absolutely serious to the point of death. I think she realises that there's something extraordinarily powerful here that she hasn’t thought about before. She also likes to get her say in and wants to be part of everything in a sense.
As was pointed out this morning by Tim Carroll, the Nurse actually risks her life by carrying the cords, by knowing about this marriage that is not totally illegal, but is completely against the parents’ wishes. Both houses loathe each other and it's a very dangerous situation for the nurse: there's no pension in those days, she's got to watch out for herself. When push comes to shove in Act three and she realises Juliet's got to marry Paris, she says ‘Well, go on be Mrs. Paris’. I’m revising my opinions as we go along. I don’t know who this woman is, and there's all sorts things in there that need to be dug out. There's also this thing about how it changes - not in any silly way, but with the subtle dynamic that is the relationship between the actor and the audience. That's going to govern a lot of how it's played eventually and interestingly and obviously and thank God, it’ll be different each time.
Playing a Female Character
Playing female parts is something I’ve been exploring ... in fact it's only quite recently that I’ve come to play women onstage. It's very different. I’ve played women characters with my own company ‘Bloolips’ for twenty years but I never tried to convince the audience that I was a woman: always I wore high heels but certainly no false breasts or false hips or anything like that, because at that point in the 1970s and 1980s there was so much heavy drag around that seemed very sexist, and I wanted to get away from that. Playing a woman makes me feel very strong; you’re chipping away at the edifice of gender as a stereotype. There were no actresses on the Elizabethan stage so men played all the female parts: it's interesting that early modern constructions of gender were probably different and perhaps had more flexibility.
Playing a woman on the stage has great power in a curious way, but you have to be careful not to get too larky with the groundlings, which is very easily done. I’ve seen it done here and not approved of it really, but it was going on in Elizabethan times: Hamlet warns the troupe that come to Elsinore about playing to the crowd:
...let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.
then he says “go make you ready.” I do have to watch my ‘pitiful ambition’, which is overwhelming. No, I think I’m probably not a particularly ambitious person, but I am ambitious to get it right. I spend a lot of time trying to make it truthful, so that I eventually feel the life in the part, that's what I’m looking for, the life in the part, and I think the nurse is a very complete picture, and I’ve got to find all that.
*Traditionally it is bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ inside a theatre, so actors often call it ‘the Scottish play’.
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.