This is Bette's third blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about the Nurse in detail, as well as other aspects of the rehearsal process so far.
Transcript of Podcast
About the Nurse: 'as hard as nails'
This morning we did a run of the second half of the play, and all the time we had to point at the person (on or offstage) whom we were trying to effect with our words or movements. It was exhausting: you have to really concentrate all the time, trying to remember who it is that you’re playing and who you are trying to effect. I found it very strenuous. Sometimes I found myself pointing in quite the wrong direction, and at other times you find you’re pointing at yourself – the Nurse is persuading herself a lot of the time; I’ve discovered that today. She's got lots of jolly business in the first half of the play but when it comes to the crunch, she abandons Romeo and Juliet and would abandon anyone else to save herself. She could be hung for what she's done – she's encouraging a child of thirteen and however many months to commit bigamy in Fifteenth or Sixteenth Century Verona. That's truly shocking. The Prince of Verona has the power of life and death and she’d certainly be hung. She's stupidly romantic about setting up the marriage between Romeo and Juliet – I think a parallel today would be someone who wants the Hollywood fantasy wedding rather than the marriage itself – but at the same time she's as hard as nails. It sounds like a contradiction, but that's the way life is – people aren’t simplified or straightforward.
Romeo and Juliet is a great love story and the Nurse is a marvellous part, but it's more complex than I ever dreamed. A lot of that's to do with her harsher side. She's much slyer and crueller than I expected. She's rather banal, rather casual in her cruelty; she's not a Machiavel like Richard III, who thinks all his plans out then executes them. I can identify with that – I’m sure everyone has been thoughtlessly cruel at some stage in their lives. Actually I’m finding that I know the Nurse very well because there is a lot of me in her; those are the things that you discover and those are the things that are hard to reveal onstage.
Other things that I’ve been looking at more closely are the male and female aspects of the part – the issues raised when a man plays a female character. I’m thinking ‘Oh, to play a female I’ve got to do certain things’ and at the same time, you’ve got to be truthful and reveal yourself: I am a man. That's what makes it interesting; the question of how you go about being authentic. Boys that played females roles in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and some older man would have probably played the Nurse, so it's not necessary to ‘put on’ as much femininity as you think at first. For example my masculine voice – which I used this morning in rehearsal – is quite different from my feminine voice, and it's much more real and it's much more authentic because it's me. But it takes a lot of effort to get to the stage where I can use that real voice… I’m surrounded by defensive layers which are like great tractor tyres and it takes a clever director to get through! I think acting is most interesting when the person opens up and reveals something of themselves in their character, but that's the hard part and it's scary. I don’t want audiences to know this, that, and the other about me. However, any play (but especially Shakespeare) goes flat if you’re not prepared to take the risk.
Direction & Revelations
I trained very early on and that's got its downside because you develop tricks, some of which are quite subtle but they’re still just tricks and a good director cuts through all of that and says ‘Hey, what's behind that one?’ He keeps pushing aside those curtains. During Pericles, the director kept saying to me ‘No acting, no acting’ – every day – which nearly drove me frantic but it's good to insist on getting to the root. You need a lot of trust to do that: it might seem like a director is dismissing your suggestions or ideas but that makes you work harder. The results when you do get to the core can be astonishing.
Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] doesn’t take any nonsense. The other day I was sitting in the Green Room with Kananu [Kirimi, Juliet] before we started work on the cords scene [III.2] and I said ‘Oh, I suppose we’ve got a lot of weeping and wailing on this morning, haven’t we?’ Tim was behind me – I didn’t see him – and he came down on me like a ton of bricks [bangs on the table]: ‘So you’ve decided what this scene is going to be all about?’ I was quite defensive at first and he just nodded and grinned. We all went upstairs to the rehearsal room and got on with some work, and of course, the scene wasn’t about weeping and wailing – it was about the very different things going on behind the noise. The Nurse is afraid for her own skin; in the first instance, she probably wants to change Juliet's mind and make her see that marrying Romeo was incredibly dangerous. Yet she ends up promising to bring the young couple together again… there's a lot going on beneath the surface there.
A wonderful revelation during that session on Act three, scene two was that I could be myself. I felt that my personality fused with the character. However, Tim still calls you by your own name rather than the character's name – I’m ‘Bette’ rather than ‘the Nurse’. At the beginning of rehearsals I found this quite annoying because I like to be called by my character name, but Tim has his reasons: by using your own name quite a lot, I think he's bringing you to the character somehow. The character is more than a name to be assumed just like that. So Tim's choice is quite a subtle thing. At the same time he does refer to me as ‘her’, which I quite like. In no way am I pretending to be a woman in my real life, but ‘she’ fits with the part and it also raises interesting questions about our gender roles, onstage and in everyday life. I’m not an effeminate person, though I can switch femininity on and off which is great fun. The Nurse is quite butch – it's not a greatly feminine role. She can be quite butch and I was brought up to be quite butch too. As I said, I’m discovering similarities…
The Nurse: Femininity
I think the maternal ‘mumsy’ aspects of the Nurse are rather fake. She's completely sentimental – that line about Tybalt being ‘the best friend I ever had’ is utter nonsense. I doubt if Tybalt even knew her name ... he might have tipped her once or introduced her to the boss, something like that which would have been a big deal to her, but that he wouldn’t have given a second thought. This ‘best friend’ rubbish is all in the Nurse's mind. It's not in Tybalt's mind. He's a fiery young man who feels he's going to defend the Capulet's honour against Romeo's outrageous insult, and who then gets into all sorts of trouble. Tybalt has things other than the Nurse on his mind. But no, the Nurse isn’t particularly feminine. I think women are often more masculine than representations allow. We were talking about this idea of a more ambiguous gender in rehearsal last week; how you sometimes can’t tell with some older couples which is the man and which is the woman – they both look similar. Since the 1970s, the male/female gender divide has become less important and more flexible. From my point of view, the important thing is the character and their motives; what you want from other characters, who you’re trying to effect, like in the pointing game. Those exercises are very useful, very interesting. I think the paramount thing is making the verse come alive and these are stepping-stones towards that. I’ve never done them before and I’m finding them a great help. Making the text work is the ultimate goal and we’re all battling towards that at the moment.
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.