This is Bette's fourth blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about continuing rehearsals and difficulties he has faced in the process.
Transcript of Podcast
I’m in what Winston Churchill called ‘the black dog’, which is the worst part of the process. It's the part where you feel you don’t know the character at all and that you’ve done it all wrong. It happens every time and it always feels like it's too late to do anything about it. There are so many choices but there's so little time. Only one right choice will have an authenticity about it – when you’ve found that you begin to feel things rather than pretending. At the moment, I’m faking every feeling and reaction for the Nurse and panic is beginning to emerge – it's quite scary to think we’re so far through the rehearsal period. ‘Faking it’ is like neatly papering over the cracks in a wall: when it comes to the crunch, you have to take all of the wallpaper off and get back to the structure underneath so you can fix those cracks. If the bricks and girders are not secure then your house will fall down. The same is true of a character.
Dame Edith Evans was working with Sir Tyrone Guthrie and he said to her in one rehearsal, ‘You’re honking Edith, you’re honking’. She knew exactly what he meant: she was putting on a very good show, but it didn’t actually mean anything because she could do that any time she liked. It was the effects. She said ‘No, I’m kneading’ – she was a woman who liked to cook, and she said ‘I’m kneading’. That's a better image for the Nurse than the building image: until you’ve kneaded the dough, the pastry or the bread you’re making won’t come out right. Kneading is a process you have to go through to get to the truth. That involves revealing something of yourself, which is the hardest bit: there are bits of the Nurse that you can know and bits that you can’t know – those are the bits you stumble over. I feel like I’ve gone over the text a million times…
One bit started to glimmer to life this morning as I was talking to Tim [Carroll, Master of Play]. I’m telling Juliet that Paris is “a lovely gentleman” [III.5.219] and that's completely fake; the Nurse doesn’t care what Paris is like and at that point she doesn’t care about Juliet. She's saving her skin; it's almost lethal and extremely exciting to play. I’m putting one over on this child – Juliet is only thirteen and a half or fourteen – and I’m advising her to go for this guy who seems like a nice boy in everything he says, but he's not the one. Romeo is the one she wants in every respect and neither she nor Romeo has any sense of compromise whatsoever. The whole play smells of passion, extraordinary passion; the Nurse is a survivor in the midst of this. Something about her advice to Juliet at that point [III.5.214-26] clicked with me. The Nurse is acting in this scene [III.5] and because I know about that, it's easier. That is one of the few moments that does feel right.
There's added pressure when people expect you to be funny. I’ve done comedy things before and I’ve been booked for the Nurse, so they want it funny as well. Funny is harder – and there's pressure because it's a famously funny part (and it is; it's glorious) – but it's got to seem utterly effortless, as if I’ve made up all the ideas and the dialogue and it's me. What I’m doing is pulling this thing to me and I’m going towards it and it's got to fit like a glove.
I’m aware I’ve got some famous precedents in this role but I’ve got to make the part mine; I can’t act another famous actor acting it. However I think you can use other people's performances as a springboard: I agree with Vanessa Redgrave when she says ‘Well, I always copy other people.’ Of course, the idea of Vanessa Redgrave being like anybody else is completely absurd; she's always Vanessa Redgrave, but she quite rightly says it's a good springboard. Actually there's another great thing she says about trust and finding your character: it's like taking all these little dogs out on a lead – I think she calls them her poodles – and they stretch and stretch and stretch, and they pull in different ways, and then suddenly they all understand the pace and they all start to go forward together. It's just another image of the struggle. The problem is that there are no shortcuts. That's what's wonderful about these texts, their richness and strangeness... I’ve got this longish speech at the beginning [I.3.17-49] – I’m trying not to think of it as a long speech – but I’ve looked at it hundreds of times and I’m still finding the shape of it. Take a sculpting image: you can sculpt and sculpt and sculpt and sculpt, and you look at it and look at it, and it's still stone; it's still dead. Then you go and see Brancusi next door [at Tate Modern Gallery] and there's a child's head on the side: it's alive, it's asleep, it's made of stone, it's a miracle...
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.