Shakespeare's Globe

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"Caliban is like the rest of the play; he is almost impossible to pin down".
Globe regular, James Garnon, talks about his familiarity with the play and his role. He also discusses how Caliban is so open to interpretation, as the other characters describe him so differently in the play.

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Time: 6 minutes 43 seconds

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Transcript of Podcast

Hayley Bartley:

Welcome to the 2013 Adopt an Actor podcast series. My name’s Hayley Bartley and I’m here talking to James Garnon who plays Caliban in the upcoming Globe production of The Tempest.

So, my first question for you is: how familiar were you with the play, The Tempest?

James Garnon:

Quite. I studied English literature at university – so I certainly read it at university, but only from an academic point of view. Pretty sure I wrote a finals paper on it, even. Then my – pretty much my first job out of drama school, I did The Tempest at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], Michael Boyd’s production. It was on at the Roundhouse. I played Francisco – whatever he’s called. Very small part, just one little speech and just followed the court people around. That was my first job, 10 years ago. And last year, I played Caliban for BBC Radio 3, which Jeremy Mortimer directed. So, I won’t say I know it brilliantly but I do know it. Of all the Shakespeare plays, I know it better than all the others that I haven’t really been in yet, if you see what I mean.

HB:

Yes! No, I think that’s – you’re fairly familiar with it.

JG:

Fairly familiar with it, yeah.

HB:

So, what were your initial impressions of the play then?

JG:

It’s a weird play in that every time you come to it, every time you look at it you see something different. Sort of like the island itself in The Tempest. It’s just so wonderfully bleak. You can’t quite work out what’s going on and the moment you think you understand what’s going on something else occurs to you.

HB:

So, what about your initial impressions of your character then?

JG:

Caliban is like the rest of the play: he’s almost impossible to pin down. Not only because every other character describes him differently at different points. Propero constantly refers to him as a devil or a demi-devil or the child of a witch. Things like that, as well as calling him a slave. The court people that he encounters: Trinculo keeps referring to him as a fish and that’s echoed by one of the other court people later on who also calls him a sort of fish, like it may have something to do with his smell. Stephano – after Caliban decides that Stephano is a god – he constantly calls him the "mooncalf". Which is sort of a game, contradictory: how can you be a calf and a devil AND a fish? And then he’s constantly referred to as a "monster", which doesn’t necessarily mean what we mean by monster; it kind of just means something rather extraordinary. One other character calls him "deformed". Propero says he’s disproportionate in his manners as he is in his shape, so there’s clearly some sort of deformity. But what he is, is never explicit. It’s rather like the island: you can’t tell where we are because there are lions on it or wolves and bears but at the same time there’s a – you know, Caliban is constantly bringing in wood for Propero, but Trinculo says there’s no trees or bushes anywhere on the island. In effect, it works brilliantly as a radio play, where the audience have to bring the images – trying to decide what kind of values is tricky. The only thing you can do is look at how he operates within the structure of the play and I think he is deliberately there to mirror (at different points) the other characters. It’s interesting that his first entrance is stage managed by Propero and immediately precedes the arrival of Ferdinand. So, Caliban has clearly been set up in some way as a mirror to Ferdinand. But he’s also a mirror to Propero himself, in that he used to be king of the island and now he’s not. He mirrors Antonio in his desire to overthrow Propero and then also in the little plot to murder Propero he echoes. So, there’s endless echoes that he’s being used to do. So, you could argue that he’s the baser parts of our nature; you could argue that he’s a kind of devil in that [he represents] the evil parts of our nature; or he’s an animal or a savage. So, those are initial impressions.

HB:

Pretty open then. A difficult task for a designer and director to make it distinct.

JG:

I think this is the fear constantly that anything you decide to do, if you’re not careful, wipes out other possibilities. That’s the problem. And they’re all there bobbing along, provided you don’t stamp one out. So we already are discussing – the designer already has a very strong idea of what he wants to do. That terrifies me, to a point, because I’m scared that other things will fall by. But I’m equally conscious that anything one decided to do would damage any other reading. Either, one holds off, holds off, holds off, holds off and tries to sort of stitch something together out of all the disparate strands or one just goes with some very, very positive choices and then tries to keep the other bits alive.

HB:

You’ve mentioned you’ve done The Tempest before, but what other Shakespeare have you performed?

JG:

I think this is my eighth season here [at the Globe] – something like that. In which time, I’ve done other Shakespeare’s. I’ve played Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet; I’ve played Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well; I’ve played Macbeth here for the education department; I’ve played – oh god, I can’t even remember! But outside of here, I’ve played Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream; I’ve played Hamlet for The Factory; I’ve played Antonio in Merchant of Venice.

HB:

And recently, of course, you’ve just been in the...

JG:

Recently, yes, I just played Richmond and the Duchess of York in Richard III and then we revived Twelfth Night, which I did here in 2004, maybe? We revived that – did that again. [Editor's note: the original production was in 2002]

HB:

So, you know the Globe and you know Shakespeare?

JG:

I know the Globe and I know Shakespeare a bit, yeah. This one’s going to be interesting – they’re always interesting, you know? And I don’t, you know – it’s actually harder when you really do know something, or imagine that you know something, because you come with preconceptions. In the same way it’s easier to come and see a Shakespeare play if you haven’t read it and don’t know anything about it, on one level, because you just respond to it. If you bring a lot of baggage you can often get in the way.

HB:

And what about any preparation for the role before rehearsals? Any sort of research?

JG:

Yes. I mean I certainly read the play and certainly have a look at what’s being said but I don’t have a methodology. I don’t really believe in going through the play, finding what everybody says about you or finding anything that you say because I think anything that any other character says about you can be taken entirely with a pinch of salt because they could be wrong or lying, you know? If I do research, I do research in as much as I want to know more than the director about my character; I want to know more about my character than the designer; I want to know more about my character than anybody who can ask me a question about it. If only to ensure that what I’m doing is justified and strong. But then, as I talk about it, I’m also revealing to myself that I have done quite a lot of work and quite a lot of thinking and I always do.

HB:

So the answer is: I’m denying research but I do it so that I know more than anyone else about my character?

JG:

It’s exactly the same as saying "did you do any revision for your A-levels" and you go, "no, I didn’t do any work".

NB:

And you come out with an A*.

JG:

Yeah, exactly! And you pretend that you haven’t – that it was all just instinctive.

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