This is James' first blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about the first week of rehearsals, playing alongside legendary Mercutio of the 1960s- John McEnery, and Original Practices, amongst other things.
Transcript of Podcast
At other theatres, I’ve played quite small parts in large productions with quite heavy lighting effects and so forth. As so many things were prescribed, there wasn't as much creative freedom. Maybe that's partly because an environment that involves a lot of technology fosters a more prescriptive approach; people have to be in the right place at the right time for lighting cues, for instance. My experience at the Globe has been different. I’ve only ever worked with Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] here and he's fabulous at getting things from his actors – which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have a strong idea of what he wants to get, but he's very, very good at pushing actors to give him things, ideas that he can take forward. He's quite happy to be led by what the actors present to him and it's very rewarding to feel you can come up with ideas that he will then seize on. You are constantly encouraged to surprise yourself or surprise him or do something unusual. That means that he's effectively also somebody who encourages you to screw up, on the grounds that you sometimes discover things that are useful even when you’re doing things that on the face of it seem to be wrong. So even if you come up with something that's turns out to be inappropriate, it doesn’t matter because we can move on. There isn’t the pressure always to do something exactly as you would do it on stage.
The first week
We concentrated on the verse initially. We started by doing an exercise where we ran through the first half of the play and Tim really didn’t tie it down with conditions – he didn’t tell us exactly what he wanted; he didn’t tell us how much he wanted us to move, or things like that. You sort of make it up as you go along and I came away thinking ‘Oh, I might have overstepped the mark; I messed around a little bit too much’. But at the same time, messing around is quite useful; it actually frees everything up. The exercises we’ve been doing subsequently are obviously designed to bed in the verse, to make sure that we are respecting that side of things as we move on, which I really like. The most important thing for me is to get on top of the verse as soon as possible, because it's your bedrock. You can play around as much as you like on top of that, especially in an original practices production… well, in any Shakespeare production really. I think that the verse is a very important thing to observe and I like the fact that Tim's quite fascistic about it. Although you’re given enormous amounts of freedom in other areas, he doesn’t tend to give you much freedom there, and I guess that's a good analogy with the whole of the original practices approach: Twelfth Night showed me that it was possible to be incredibly innovative, different and amusing by adhering to what seems like the restrictions of original practices. In a similar way, if you respect the verse rigorously, you create a lot more freedom. By restricting yourself in one way, you are more creative in other ways and discover things that you might have otherwise overlooked.
Character and clothing: original practices
In original practices productions, you’re restricted to the clothes they might have worn in Shakespeare's time and you’re restricted to the sets they could have used. I suppose, as an actor, you’re trying to restrict yourself to only bring those things imaginatively to the part that you think might be appropriate. In terms of costume, Jenny [Tiramani, Master of Clothing] is very good at asking you ‘what do you think? What would you like to bring to this?’ I personally didn’t want to say anything really, not because I don’t have ideas of who Mercutio is, but because I didn’t want to bring those ideas which are based on both my personal and my modern prejudices. I don’t know enough about costume or about period clothes and she's the expert, so I’m much more interested to see what they have come up with that they think is suitable for him. I’ll then try and make myself fit to those clothes and find the character that might inhabit those clothes, rather than vice versa. That's a conscious choice that I’m making at the moment, led by the fact that Jenny's said ‘Maybe you could grow a bit of facial hair’. That's going to change my appearance – she wants my hair slightly longer because men of the period had slightly longer hair and these sorts of things will then start feeding in others: facial hair is going to alter my perception of how I want to play him, I suppose, because you appear slightly differently. It isn’t being driven by my thinking ‘I think Mercutio needs to have a beard’, it's just being led by the need to find the character.
Similarly, going through the verse very carefully, you are trying to find the character there rather than going to the outside world and asking ‘Who might Mercutio be?’ I may later on want to start thinking about that, but at the present moment I don’t think it's appropriate. I’ve looked up the commedia dell’ arte on the internet because I’d read something that mentioned a connection between Mercutio and Harlequin. I went deeply down there, because that seemed to be something that was connected with the period and might offer ideas of what an English actor of the period playing an Italian character might use – if he was even pretending to be Italian, and that's up for grabs too. I’ve taken none of that too seriously, but that's the sort of thing that I’ve been looking at to get a broader view of theatre styles of the period.
Preparing for rehearsals
I learnt all my lines before I came in. It's something I like to do because I find I can just get more from rehearsal if I'm not concentrating on whether I can remember my lines. I know some people like to learn them once they’ve actually talked about things; people tend to have a feeling that if you’ve learnt the lines before you go in, you’ll have set things before you can make a discovery in the rehearsal room which I don’t think is true at all. If you’ve got it all underneath your belt of course you can change it as you go along, and it actually gets you up to speed faster. It means that you can react more quickly to the ideas being thrown at you. So, I’ve learnt all of my lines and tried to determine as far as I can what the lines mean – in terms of what the words are saying. I spent an entire week just typing ‘Mercutio’ or Romeo and Juliet into the internet then read everything that I could see; even the stuff that I thought was completely irrelevant. It just seemed that if I saturated my head with it... I watched three films of Romeo and Juliet – again, something some people don’t think you should do, because you’re going to ape the performances that you see, but I don’t think that's necessarily true. I think you spend more time identifying what you don’t like in people's performances, and that tells you what you think, in effect.
For me, it's funny to have John McEnery in the company – he's Mercutio in Franco Zeffirelli's film [Romeo and Juliet, 1968]. It's a curious position to find yourself in, and I hope to talk to John at some point because he's brilliant in it, absolutely brilliant. He defined Mercutio for a lot of people, so to do certain things that John did as Mercutio might seem slightly clichéd now. He's so free and louche, if that's the right word. One wants to just move somewhere away from that – I guess partly out of perverseness but mostly because, while John defined many people's attitudes towards Mercutio, I feel there are other valid interpretations. I don’t want to break with tradition for the sake of being contrary because I think that would be a very perverse and stupid way of going about things. I’m just trying to find, between myself and the text, who my Mercutio is. The way editors tend to read Mercutio's eloquence, constantly saying his lines involve a “bawdy quibble”, pushes you through a sense of personal connection: it makes him a slightly sort of scurrilous type of person, but he doesn’t necessarily need to be. I mean there's a high level of sophistication in his speech and there certainly are double meanings ... but it seems glosses like this are only telling part of the story. I don’t know – we’ll discover how far one wants to go.
I heard somebody talking about the Peter Brook production of Romeo and Juliet where they played Mercutio as a lout, and he evidently didn’t have that Puckish* quality that people bring to Mercutio, that sense of zow. Now I don’t know if that is a good thing: I didn’t see the production, but it seems to me there's a good deal of sense in not living up to the audience's expectation of the character.
Earlier this week, Tim said there might be a possibility for some of the “open-arse”, “medlar” kind of references for him to be quite unpleasant: when he's mocking Romeo's love-sickness, he says:
If love be blind, love cannot hit the mark.
Now will he sit under a medlar tree
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a poperin pear!
Instead of emphasising the humour, you could play it quite nasty. We know that Mercutio is often bracketed as a ‘sympathetic’ character and clearly he's very attractive to an audience; in the midst of this charm, one could almost forget about the other possibilities, namely that he is also very offensive. You could just slip into assumption that he is going to be charming throughout, regardless. I think it's important not to ignore the contradictions and variations within a character. In the moments when Mercutio is going to be properly offensive, we should let him be properly offensive in order to confound those expectations of a character who is falsely consistent, attractive and with whom you can sympathise easily. Having said that, I really don’t have preconceptions about what I’m going to do at all. I don’t want to have any; I don’t necessarily want to think too deeply at this stage.
Looking forward: the rehearsal period
The best thing for me over the next few weeks would be to surprise myself – to find myself doing things that I didn’t expect. I also like feeling slightly out of control of what's gong on. You know, you do the work – a lot of work – in order to allow yourself to be so spontaneous that you haven’t got much control, which might sound bizarre but actually you’re supported by the work that you’ve done, and that allows you more freedom. I suppose the worst thing would be to find myself doing things at the end of five weeks that I could have done when I walked into rehearsals at the beginning. I guess that's true of any rehearsal process – that you want to find yourself somewhere that you weren’t expecting to be, and to have learnt something about yourself and about the play that you couldn’t have known at the start. That sounds very sanctimonious!
* Puck- a mischievous goblin (see A Midsummer Night's Dream)