This is Bette's second production for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about learning lines, getting to grips with a new character, and The Tudor Group.
Transcript of Podcast
I’ve been thinking a lot about the nurse, and it's now getting down to the scrubbing the floor part... learning lines. There's no easy way; it's like scrubbing floors. It's because I’m over sixty. When you’re seventeen, you can memorise long poems by Horace in a weekend. I did memorise these giant classic poems because I loved my ability to memorise: it was one thing that I could do. I came from a situation where I was very much told: ‘Acting? no, no, not for you... you go work in the post office, a telegraph boy’. I actually started in the printing trade, as an apprentice, but I realised it wasn’t quite my scene. After three months we had to commit to the whole seven years apprenticeship and I thought, ‘Forget this – I’m off to the theatre, where I’ll find a job that I want to do.’ Eventually I got a job as an electrician backstage at the Garrick Theatre, then I got into the Central School of Speech and Drama.
Anyway, that's slightly veering off the subject. Getting back to the slog of memorising: it's not really about getting older, it's about seeing more possibilities, and knowing that all your tricks and all your clever subtle games have got to be dropped eventually. You’ve got to get down to it, you’ve got to get to the bone. I admire truthful acting – people like Michael Gambon do it, and Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, and Vanessa Redgrave. Vanessa Redgrave is particularly fearless. Her Prospero here didn’t work for me personally but she's a great actress; I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do any thing apart from that that didn’t work wonderfully well. She can do Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Shaw, you name it: she can just do it.
One of the things I do when I start working on a part is I look at who's done it well, people whom I really admire. When I was young I listened to tapes of John Gielgud endlessly. All that stuff had been a great help; of course you do an impersonation of someone like that and it's never going to be anything other than you. You can learn about the orchestration, the map, the geography of the part, and that can give your confidence a sort of springboard. It's purely phrasing – where to breathe, which is really crucial because it's all about breathing, all of it. If you don’t have the breath, you don’t have the truth. If you start a phrase and you haven’t got enough breath, the second part of the phrase will not have the same ring of authenticity. I teach my students this all the time and they’re sick to death of hearing it. I’m sick to death of saying it, but it's there: authenticity is governed by breath, the tone is controlled by the breath, and the tone must be on the breath for authenticity. Again and again you forget, and again and again, like the waves of the sea, you keep coming back to the fact.
Finding out about the Nurse
I feel at the moment with the nurse I know nothing – it's a genuine feeling, I’m not faking it and I’m not saying it because it sounds good. Every time you come to a new part, you feel… well, you just go to the loo a lot; the terror pitch is so high, with me anyway. You can do this wonderful speech:
Come Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen.
Susan and she – God rest all Christian souls! –
Were of an age.
You can make it sound acceptable, and then suddenly you’re looking out into the audience and you see someone stifling a yawn or just a look in their eye admiring the general scene, but not really listening. Mark [Rylance, Artistic Director and Master of Words for the Red Company] compared it to a tape that you can pause: everyone moves and then suddenly they’re all still because they’re all drawn at the same moment. I’ve got a bit of a chest problem at the moment – a cough – and so I can’t really do much of this as I’d like, but one of the things I’m working on is the laughter in the nurse. It's very much coming from her soul. I think she is actually utterly selfish in relation to Juliet. She has no choice; there were no pensions. If that kid gets into trouble, the nurse could be in serious legal trouble. I found all that stuff with Ruth [a member of the Tudor Group] yesterday very helpful. She explained that it would have been very difficult for the Nurse to get her job. The Nurse just happened to be lactating at the right moment; her daughter Susan had just died, and Juliet had just been born. The Nurse would have also had to be somebody of impeccable moral standards to be acceptable; by and large she is, by the standards of the time I think she certainly would have high moral standards. There are deeper moral standards which Romeo and Juliet hold to irrespective of other pressures and it costs them their lives, but the nurse is a survivor. I’m much more like the nurse, I’m a survivor: if it's me or you, I’m afraid it's going be me. I think that's a difficult thing to find in yourself. Eventually it becomes clear in the text that she says to the girl: ‘You’ve got this guy with loads of money, not bad looking... He's got money, you’ll have to have a couple of children...’ Of course, to any young person seeing the play, that scene is absolutely horrendous – it's horrific. However I think we all have the potential to be very charming on the outside and as hard as nails underneath, when it comes to self-survival. That's what the nurse is like, I think.
The Tudor Group
When the Tudor Group first came in to talk to us during rehearsal, I thought they were crazy. They live for part of the year as Tudors would have actually lived and when they came in the room I thought ‘Oh lord.’ And then I thought, ‘No, hang on. There's something about them’ and I realised they are utterly authentic. I thought it was great. I was sorry I couldn’t stay for the swordsmanship, which I’m not at all interested in doing, but I’m very interested to see. I loved all the information she had. I was rather relieved that the nurse wouldn’t have to do enormously elaborate bows of greeting. I thought the Tudor Group were genuine scholars; there was something completely authentic about their clothes, and they had such conviction.
The next thing to do is learn the lines. For me, that doesn’t happen until I learn who the Nurse is, and that's a question of combing it through again and again and again until you want to hurl the script at the wall. It gets really vexing: you’re looking for this part and then you go through what I call the ‘Slough of Despond’, which we’ll meet next week, I expect. When you come out the other side and find what Edith Evans called ‘the life in the part’ – which sounds a very simple thing, but actually it's a very long road – suddenly you think ‘What was all the fuss about? This is a doddle.’ But you have to go through that nightmare... It’ll come... You just feel sometimes you’re never going to get it. When you open in front of a crowd, that's when the work really begins, for me. When you get out in front of a crowd, you’re in the tub, and hopefully it's a nice warm bath rather than ice-cubes...
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.