This is the first bulletin from the Nurse (Penny Layden). It covers Penny's experiences of Shakespeare and work leading up to the first day of rehearsals on this production.
Transcript of Podcast
Previous experience of Shakespeare
I didn’t have a massive experience of Shakespeare at school at all. When I joined high school, I had drama for the first term, but then the drama teacher left, and so there were no more drama classes; we tried to form a drama club, but the only real experience of Shakespeare we had was in the English lessons. I think we had a failed actress as our English teacher, and because I knew I wanted to be in theatre, she was very interested in me. But I don’t remember ever feeling that I had a great knowledge of Shakespeare when we finished school. Definitely there was no sudden baptism where I fell in love with it, but then I also didn’t have that experience of being really turned off it, which can be quite common.
As an actor, I’ve actually done quite a lot of Shakespeare since. Before I came to the Globe in 2000, I had played Perdita in Mike Alfreds’ The Winter’s Tale and had done a season at the RSC playing Miranda in The Tempest and Juliet in Measure for Measure, as well as understudying Isabella. And then in 2000, I played Ophelia in Hamlet at the Globe, with Mark Rylance as Hamlet, which was a fantastic experience. So I do feel like I’ve had a good grounding in Shakespeare, but I feel like now I am ready to do some more. And I’m very, very excited about being in this space again; there’s something very emotional about this space and I have a great love for it.
Preparation before rehearsals
Once I know what character I’m going to be playing, I always do the same thing before going into rehearsal, which is to write four lists. For the first list, I go through the whole play and list anything that the Nurse says about herself; for example “For I had then laid wormwood to my dug” (1.3.26) would be added to that list, as it’s her talking about weaning Juliet.
I then do the second list, which is what the Nurse says about everybody else. You will repeat a lot of the same text, but this is when you begin to get clues as to whether your character talks about themselves a lot, or only talks about themselves in the context of other characters, or if they hardly mention themselves at all and talk more about others. With the Nurse, you get her talking about herself in the context of Juliet an awful lot, and I’m beginning to think that might be for the benefit of Lady Capulet, as a way of lording it over her.
The third list is what everybody else says about the Nurse, which is usually the biggest list, as you have to go through every character’s lines in case you’re mentioned. This allows you to see your character from the viewpoint of other people.
The fourth and final list is facts from the text. It’s usually the shortest list because a lot of the time in Shakespeare you’re not given facts. You can’t take anything on assumption. The facts about the Nurse are:
- she had a husband;
- she had a baby girl called Susan, who died when she was exactly the same age as Juliet;
- she was Juliet’s wet nurse;
- she acts as the go-between for the lovers;
- she is privy to the secret marriage;
- she is instrumental to the wedding night, as she transports the cords for Romeo to climb down;
- she ‘turns coat’ by backing Paris over Romeo when it comes to the crunch;
- she is held in confidence by the Capulets;
- she discovers Juliet’s body after her fake suicide;
- she has a manservant called Peter;
- she saw Tybalt’s dead body;
- she tells Juliet of Romeo’s banishment and the murder of Tybalt;
- and, she talks a lot!
The list may be added to when you unlock the text more. You might find out things, but it should never be conjecture; it should never be guessing that her favourite colour is yellow because she’d rather Juliet wore the yellow dress, or some such. You have to be quite hard with yourself about what are actually facts.
Initial impressions of the Nurse
It can sometimes be quite difficult coming up with a first impression with Shakespeare characters, because they have been performed so many times. Certainly, I don’t look like the usual sort of Nurse; I’m not big and fat and frumpy and old, and so I have to come at her from me and who I am, because we’re playing her as my age. But actually, I think that works incredibly well in terms of Juliet’s age, and when she would have been able to be a wet nurse.
When I was originally approaching the character, more than anything, I was struck by the sense of her earthiness. Her class is very clear, I think, from the text. It may be an obvious thing to say, but she’s inappropriate and she does cross the line when it comes to saying things that are just a bit rude. But I try not to make too many decisions about this person before rehearsals. There’s just a bare bones idea or an essence – more like a feeling really – of who this woman might be. And I know that somebody like Dominic [Dromgoole, the director] has much more knowledge than I do about this play, and about who these people are because of his experience; I have to trust that there’s a reason that I’ve been cast and that he’s going to steer me down the right paths
First day of rehearsals
On the first day, we have a meet and greet where we meet everybody, and nobody remembers anybody’s name because there’s so many people there from every part of the theatre. We get shown the model box of what the set will be like, and the costume designs which was really exciting, especially as the Nurse, because I’m probably going to have to black my teeth up … very glamorous!
After that, we then did a read through. Even though there’s no pressure put on it – it’s really for clarity more than anything else – it’s kind of terrifying! You feel yourself going really red until you’ve spoken your first three sentences and after that, it all calms down and you just get on with it. That doesn’t change as you do more; I’ve been doing read throughs for quite a long time now, and those first nerves don’t get any easier. But what’s lovely about it is that I’d been working with this play on my own, and then for the first time, I got to hear these different voices, or tunes. It’s like a piece of music, like the first time you hear an orchestra try out before the play – what the oboe’s going to be like when it starts, and what the pipes do when they come in and so on. And that’s why I don’t like to make all the decisions before rehearsals start, because I need to hear what the other actors are doing with their characters.
These comments are the actor's thoughts and ideas about the part as he goes through the rehearsal process - they are simply his own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsals progress.