This is Tom's fourth blog entry for the 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which he talks about the famous 'balcony scene', sustaining injuries in rehearsal, and the audience, amongst other things.
Transcript of Podcast
Last week I hurt my hand somehow. I picked up a book in the Green Room and felt something pull, but fortunately it seems to be much better now. It can’t have happened during the fight because I hold my rapier [a type of Elizabethan sword] in the other hand: Tybalt uses a cloak as well as a rapier, but as I just fight with a rapier, I don’t have to use my other hand.
Romeo, Mercutio and Tybalt each have a dagger and a rapier, but Mercutio's fight [III.1] is very different from my fight with Tybalt [III.1]. The first fight is polished: swordsmanship is a craft for Tybalt and Mercutio. They have finesse whereas Romeo is simply proficient – he's not in the same league as those guys. My fight is much rougher: it's meant to look quite ragged because it's driven by rage rather than style. Basically I win because I’m furious; I kill Tybalt with a violent thrust. There's not the same sense of showmanship. My legwork still has to be precise though; Romeo's level of skill has to be that of a typical young Sixteenth Century gentleman. It can’t look like this is the first time he's picked up a sword. I suppose the difference between Romeo and Tybalt is that Romeo has been trained, whereas Tybalt gets up every morning and practices. I don’t think Romeo does that… he gets up and goes for long walks instead. Anyway, the skill is evident in the first fight; Mercutio is almost playing. He mocks Tybalt by skipping around as though it's a game. For someone to get fatally wounded in this context is a real shock: Benvolio and I actually think Mercutio is joking before we realise that things have gone horribly wrong.
My initial difficulties with legwork in the fight have been ironed out and I’m really enjoying the scene now. I spent the whole of the Bank Holiday weekend stepping and lunging, stepping and lunging, and I think that sorted it – my back foot doesn’t drift after my front foot in the lunge anymore. Obviously, your confidence increases as you practice. I’ve suddenly started lunging a bit further and I’ve found it's much easier this way, though it feels less controlled at first. The key seems to be getting your knee over your foot: that way you can keep your weight on the back leg and easily lift the front one.
Today we put the fight scene together for the first time with all the words and actions, and everyone seemed to think it was looking good. I find the movements easier when you put them in the context; they make sense because they’re informed by the scene and the characters themselves. You realise that you’re thrusting in that way because you’re very angry, not because that's the way it's been choreographed. I think Rodney [Cottier, Master of Combat] has placed it very well in the story. I’m finding that you can act through the fight.
Balcony scene: III.5
We’re concentrating on the second half of the play now. We did the second balcony scene [III.5] the other day. I’ve seen productions where that scene has just been very flirty and coy, but I think that underplays a lot of the other things that are going on there. We tried playing ‘It was the nightingale, and not the lark’ [III.5.2] as a genuine misunderstanding and the scene became a lot more serious and more confrontational. If I do what Juliet asks and stay with her, then there's a good chance I’ll be killed: ‘I must be gone and live, or die and stay’ [III.5.11] – I’m offering her an ultimatum, practically saying ‘Do you want to kill me?’ They’re testing each other, asking ‘How much do you love me?’ It's rather like when a couple argues and they push each other to find out who will leave first. Of course Romeo has to be the one who walks away in this scene.
When Juliet has persuaded me to stay a bit longer [III.5.17-25], the tables turn completely. The power balance seems to change: she tells me to go and I say ‘Farewell, farewell! One kiss, and I’ll descend’ [III.5.42] which became something like ‘Well, I’m not going until you kiss me’. That was quite forceful yesterday. The play has been done so many times that it can be difficult not to anticipate what's coming next: as far as Romeo and Juliet are concerned, they could be found at any moment and extra force suits that urgency. The beginning of Act three, scene five isn’t just small talk. For me, the tension made it feel more realistic – you would probably test each other in that situation. They don’t know when they’ll see each other again.
‘Taking the measure of an unmade grave’
The banishment scene has also become more forceful. It's been causing me a few problems until recently. The exercises we play with Tim [Carroll, Master of Play] help you to relax with the verse and lots of ideas come out of that, but because you’re concentrating on the game, you don’t consciously attempt to bring anything else in. Somehow the exercises didn’t help with the scene when Romeo reacts to his banishment [III.3], so we did a run where I just felt it in terms of emotion and let that guide me. Tim couldn’t hear what I was saying but I think he understood that I needed to do that once; even if somebody is very in control of a scene and has planned what they will do in a very particular way, which words they will stress and so on, sometimes it helps to dig for what's going on under the surface. That needed to happen; hopefully now I can combine the emotional stuff with the thought-out aspects of the scene and the balance will work.
One moment that has been especially tricky is when Romeo throws himself on the ground before the Friar:
Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel.
Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love,
An hour but married, Tybalt murdered,
Doting like me, and like me banished,
Then mightst thou speak; then mightst thou tear thy hair,
And fall upon the ground, as I do now,
Taking the measure of an unmade grave.
There's a pretty good description of what the actor should be doing whilst he says these lines; it's like a stage direction embedded into the text. In one sense that's useful, but I’ve seen productions where one is almost waiting for the actor to decide ‘Right, now I’m going to fall down.’ I think ‘as I do now’ turns the gesture [throwing oneself on the ground] into a statement that is defiant as well as despairing – it's not just a tantrum. By acknowledging that there is a self-consciousness in the way Romeo draws attention to himself, I think it actually becomes more realistic… at least, that's what I’m hoping!
Another thing I noticed whilst we were working on the banishment scene was that some lines are physically very difficult to articulate. For instance:
There is no world without Verona walls
I find it so hard to say ‘world’ in that line – somehow it feels very odd. That's probably deliberate on Shakespeare's part: ‘world’ has such huge implications just there that it shouldn’t slip easily off the tongue. The muscles in your face have to work very hard to get around all those ‘W's – even when you let all the tension out of your jaw, you can’t say it quickly. One of the most brilliant things about working on Shakespeare is that you come across a difficult phrase which makes you stop and think ‘How do I say that?’ then you realise that he means it to be a struggle. He wants you to say it with difficulty. The sound of the words is crucial to the meaning.
Basement exercise [V.3]
Yesterday we went down into the basement underneath the Globe and turned all the lights off before we ran through the scene set in the graveyard [V.3]. We only had lanterns and Tim had put something down as a grave that we had to find. It was really interesting – it gave you a good idea, practically, about what you could and couldn’t see. Our movements became a lot more tentative and much slower than they were in a well-lit rehearsal room. We were feeling our way around and you can imagine how, if you were looking for one grave in a graveyard, you would take quite a long time to find it. Those things will inform how we move onstage during the scene. You can’t just turn down the lights here so you have to find other ways to communicate to the audience that the scene is set in the dark; movement is one of the ways you can do that.
As we begin to rehearse more onstage, I’m starting to realise what a huge difference an audience will make. The moment you have an audience, there are people with whom you can connect. I’ve noticed that connection just with tour groups that are always moving in and out of the theatre. They’re taken into the theatre during the rehearsals and watch for a few minutes in silence, so suddenly you have an audience. The other day we were running the first act and when we got to the bit where I see Juliet for the first time, I said ‘It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/ As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear’ [I.5.45-6] straight to a tour group in one of the lower bays. They seemed to respond well. Someone said later that each person in that group felt I had been talking to them, so the connection can be quite personal, quite individual.
The next big thing on the horizon will be a run of the entire play. It’ll be useful to see how everything fits together, but I’m sure there will be lots of moments that need work as result. What seems right for one scene might not fit with what you thought was right for another scene. I also feel the need to do a run in costume, just to find out how much that will restrict my movement and so on. I tried it all on yesterday and it felt a little tight so they loosened it off slightly and that feels much better. I couldn’t quite take a deep breath before and now I can. It's odd – actresses are taught how to deal with corsets in drama school, but there aren’t sessions that teach you how to deal with doublets! I don’t think I’d be able to breathe if I slouched in it. My movements will probably become more precise though, which is obviously a good thing.
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.