It’s been so long since I’ve put finger to keyboard. I’m feeling a little guilty for my tardiness with this blog. To say I underestimated how busy we’d be with rehearsals is an understatement of Roman proportions. Our days are long and our weeks short, but so much has happened. An entry a day wouldn’t be implausible, and yet with each passing week my laptop sits comfortably on my desk, mocking me. I’m currently in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, surreptitiously tapping away whilst we rework some notes from our third preview of Antony & Cleopatra. Tomorrow, we go back to Julius Caesar and start doing both shows in rep; in just over a week, previews will have ended and we will be embarking on our two press nights. So many beginnings are ending and with them so is the chance to document this experience.
So where to start? Rehearsals in London seem a distant memory. Lines have been learnt, intentions mulled over and distilled, and moves assimilated to muscle memory…only then to arrive to Stratford and throw away some of that stuff once you’re in a new space.
My version of the soothsayer in Julius Caesar a very different guy from the man I left behind in London. By the end of day one of technical rehearsals that guy proved as popular as his wig (see picture). Our director Angus cautiously came up to me to break the news that as much fun as I was having with my new found locks, I was resembling a character from a Cecil B Demille movie; which was perhaps not quite right for the show. Less ‘Beware the Ides of March’, and more ‘Beware the Ten Commandments’. Getting rid of the wig also freed us up to axe the walking staff we’d been using for this character in London, changing the energy of the character.
The soothsayer in Julius Caesar is an outsider. He is not an official augurer (soothsayer) under the employ of Caesar’s court. There is a temptation therefore to make him stick out from the rigid militarism of Rome by presenting him as a greasy-haired unkempt mystic. Traditionally, he is played by a much older actor, and there are references in the text to him being feeble – cue that old guy again with the staff. The thing about playing the soothsayer with a staff is that you can’t help but go to Middle Earth with it. From as early on as the audition process, I was always weary of playing his wizardry.
Soothsayers in Ancient Rome were as commonplace as greengrocers or ironmongers - it was just another job. They were revered for their powers but they were also a part of the fabric of society, far more so than they are today. By taking off the wig and removing the walking stick, I was able to play him as a closer version of me. A man in his 30s rather than his 60s, who comes out of the throng of plebeians with little regard for pomp and ceremony. Being a man of colour already makes me stick out enough, we didn’t need any extras. And the follically challenged head added to the overall striking effect! I like this new soothsayer. Some might call him a troublemaker but he glides where Rome marches.
This is one of the advantages of having a long rehearsal process. You hopefully can explore your character so extensively that you should have a multitude of options at your disposal; previews are a chance for testing out those options. For example one of the notes we received as a company in Antony & Cleopatra, from our Director Iqbal, was to "shake it up. Mess around with it." Having reached a place where we are comfortable in our new surroundings after our third preview, our director has given us license to now upset the apple cart – or should that be the fig basket.
Comfort can be the death of spontaneity for an actor on stage, especially when we know we have such a long run. Consequently, previews become the perfect time to be dangerous with your choices - within reason of course - and to fail if those choices don’t work. Soon it will be the end of that beginning too. Once we’ve had our press performance, we go into show running and the beginning of a new chapter in this most beguiling of experiences.