August 6, 2013
I'm frequently asked what it's like to work on a production for an extended period of time over the course of a long run.
Without question, you get to know the show very, very well. The text becomes so familiar to you, that you start to notice things that eluded you in the rehearsal process.
Sometimes, these are fascinating and inspiring linguistic clues that allow you to unlock an as yet unexplored facet of a character or scene, and as such, nourish and enrich the performance. Sometimes, they are obscure little curios that are amusing but utterly pointless.
It is the second of these two sorts that I'd like to talk about today – specifically, by discussing the never-ending hunt for what I like to call Shakespeare's 'hidden characters'.
I can't lay claim to having instigated this noble search. Its joy was first introduced to me by the actor Will Featherstone, an old friend with whom I've been lucky to work on a number of occasions (pictured far left).
One such occasion found us at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh in the winter of 2010. Will was playing Romeo, I Benvolio. Our director, Tony Cownie, had absorbed Balthazar's lines into my part (meaning that I wasn't able to sneak of for a nap / a bite to eat / a pint after the interval like the Benvolios of yore).
As such, it was I who arrived in Mantua and told the blissfully unaware young lover that Juliet's 'body sleeps in Capels' monument, / And her immortal part with angels lives'. Riding the crest of a surging tide of grief, Will turned to me in reply and asked, 'Is it e'en so?'
As Will pointed out to me halfway through the run, it would have sounded exactly the same if he had asked me, 'Is it Ian Sowe?' As if he were asking me if Juliet's death had been at the hands of an infamous Verona local.
Thus began a pursuit that has been a source of immeasurable delight for me ever since.
When I was last working with the RSC, Colm Gormley and I were delighted to discover hidden amongst the dramatis personae of King Lear one Frank Heart, who is presumably a second hand car salesman. There was also the commander of Albion's army, General Woe.
In fact, the military ones are particularly good fun for some reason. In Act II Scene 3 of Titus Andonicus, Tamora alludes to a Private Steps, who is apparently being controlled saucily by Bassianus, and when Aaron tells his new born baby that he intends to bring him up to 'command a camp'… well, you get the idea.
With Harry McEntire as my chief partner in crime, we've unearthed several more in our play; there's Roman Hunting, to whom Saturninus seems particularly keen to introduce his new empress, 'white and spotless Hugh', a chap who presumably keeps his nose clean, and the rather unsavoury 'Ray Pine' who attends Revenge as one of her ministers (credit to Matt Needham, for that one).
This is not to say that we're not also occupied with the serious business of maintaining the quality of the production – we are, and more on that in a future post.
In the meantime, it's heartening to me that, after 400 years of intensive scholarship, crucial discoveries like these are still being made.
If you know of any more hidden characters, please do add them to the comments section below.
It's time these unsung heroes of Shakespeare's drama got the exposure they deserve... maybe even a spot on the Gower Memorial?
by Ben Deery
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