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Simon Nussbaum - Bishop of Coventry, Earl of Pembroke and Lightborne

The show was originally sold on the auditions emails etc. with music – I believe jazz - conspicuously specified as part of the production vision, which led me and several other cast members to envision something involving a large array of musicians and instruments, possibly involving dance movement and singing. In the end of course the show used 2 musicians on djembe drum and saxaphone, very different to the imagined extravagance but ultimately far more satisfactory. Because the notion of ensemble and group process (undoubtedly inherited from the RSC's involvement in the CAPITAL Centre) were put so central to Edward II the musicians were usually referred to as being creative forces for the actors to perform in dialogue with – and so in rehearsal various scenes would be assigned different musical keywords which would then evolve or change depending on the musicians' outlook or the actors' portrayal. While essential to the rehearsal process, I think the main value of the music come the performance was rather more simply to create mood, atmosphere and context for the audience and thus lift some of the burden from the actors – particularly helpful given the minimalist staging. It was also an aid for members of the cast (myself not included) who had monologues and soliloquies heavily reliant on Marlowe's rhythmic verse, giving them an undercurrent of timing and emphasis.

The rehearsal process was notably long, not just in how long before the performance we started but also the workload of hours was substantial from early on. It was also physically very intensive, which inevitably was liable to play negatively on the cast's mood, but on the up side made it feel like real work. I've always found in my acting the physical aspect far harder to control and get right than the vocal, so having such a rehearsal process dominated by physical activities of all sorts has proved extremely valuable. The 'group faction' element of the play took a massive precedence in rehearsal – 'follow the leader' games were the most common and recurring physical element – which was of course important but I felt the main benefit was the indirect benefits to our attention to physical movement, as forming a homogenous lump bunched tightly behind our leader is precisely what we ought not to be doing onstage. As my main character had plenty of time onstage but very little to say in hindsight I am immensely grateful to the physical exercises relating to attitude and posture as Marlowe's propensity to put a lot of people onstage for most of his scenes means most of the cast spent plenty of time skulking, reacting and generally trying to keep the stage picture vaguely interesting. I felt that there could have been greater integration between 'ensemble work' – the kind of rehearsal techniques that could and probably would have been used regardless of what play we were working on – and specific 'Edward II work', as the general way the rehearsal process went was that the first 2 weeks were virtually uninterrupted physical exercise, with specific staging and more conventional rehearsal gradually being introduced. At the time of doing the lengthy physical rehearsals it could be frustrating that we could only trust in hope that once we started working on the play at hand it would become useful.

The autonomy given to the cast for blocking Edward II was for the most part fantastic (the battles probably being the only exception). It meant that we had a greater ability to introduce our own character insights into proceedings, made us more comfortable with the outcome, forced awareness about what we would be doing physically in a scene (again, important when everything you will be doing in a scene is physical and little or none of it is necessary whatsoever to the narrative) and made the whole blocking process evolutionary. It also makes for more efficient rehearsals as the director is not needed to give an overseeing eye to every area and moment before any progress can be made.

 

Bishop of Coventry - Of course with Coventry the starting point was that familiar reminder of the “massive importance of religion in society” which allowed me to play my opening lines to Edward patronizingly rather than deferentially. Seeing as my time onstage is short and sweet my main aim was differentiation, so I tried to keep myself horizontally restricted to contrast with Pembroke and show some sort of prim dignity, and my voice sonorous and somewhat aristocratic. I mostly blocked the Coventry scene and came upon the idea of having some sort of physical drowning occur onstage. Selfishly this made me happier playing the part at all as it meant something at least happened to me onstage and gave the scene/character some visual interest to the audience. I also thought this conveyed the keyword of 'humiliation' the director gave us for the passage and fit with Gaveston's physical impulsivity. 

 Earl of Pembroke – I originally envisioned Pembroke as an old duffer, principally because I was amused by how much of his role seemed to be to chip in with agreement once a resolution was made and how frequently he was overlooked – I saw him as a geriatric sitting around upstage occasionally popping up to no great consequence. This was of course quite a parody and I'm not sure how much I ever thought of actually playing him like this. When I and the director talked through the character I said I saw him as either younger or older than the barons and we decided upon youth, which was certainly a better direction and prevented me slipping into an egotistical attempt to steal stage-time to recompense the lack of lines Pembroke gets. As the rehearsal process developed Pembroke's youth became more important to me as it allowed the character to be motivated principally by violence, as a real disciple of Mortimer rather than Warwick and Lancaster's more separate political entities. This goes some way to excuse the lack of lines and importance as most of his subjectivity is indistinct from Mortimer. The main challenge – and something which only properly developed late on in rehearsals – was the configuring of relationships between the group of barons. It was only through playing scenes again and again that we found and developed attitudes to one another to give the barons' scenes a greater amount of characterization – important as they are so overridingly concerned with plot and there are few clues in the text about the relationships inside the faction. The suggestion of Pembroke's death was a neat way of both giving some onstage repercussions of the conflict between the King and barons, and also on a practical basis resolving fact that Marlowe – typically showing how little importance the character is of - never bothers giving him an exit after the battles.

Lightborne – Lightborne is clearly a fun part to have and I enjoyed having the role, as well as being conscious of the need to avoid the temptation to turn his scenes into pantomime. It was also liberating because the role has absolutely no demands of realism, as the character is so outlandish, simply appears in order to serve his purpose to the plot. Once it came to rehearsing the actual sequences (rather than general character work) I found in particular his main monologue intensely problematic, mostly because it needs delivering to an audience for it to be effective and so it never felt natural until an audience was actually present. I also found difficult the switch between talking to Mortimer onstage and then turning to the audience for the rest of the speech, and I'm not sure if I ever really handled this right. For Lightborne's main role as executioner, I went through a real turnaround as rehearsals went on. Initially I had in mind something chillingly passive and detached, and in one of the 'magic space' games I remember acting out a sort of execution along these lines[1]. I envisaged calling for the poker like a surgeon for a scalpel. However as I started rehearsing the scenes with Matt [Edward] I soon realized the need for a rethink, firstly because of the understated way the King's monologues and movement are done, and principally because it became obviously apparent that sticking a poker up his behind as the method of murder – despite us rationalizing the methodology when talking about contract killers in terms of not leaving a mark etc. - was not something which lent itself to the serious professional but someone more enthusiastic and psychotic. I started to play up a sort of glee and a physical impulsiveness, which helped in the build-up as it gave I hope the sense of a trap waiting to be sprung at the right moment. The presence of the mattress allowed me to give a childlike sort of bounce to the character. We also of course gave reference to the latent eroticism of the death, so I always wanted some sort of physical contact, preferably something near romantic, and stroking Matt's long hair became a convenient way of showing this.

 Performance

It was interesting as part of the cast to note the difference between individual reflections and group reflections. On one of the nights in particular I was massively dissatisfied with my portrayal of Pembroke, yet coming in at the interval expecting universal irritation found plenty of the principles and other actors thought the performance was going very well. As Pembroke I think the greatest gift by Marlowe to the actors (I'm not sure how much for roles other than the barons) is the combination of swift, punchy, direct scenes and not too much substantial time offstage between them. Once playing Pembroke (after my brief turn as Coventry), my onstage time while as with every acting performance could be troubled by flatness and lack of energy, there wasn't the need to contend with a natural boredom of lengthy speeches or dialogue which don't take the audience anywhere (something Matt I'm sure was burdened with and dealt with excellently); and when not onstage it was helpful that there was rarely time for energy levels and mood to subside. In fact the time which felt longest was not when properly offstage but when stood at the back in freeze-frame waiting to reappear – during the which time I would try to manipulate my face into a snarl, grit my teeth and other slightly silly things to keep the mentality of intense anger (we're about to castrate Gaveston) up. On the final night as Lightborne, motivated of course by the knowledge of the final performance and that while Pembroke was my substantial part the moment with the poker is what the audience are most likely to remember, I tried to up the energy levels and physical contortion, and also rubbed a decent amount of hair gel into my hands - a technique which I wish I had thought of or discovered earlier as I felt it was of immense help to my physicality. It was during the rehearsal process but also subsequently that I came to realize just how influential the RSC's Histories Cycle had been to the whole mode of performance, from the importance of group dynamic and ensemble work to the rehearsal process, the strategic multi-roling, the presence of music to punctuate action, to the minimalist staging with one large metallic structure at the back, the stylized battles, the costume choices.

 



[1] [In this game, the actors sit on chairs in a square, with an empty space in the middle. This is what we call “the magic space”. It belongs to all the actors and anything can happen inside it. One at a time, when they are ready and when they wish to, any of the actors may enter and explore the space. When an actor wishes to enter the space, s/he stands up, at which point everyone else looks down. When the actor inside the space is ready to be watched, s/he stamps his foot to indicate that the others may look up. In rehearsal, actors were invited to explore the space first as themselves and then as their characters. Both the space and the actors became many different things each time a new person entered the space – J.I.]