Titus Rehearsal Blog: Henri on Titus

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Henri Merriam as Titus Andronicus with Smooth Faced GentlemenThis time on our Titus Rehearsal Blog, Henri Merriam writes about playing the title character.

It’s that time in the rehearsal period. The point where it suddenly strikes you that you are going to be expected to perform this mammoth piece in front of an audience. It’s given me a couple of sleepless nights. I say sleepless – I wasn’t tossing and turning – but I have had a couple of brief moments of waking at 3am and wondering what the butterflies fluttering in my stomach are about… and then I remember. TITUS ANDRONICUS.

The general response when I say that we are tackling this play tends to be “Oh, Titus Andronicus… I don’t really know that one.” A part of me relishes this – people will not be waiting for that speech, this moment.
Henri as Titus with Smooth Faced GentlemenBut then I start to panic – maybe it’s not performed because it is too much of a hard task, maybe we are not man enough to tackle it. I scuttle back to my script and take comfort in the intelligible edit that the team have prepared   for us. “What’s it about?” the curious ask me. “Um… A Roman general. The queen of the Goths, her lover. Warring brothers. Murder, rape, limb-lopping” (am I selling it right?). My memory flips back to the Reduced Shakespeare Company‘s version of Titus; in the back of my mind I remember one of the cast dressed as a chef throwing heads around. I can remember being confused. Very confused. The butterflies have started again.

This year the team have integrated workshops into the rehearsal process. Gary Horner leads a voice workshop – based largely on Kristin Linklater‘s theories; a process that I have been lucky enough to have had a fair amount of training in. It reminds me of a promise I made to myself to maintain voice work every day in order to be able to access this more easily… Must try harder.

Smooth Faced Gentlemen Suzuki workshop with James FarrellJames Farrell then introduces us to some Suzuki work – I have heard about this, but never experienced it. And I have missed out. The world of the play is suddenly thrown into sharp perspective – it becomes something earthy, something deeply affecting and moving. I watch the rest of the cast move around the space and feel strongly that this is the world that Titus can exist in. It makes sense; bold and brilliant sense. There is one hang-up that niggles at me after our workshop. I feel very VERY feminine. This is strange – it happens very infrequently and I find it peculiar that such a visceral physical workshop should bring this out in me.

Henri Merriam and Francesca Binefa in Titus AndronicusTitus is a man. An old man. It is not something that I am going to forget quickly but it is one of the things that niggles at the back of my mind. I have been at war for forty years of my life – surely I must have sustained injuries – what atrocities have I seen? What atrocities have I committed? This is one of my favourite parts of any theatrical process – immersing myself in the delicious realm of imagining the world my character has lived in. I take a walk in Titus’ shoes. It’s summer. The sun beats down. Corpses litter the battlefield. I have led a perfect campaign – and I am deep in enemy territory. I am making a single-handed bid to capture my nemesis, he is near – I can sense him; I dive, arrow-like, across a moat, receiving a slight nick to my left calf from an errant arrow (it’s quite deep, but it doesn’t hurt, I’m tough after all) and plunge my shining blue sword into the heart of an orc-like foe. Mmmmm.. wrong play. And potentially overkill. But in Titus’ life according to Henri, he is a legend – a melting pot of whatever I want him to be.

Titus, Marcus, and Lavinia in all-female TitusThat’s the fun bit, but I remind myself I actually have to play the man who has experienced that – play the man who Shakespeare has written, not the fantasy ninja general I have just imagined. I falter. How does a man of this calibre, a man of this unswerving determination deal with emotion? I feel that this is where he comes unstuck. He has lost most of his sons in battle – that is surely something that a man of the army can cope with. The world of warfare he understands. But this world that he is plunged into after Lavinia is raped and mutilated – after his sons are condemned? For the first time he can’t control the situation – he can’t fix it. I rifle through my mental store to find something in my own experience to equate this with – everything seems woefully inadequate. I start to panic about how I am going to play Act III – an act rife with trauma. I go to seek solace in our director.

Theme exploration in Titus Andronicus

“Yaz, I’m scared. No. I’m terrified. I needed to share this”.

He looks at me in that contemplative Yaz-way which suggests that he is giving my comment a great deal of thought. I wait for the nugget of directorial gold which is going to put me at my ease.

“I’m sure you are. You’re going to get a lot more scared in the next few weeks I expect.”

I wait.

Nope. That’s all I’m getting.

I think about this for a little while – is it a problem that I am daunted by this terrifying role? I think it would probably be more worrying if I was not daunted by it. We have ages. AGES! Three and a half weeks. Twenty six days! Six hundred and twenty four hours! I look at the figure on the page:

624

It doesn’t look that long, so I convert it into minutes to make myself feel better. The number is close to 40,000; that looks better. Then an awareness creeps over me that the amount of time that I have spent working this out has significantly reduced this five digit number already! I try to channel my panic into the run that we do that evening. Rehearsing Titus Andronicus with Smooth Faced GentlemenI have been lucky enough to work with three of the cast before; it makes you realise that working with an ensemble is something that every actor should experience. ALL the time. I feel safe – my fear starts to dissipate – I trust these people – the fresh faces in the cast feel like year-long members of Smooth Faced Gents; and it is with a growing sense of joy that I realise I am enjoying myself. I take a moment to remember that I am mid-scene, I have just cut my hand off, I don’t think I should be relishing the moment as much as I am.
Focus.
We reach the end and I feel elated – it’s not perfect – nowhere near – but it is something. I realise I have shouted a LOT – I might have learnt my lines, but I haven’t really put much nuance into what I have just done – it is disconnected and generalised. I need to do more work; lots more. The thought enthuses me; it’s going to be fun – it’s going to be lots of fun.

And after all, we have plenty of time.

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Titus Andronicus: an all-female production (Smooth Faced Gentlemen)