And the winner is…

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North-East winner is a dreamer and a gentleman:

‘Thank you for your voices ….. your most sweet voices!’

Shakespeare’s own poetic voice is unmistakable.  However, open a copy of The Complete Works at any place and a host of other voices vie for our attention: ‘Your good voice, sir; what say you?’ (Coriolanus, Act II, Scene III).  Since September, Newcastle Theatre Royal has been on a quest to discover the Shakespearean character which speaks most directly to North-East theatre-goers.  Nearly 2,000 people have since added their own voices to the cause, voting online and at venues across the region.


In his poem, For An Actor, Canadian poet, Andrew Parkin, eloquently alludes to the moment of theatrical alchemy when an actor’s performance touches individual lives in unseen ways:


‘We pull from the past

his tribe of faces,

roles that people memory,

cling to some phase

of our growing

which he could never know

he influenced just so’.


As the RSC’s northern residency, Theatre Royal audiences have enjoyed many memorable Shakespearean performances over the last 33 years.  Would this have an impact on their Vote for Shakespeare Campaign?


So, on April 23rd, Shakespeare’s birthday, which character did the North-East choose to be immortalised in bronze?  And who turned out to be the ‘nearly man’?  I can here reveal that Lady Macbeth and Bottom were united in fourth place, ‘gentle’ Puck came third and the runner-up was bookies’ favourite, ‘noble’ Hamlet.  Shakespeare’s most famous character gave the winner a good run for his money, but was pipped at the post by what many considered a rank outsider: ‘that gallant spirit’, Mercutio!


Sports fans know what follows results: experts trot out the stats.  North-East hearts were clearly won over by this charismatic gentleman-dreamer who beat Hamlet by 40 votes.  But how could a character involved in only four scenes, with merely 8% of his play’s lines and dead by Act III end up winning?  Very easily it seems when that character is as memorable as Mercutio, an actor’s dream role.


The North-East is often said to have a lively spirit, so perhaps the clever money should have been on witty, vibrant, imaginative Mercutio all along.  Without a doubt, Jonjo O’Neill’s virtuoso RSC performance in September will have garnered Mercutio a great many votes, especially from younger theatre-goers.  O’Neill, a soulful, intelligent actor who excels at physical theatre, was surely born to play Mercutio.


Shakespeare’s crafting of Mercutio’s energetic and enigmatic voice provides an actor with excellent raw materials, of course, no matter how talented the performer or clever the dramatic interpretation.  John Dryden noted in 1672 that, ‘Shakespeare show’d the best of his skill in his Mercutio’.  Embodying mercurial unpredictability, Mercutio is fleet-of-foot, fascinating, free-spirited.  But reckless impetuosity ultimately proves his downfall.


Mercutio’s stage-life is memorable in every way, but nothing in his life becomes him like the leaving of it.  Death comes to Mercutio quickly and unexpectedly in a lethal embrace, love-story spinning into tragedy at the twist of a knife.  ‘I am hurt’, he says, and we are too.  Shocked at the pointlessness, we share his disbelieving pain.


Within his own world, Mercutio’s qualities are endorsed by all: gentle, good, brave, gallant, bold.  Romeo calls him  ‘my very friend’.  Audiences also find Mercutio – a man ‘that loves to hear himself talk’ – good company.   Brutally unsentimental about love, his evident enjoyment of coarse, witty wordplay results in engaging comic exchanges.  Yet this dreamer also speaks some of Romeo and Juliet’s most beautiful poetry.  This paradoxical quality is one of Mercutio’s most fascinating features.


Light and dark: here and gone.  In Rupert Goold’s production, Jonjo O’Neill’s flamboyant Mercutio idly toyed with a lighter flame.  When Mercutio’s bright flame is extinguished, Verona becomes a very different place.


In a parallel vote to find the North-East’s favourite Shakespeare play, the winner was A Midsummer Night’s Dream narrowly beating Romeo and Juliet by two votes. After that came Hamlet, Macbeth and The TempestThe Tempest was also the focus of the creative writing competition winning entry, Sophie Keates-Gazey’s poem Ariel earning her a trip to Stratford to see Michael Boyd’s Macbeth on the new RST stage.


So what happens next?  Well this is really just the beginning.  We now start the process of commissioning a sculptor to bring Mercutio to life in time for Shakespeare’s birthday in 2011, the Theatre Royal’s 175th Anniversary year.  I can’t wait to keep you posted on the exciting choices still to come.


By Christine Chapman, Advisor to Newcastle Theatre Royal’s ‘Vote for Shakespeare’ Campaign


Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    I am away on holiday until May 9th – I will contact you as soon as possible on my return.

    All the best


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  • Iraseid

    In my teaching of “Shakespeare as a Tool for Theatre” I encourage each actor to approach their text in a mercurial (Mercutio) fashion first. Be playful as a clown, fervent as a preacher, and as dramatic as a dramaqueen all of this first and quick changing (mercurial) as the spirit hits you. From such Mercutio like behavior, uninhibited, one can more rapidly discover the variety of feelings and possibilities in even a single monologue. Yet this also requires a disciplined ‘retreat’ (zim-zum) from the teacher or director as observer and encourag-er. The effect of the observer especially when an actor is attempting to ‘discover’ on the floor is important to the process. (this is written about in my M.A. thesis “The Body of the Actor in the Space of the Theatre”) x Ira

  • Noelle

    How exciting! I didn’t see Mercutio coming, but he is indeed one of Shakespeare’s brightest characters. Congrats to all involved. It’s funny, because I was just naming Shakespeare’s most performed plays off the top of my head (and lamenting his lesser performed ones), and they included A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet, hehe. Note: this is based on no scientific study, only plays I have either seen performed multiple times or plays I’ve seen advertised.

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