Features Q&A and Interviews Published 25 November 2015

James Garnon: “You can’t sit back, you have to sit forward. What’s the point otherwise?”

"We just want to be touched by something, and that touching is human." On Pericles and the particular magic of performing at the Globe and in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Tim Bano

Sometime between AD 100 and 300, Greek and Latin writers realised that poetry was boring and didn’t have enough pirates, so they began to write prose novels. They were full of romance, shipwrecks, accidental slavery, faked deaths until the central couple were finally reunited in a big wedding. Think The Princess Bride, but without Columbo.

Here’s a simplified plot outline of Antonius Diogenes’ The Wonders Beyond Thule:

Antonius Diogenes diagram

Lots of old male classicists with beards decided that these ancient novels were probably written for women because there was no good evidence to say that they weren’t. Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre seems to owe a lot to these ancient novels, among many other influences: there are shipwrecks and riddles, maidens and presumed deaths of loved ones.

“I don’t think there’s as allegorical a play in Shakespeare’s canon as this one. Probably.” James Garnon, playing Pericles at Shakespeare’s Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, knows what he’s talking about. This is his tenth consecutive year playing at the Globe and the number of Shakespeare plays he’s been in makes for an impressive CV (The Winter’s Tale, As You Like It, Much Ado, The Tempest, Richard III, Twelfth Night, King Lear, All’s Well, Macbeth, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet to name a few).

So I’m duly corrected when I suggest that the play comes across as a series of unrelated, picaresque episodes. “The thing that Pericles encounters in the first scene, which is incest and sexual anxiety and the concept of sin that’s tied up in it, contaminates him. And that’s what he takes with him throughout the rest of the play. The thing that we’ve encountered we re-encounter constantly, we re-examine and explore. Although it looks like it’s episodic and it’s not got a through narrative, it does. In the same way that the Odyssey can look like a confusing, long, pointless, shaggy dog story. But it’s not.” (It kind of is).

Anyway, Pericles is the opening play in Dominic Dromgoole’s final season at the Globe, and it’s the first Shakespeare play as part of the main season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. So it’s a big deal for Garnon to be the lead, especially after such a long time in the Globe.

Garnon claims that the Globe “doesn’t actually require a different form of playing. It absolutely doesn’t. It just requires extra awareness and an extra vulnerability and you have to just become slightly more prepared. Watching lots of actors that have come through the Globe, it only informs players.” That the Globe equips actors to play other spaces seems counterintuitive. It’s so sui generis, so distinctive, requiring a broadness of style and an unforgiving exposure.

But I’m chided for using the word ‘broadness’, and suggesting that there is a difference between the Globe and other performance spaces. “There shouldn’t be, and it is dangerous when one starts talking about broadness of playing. There is an old prejudice that this sort of thing is somehow pantomimic. It is non-naturalistic but that does not mean to say that it’s not realistic.” Rather than broadness, Garnon suggests, “the real trick is that you can be smaller and smaller and less and less and less and less, and pull the audience up to you. That’s the real goal.”

While that may be at odds with what I’ve assumed about performing up there, it chimes with my memory of watching Garnon play Jaques in As You Like It: meditative, melancholy, effortlessly capturing the humour of the clownish philosopher’s famous lines but not letting it turn into stand up comedy or pantomime. Still, profundity is there to be pricked. His speech punctuated with a filthy laugh, Garnon suggests this analogy:

“Without being crude, method acting or acting on a dark stage or acting in a proscenium arch you could liken to masturbation. And people may well enjoy watching you masturbate, but really that’s what’s happening. Whereas this is much more an attempt at having sex. Which is messy and sometimes embarrassing and sometimes awkward, sometimes we all regret it. But when it works it’s so much better. A full mutually achieved climactic orgasm. Why not aim for that?”

Indeed.

But Pericles isn’t on the Globe stage, it’s in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, “almost a negative space in comparison to the Globe. Here you can’t deny the fact, when you’re telling the audience that you’re in a storm on the sea, that you’re in a little room with candles. The exact same fidelity is required, being small and believable and realistic whilst also not excluding the audience.” There’s zeal in his voice as he sums up: “this is the game. You can’t do anything that frightens them away from the illusion, but you can’t deny that it is an illusion. And that’s the great joy: we’re telling stories, but we can’t pretend that we’re not just telling stories. You’re never able to escape from the real joy of theatre, this kind of…bullshit. The bullshit of the game.”

Garnon in The Duchess of Malfi

Garnon in the Globe’s The Duchess of Malfi.

What a bizarre line to tread. Existential angst begins to creep into our conversation. When watching a play I like to take a moment to pull myself out of the illusion, to look at the audience, to hear the sounds of the actors and the theatre and the audience, rather than listen to the meanings of the words. To become an outside observer, someone who’s never been to the theatre before, questioning this ridiculous, concerted act of the denial of reality.

“And why are we doing it? At the Globe you can’t sit back, you have to sit forward, you have to stand up, you have to pay attention, you have to be awake, you have to be alert. These aren’t spaces where people can relax, and hopefully they’re spaces that do annoy, antagonise, irritate, excite, interest. What’s the point otherwise? You might as well go to the cinema, sit in the dark and eat popcorn.”

Garnon admits to his own discomfort watching plays at the Globe, and even suggests just watching the first half, then coming back another day to watch part two. “I don’t feel any shame about it. It’s like being in an art gallery: people are terribly conditioned to go into art galleries and look at everything, at which point you basically look at nothing and come away with nothing, except sore feet and a headache. What you should do is just walk in and go and stand in front of one piece of art, look at it properly and then leave.

“I don’t see why these things should be an ordeal. Just watch a scene, if it tells you something then great. Go home. I don’t mind. Why arts should always be regarded as something you have to suffer and endure bewilders me.”

Garnon became an actor ‘by accident’. Growing up in the middle of rural Leicestershire, he was put off acting by the “showier, flashier, more confident people” who took part in school productions. “I was always much shier and quieter. Still am.” While studying English at Edinburgh university, a friend dragged him along to an audition and he ended up playing the lead in Edward II. He carried on acting, then when his degree came to an end, “I sat down and thought there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do. Most of the things that one can do as a graduate involve you doing bad things. I couldn’t really envisage a life in which I wasn’t still doing plays, so short of joining the diplomatic service and doing Gilbert and Sullivan, I just applied to RADA and went.” He makes it sound so easy.

The Globe opened just as Garnon was finishing his degree, and having disavowed naturalism at university, he embraced the theatre’s innovation and its vision. Meanwhile he worked at the RSC and with Factory Theatre, who took a brilliant production of Hamlet to all sorts of strange venues, asking audience members to bring a prop of their choice to each performance which the cast had to incorporate into the action, while the actors changed roles each night according to names drawn out of a hat.

“Big sets, huge casts, large budgets: at heart it’s never as exciting as just one person telling another person a really true story. We just want to be touched by something, and that touching is human.” I ask whether Garnon’s still talking about sex, or all this ‘touching’ is metaphorical, and his generous laugh rings out again. There’s an ease, a tranquility in Garnon’s approach to life and art. He’s not champing at a meticulous career plan, but instead takes things as they come.

It’s an attitude that bleeds into the way he appreciates, as well as performs, art. “Watching a Shakespeare play there’s this ridiculous desire to ‘get it’ or to understand, as opposed to just relaxing and letting it fall over you and see what it does. Don’t strain at the bloody thing.” I don’t have the mental capacity to parse every line as it comes, but when I feel the flow of the lines, the rhythm, the prosody, there’s a sense of poetry – and when that’s matched by a great performance, the sense of each individual word no longer matters. What emerges instead is the sense of the whole. “Relaxing in front of the work seems to be the key. Not coming in with lots of preconceptions, but just chilling the frick out and see what happens to you.” It’s worked pretty well for Garnon so far.

Pericles plays in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 21st April 2016.

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

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