That’s my cue: Hackney actor in The Merchant of Venice

Jonathan McGarrity is in Merchant of Venice

Jonathan McGarrity is in Merchant of Venice - Credit: Archant

Johnathan McGarrity talks to Zoe Paskett about his experience in The Merchant of Venice, changing careers and moving to Hackney

New Hackney local Jonathan McGarrity is starring in a cue script production of The Merchant of Venice at The Cockpit Theatre. Theatre company Shake-Scene Shakespeare present the play, based on the method of performance from Shakespeare’s time, where actors would receive the script hours before going on stage and know nothing of the full plot and the other characters.

Their method gives the actors slightly more time to prepare, providing them with just their own lines and a couple of immediate cue words.

How do you prepare for a cue script performance?

I first came across cue scripts a few years ago when I was at drama school. I had a career change so I went to drama school late – I had a tutor there, who talked about cue script and she talked about how it was done back in Shakespeare’s day.

Obviously there’s very little prep you can do as a group in terms of the text. What you can do as a group is practice using different texts from other plays, practice picking up each others cues and making sure you’re on stage quickly and not leaving any gaps. But in terms of using the actual Merchant of Venice text, there’s very little if any practice as a company at all, so a lot of prep is done on your own and with your director.

I think that’s the beauty of it, because you’re not doing a lot of prep as a company it means that when it comes to the performance, it’s fresh and vibrant and new and hopefully electric and dynamic.

Most Read

How do you navigate around the stage, not knowing who is playing any of the other parts?

That’s a great question because I’ve never done a full cue script play before! So you’ve only got our own parts, you get a feel just by reading your own parts A) what is happening and B) what has been said to you. You can kind of get a feel of what someone else has said to you, and are prepared roughly for the kind of situation you’re in, but of course you don’t know exactly what’s been said to you.

The key to me at least – it’s a quote I read [about] Mark Rylance: You should be on receive rather than send. So it really is being a receiver of what other people are saying and letting it affect you. Let the words affect you. You can only do that if you’ve got your ears open and your eyes open. I don’t know who’s playing a single part in this play apart from me, so it’s having the courage to let it hit you.

Have you acted in the Merchant of Venice before?

I haven’t, I’m in the fortunate position that I saw it at the Almeida about three or four years ago but I haven’t studied it and we were asked not to read any of the play and part of the fun is making sure we haven’t read any of it. So I know the vague story but I don’t know it in any detail whatsoever. So when it comes to the evening it’s gonna be squeaky bum time I suppose.

How does it compare to performing in “regular” theatre productions?

Obviously you don’t have the benefit of three, four, five weeks of rehearsals which means you don’t form those kind of relationships that you might do with the company members. They can be quite important because those relationships can inform how you play the role later on, because you should always bring a part of yourself, a part of the outside world into the play – I think anyway – so you don’t have that aspect of it.

You don’t have that work-shopping freedom, that playfulness of finding, rediscovering. What you do have is you’ll have that distilled into two and a half hours on the evening, if you allow it to happen. There are similarities still, even when you’ve rehearsed a play for five weeks and you go on an eight week run of the play you should always still be doing something different every night in an ideal world, you should never be regurgitating exactly what you did the night before. You might feel differently any given night, something different might have happened, you might have slept badly, you might feel great, you might have had an argument with one of your actors, all these things influence how you play and no two nights should ever be identical. So in that respect, the way we’re doing this has echoes of a standard play.

You’ve got a different audience every night; that, to a degree, in itself should inform the way that you act, if you let it.

Obviously the first night is a complete surprise for everybody, what about the following nights, how does this differ when you know who is playing what?

I’m looking forward to finding that out myself! I guess, although you learn who all the characters are on the opening night you have a little bit more assurance in terms of what’s coming, you do actually manage to drop that. Even if you’re doing a play you’ve rehearsed week after week, you drop what happened the night before and it still hits you afresh, so I guess this will be an accelerated form of that.

We will find out on Tuesday who is playing who, but we will not remember, in the heat of the moment, what they said and what their delivery is. So it’s still going to be very much that fresh, dynamic responsiveness every night I think.

I don’t think that shock, that newness will dissipate that much over the week, to be honest, and I think because we’re all going to be quite nervous, you know how it is when you’re nervous, you don’t really take in what’s happened before hand.

You said before that you came to acting late; what were you doing before that?

Oh god, about as far from acting as you can imagine! I studied law at university in Newcastle and then I went into tax, legal consultancy and accounting.

So pretty different then!

Yeah, so I did that for about 15 years in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and then I got to the stage about three or four years ago where I just knew I had to do something different. I knew that if I carried on doing what I was doing there would always be something nagging at my mind. I sold my house in Edinburgh and moved to London and went to Arts Ed in Chiswick and I don’t think I have any regrets! It’s early days yet, I only graduated two years ago, so we’ll see how it unfolds.

Were you acting for a while before you made the change?

No, not until I was 30, a friend of mine in Edinburgh heard me sing and said you should go and audition for some musicals, and I had no idea at this point that Edinburgh or any city really had a full am dram scene. Back in 2007, I did my first show, a musical called The Boyfriend, which opened up a door of “wow, there are other things to do than accountancy and playing rugby!” Then one thing led to another, I did the play of blood brothers, not the musical, and that’s when I really thought this is something I love doing.

So, I’m a latecomer. I’m sometimes envious of those people who’ve done drama since they were kids, because they know a lot more people, but I’m also glad I’ve had these two distinct aspects to my life so far – there might be more! But so far it’s been the professional commercial world of law and the slightly more bonkers world of acting!

Have you lived in Hackney since you moved to London?

After drama school, I went on tour with The Full Monty going round the uk for about eight months or so, then I’ve been teaching public speaking up in Lancashire over the summer, so I’ve just been in Hackney for the past couple of months.

I love it, there’s such a vibrancy over here. Just walking through the streets, there’s a feeling that everyone is doing something. I was walking around Victoria Park last week and they had the market on there and VP itself is absolutely gorgeous. I ran down to Brick Lane through London Fields and the café culture and shops selling all sorts of stuff. It has a real…I hate the word “buzz”, but it does, it has a real buzz about the place.

When I came out of drama school we did a play at the Kings Head Theatre, called F**king Men, that was an interesting experience, as on opening night I lost my boxer shorts! There were various scenes where we had to get into a state of undress, and in one of the scenes the lights come up as I’m putting my boxer shorts on, and as the lights came up I realised I’d somehow managed to fling my pants about 10 yards across the stage. So I’m sitting on the edge of this bed wearing nothing but a wristwatch and the audience is on all four sides and I thought: “this is my first job out of drama school, is this what it’s gonna be like?”

The Merchant of Venice opens at The Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone on October 3–7.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter