HOW DOES IT FEEL TO PLAY MERCUTIO, ONE OF SHAKESPEARE’S FUNNIEST AND MOST UNPREDICTABLE CHARACTERS? WE ASKED ACTOR DAMIEN STROUTHOS.
Mercutio loves nothing better than a big night out. If you were in the pub talking to a mate, how would you describe Mercutio?
Mercutio is the person in the pub who is standing on the table, drinking more than anybody else! He’s the loudest one in the room and the centre of attention at all times. He’s that mate you have who cracks all the jokes and who is a bit of a smart aleck – but also the one who will start the fight in the bar as well. He’s the first person to throw a punch because he’s always looking for an escape from normal, banal everyday life.
Put it this way: In the play Romeo And Juliet, Mercutio himself does not know that he is in the play Romeo And Juliet. Right up until the moment he dies, he thinks it’s The Mercutio Show.
How do you feel about playing Mercutio on stage?
I’m quite humbled because Mercutio is one of the great Shakespeare characters and I might never get the opportunity again. You could pick Mercutio up and put him in any one of Shakespeare’s plays and he’d have the same impact. He’s a vibrant and intelligent character with such a wit but at the same time he is the most bawdy and most volatile character. He’s a hugely fascinating character and I am relishing playing the part.
Are you anything like Mercutio in real life?
Honestly? I feel like I’m trying to live up to Mercutio because he’s such a fantastic creation. I feel like I have to grow myself to become him. He is the complete opposite of me in real life. I’m a pretty relaxed human being but it’s fun to play someone like Mercutio. He has such a mercurial nature.
He’s the life and soul of the party, but his feisty personality also leads him into the fatal brawl with Tybalt, which proves to be his undoing.
Yes, but I do sympathise with Mercutio. I do identify with his story a lot. For me, his story is one of the more heartbreaking ones in the play, because he never fully realises why he dies. He never finds out that Romeo is in love with Juliet. He spends the whole time thinking that Romeo is in love with Rosaline and that is what is making him [Romeo] sad. Mercutio never once meets Juliet and he never understands that his friend has found true love.
He’s neither Capulet nor Montague. So why does Mercutio step in to the fracas with Tybalt?
I think Mercutio gets involved for a number of reasons. Partly because he simply enjoys a fight but also because he wants to prove to his friend that he loves him. Mercutio spends the whole time trying to win his friend’s love back through gestures of grandeur. He wants to show Romeo that he’s worth more as a friend than a wife or girlfriend ever could be.
That’s interesting. Some people assume Mercutio is a just a headstrong, wisecracking rabble-rouser. But you really feel for him, don’t you.
His story is one of the more fascinating ones that Shakespeare wrote, mainly because it feels almost incomplete, in a sense. The audience is introduced to the character towards the end of the first act. He comes on and only after this gigantic monologue is he named. Romeo says, “Peace, peace Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.” and Mercutio says, “True, I talk of dreams”. We hardly know who this guy is and then, four scenes later he is dead – having changed the whole trajectory of the play.
Shakespeare took a translation of an old Italian poem and turned it into the Romeo And Juliet that we know today. In doing so, he amplified Mercutio’s role quite significantly. What does Mercutio add to Shakespeare’s version, do you think?
I think Shakespeare is very good at placing an idea in the same scene as the antithesis to that idea. Mercutio is an anti-hero to Romeo. Shakespeare is showing us different perspectives on the same circumstances.
Also Shakespeare was a writer for the people. He fleshed out Mercutio, I think, because he was writing this play for the queen but also for the commoners too. The most amazing thing about Shakespeare’s writing is that he can be so crass and bawdy and vulgar but he does it in such a beautifully poetic way that the queen will applaud him just as much as the commoners.
So I think Shakespeare needed a character like Mercutio to juxtapose Romeo’s beautiful poetry. He needed both sides to please the masses.
Mercutio is certainly an entertainer. The first two Acts feel like a comedy until he dies.
Oh absolutely. The play is a romantic comedy until then. Boisterous young kids who fall in and out of love, gate-crash parties and so on. Then it all changes when Mercutio is killed by Tybalt, and then Romeo kills Tybalt.
Mercutio keeps the wisecracks up until the very end doesn’t he.
Even in those final moments, Mercutio is never accepting of death. It’s a curious thing to perform on stage. He makes jokes all the way up until he is dead: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man”. Mercutio is very self aware of the fact that the world is about to lose a great mind. He’s really quite an incredible character.
The 2016 Bell Shakespeare production of Romeo And Juliet is being staged at the Arts Centre Melbourne (14 April – 1 May). Details at BellShakespeare.com.
Interview by Andy McLean.