SBainAs part of our ongoing commitment to nurture, support and inspire local theatre-makers, the Royal Exchange Theatre are able to offer directors based in Greater Manchester the opportunity to observe the journey of a production through rehearsals with our Observer Mondays Scheme.

Here is the fourth blog from ANNA KARENINA observing director Stephanie Bain.


Week Four was a week of two halves, with Monday’s rehearsal taking place in the rehearsal room - now fully decorated with images from Russian society life, agricultural scenes and a large mnemonic of Oblonsky’s absurdly long job title – while on Saturday, I was lucky enough to pop in for a run in the module space, which gave me the chance to see how all the decisions made in the past few weeks have materialised in the space, both in the performances and in the sprinkling of design elements that were introduced for the run.

A little mental note that has been scurrying around my head is regarding casting. Ellen seems to have really lucked out on finding a cast for Anna Karenina, that are not only talented and suited to their roles, but that enjoy working in a similar way and are open to the kind of process that Ellen is initiating in rehearsals. Yet, I’m aware, of course, that it isn’t luck and that casting is a skill in itself, so I’m interested in how Ellen discovers the actors she wants to work with and what she looks for in auditions.

A final observation from Monday’s rehearsal is that scenes are starting to become set now as we move towards the performance and what is surprising, is that I didn’t notice when that started. The transition from playful, investigative, rehearsing of scenes to clear spatial decisions that are repeated in similar ways each time, happened seamlessly and organically.

On Saturday, I was very glad to watch the first full run in the space because it really brought home the effectiveness of many decisions that I’d witnessed being made in the rehearsal room, most notably the ways in which Ellen and the company had pushed the possibilities of the scenes connecting and existing alongside other scenes in the space, something which I’ve mentioned previously, but the effect of which is only really clear when you see the character’s journeys as a whole in the space. There was a particular moment of connection between two characters, whose whole journeys in the play have been running parallel and a crucial moment, despite the characters in reality being separated by miles upon miles of turnip fields, meet in the physical theatre space, that was incredibly moving – even though I knew it was coming. The circular movement that the in the round space allows also brought life to scenes in which character were walking anticlockwise to characters in another scene, again giving the sense that character’s experiences were happening in opposition to other’s experiences.

In her pre-run pep talk, Ellen stressed the importance of letting things go wrong in this first run, of avoiding the temptation to find the ‘show must go on’ quick fix, rather than stopping to clarify. This seemed a particularly helpful way to approach a run.

Another element that was added in the run was sound, which prompted yet another little sticky note in my head, as I wondered about the discussions that had gone into making some of the sound decisions. The sound design seems to be made up of a few significant motif that are woven through the piece; making thematic connections, sometimes emphasising the tone of a scene, sometimes working in clever counterpoint to it, often adding to the sense of increasing pressure that the characters face from all sides.

The knitting together of all elements from the performances to the design left me with even more questions and thoughts to mull over, but certainly piqued my interest for the show itself.

ANNA KARENINA runs in The Theatre from 19 March - Sat 2 May. It runs in reportoire with THE ROLLING STONE which runs in The Theatre from 21 April - 1 May.