The second week of rehearsals roll around and this Monday, rehearsals have now moved up to the rehearsal studio at the Royal Exchange. I’m excited to see that the afternoon’s rehearsal will be returning to an early scene I heard read last week – this feels like a fantastic chance to see how things have developed and what has been brought to the room in the week since I last observed.
Before we get into rehearsals, we have a second meet and greet with the entire staff of the Royal Exchange – from sound design to costume to marketing and the theatre’s artistic director, Sarah Frankcom. As we introduce ourselves, Sarah remarks that, with the week of rehearsals at Graeae, a company feeling has already started to become clear amongst the cast. It’s fantastic to see how palpable the effect of Jo’s inclusive opening week has been on getting past any initial awkwardness to already establish a sense of a company working together, in just a week.
Once everyone’s been introduced, Lee (the company manager) gives a few introductory notes about working at the Royal Exchange before taking us all down to the theatre itself – a place I’ve been to see many productions at but never had the chance to look around myself. We stand on The Suppliant Women set and as Lee takes us through the practical details of the theatre (entrances, exits, the colour coding of the stairs, where the deputy stage manager will be for the show), Andy (assistant director) remarks that it doesn’t matter how many times he’s been in there, he’s still overawed by the space. Jo refers to it as a ‘magical’ space. They’re not wrong. There’s really nothing quite like it.
For the rest of the morning, we return to the rehearsal room and set up a character ‘hot-seat’, for the cast to feed back on what they’ve discovered about their character through the read through – Jo had asked them to focus on factual details about their character and on what other characters say about them. For example, Simon Armstrong (playing Sir Toby Belch), is a knight, is Olivia’s uncle, he doesn’t like Malvolio and he has a clear love of language. He is someone who thinks ‘why use one word when six can do?’ In this session, we focus on Sir Toby, Malvolio, Olivia and Sir Andrew.
What is particularly interesting to note is the shared surprise that everyone has about how little factual detail there is about their characters. So much about them is up to the actor and the company to infer and to develop. It leaves so much space for the interpretation of roles that have been performed again and again for over four hundred years. Furthermore, when thinking about what other people say, so much is dictated by personal biases and again hard to trust – we basically hear only negative things about Malvolio and we hear so much from everyone about Olivia’s character. It is also clear (returning to the company feel of the room) that everyone has developed not only a good understanding of their own character, but also of their role within the wider play and of the play as a whole. Again, everyone is involved and contributing to a discussion on different themes, ideas and questions that the play raises – where did Maria learn to write? What does Olivia’s relationship to Malvolio mean following the death of her father and brother? The definite feeling that Sir Andrew is the only new person in Olivia’s household.
As Jo and the cast explore what is interesting about this world, these people and their relationships, it becomes clear why she invited them to begin with the factual details of their character. Starting from a factual basis keeps character development and backstories firmly rooted in what we know from the text. While this is definitely going to be a new and exciting interpretation of the play, there is no question whatsoever it will be completely rooted in the text of the play itself.
After lunch, we began to rehearse the shipwreck scene from early in the play, where Viola is first delivered to Illyria in the aftermath of a shipwreck, desperate to find out more about what became of her brother and more about this strange, new land. At the start of the rehearsal, Jo gathered the cast and Andy around the table and I sat a little bit off (I didn’t want to cramp the first reading of this scene) but Jo invited me in to sit at the table and to keep a part of things - another sign of her inclusiveness as a director that I greatly appreciated!
Despite being a very small scene, and involving a few one-line sailor parts, it was clear that Jo was very focused on the important things this scene could tell us. This is the first time we meet Viola and so everyone in this scene is important in establishing who she is, as well as establishing the mood and atmosphere of this post-shipwreck environment. It was fantastic to see the amount of attention and discussion placed on the sailors and their role in this scene – it was very clear they were far from bit parts in Jo’s understanding of the play.
Through this rehearsal, which took up the rest of the afternoon, a pattern of work emerged. The cast would read the scene, Jo would feedback, ask them questions, and invite their responses before encouraging them to build on it. Through this process, the cast continued to improvise and build – starting at the table, adding smaller physical dimensions to a table-read before getting rid of the table and improvising the play in the space. Each time, Jo would continue to ask questions and suggest exercises – what are the sailors doing? What if the sailors were more resistant to answering questions? What if the Sea Captain was more belligerent? How does Viola try to get answers out of them? What is the weather like?
Through these improvisations, a shape of the scene began to emerge. What I found particularly fascinating is that in three hours on one scene (a scene I know quite well and haven’t paid much attention to in all honesty when I’ve read and watched the play), I didn’t get bored. I think that says a lot, even at this early stage, for the capability of this company to take something so well known and make it feel alive, vibrant and full of energy.
Towards the end of the session, Jo kept Faith (playing Viola) and Jill (playing the Sea Captain) for a further discussion specifically of their relationship to one another in this scene. What came out of this discussion was the importance and effect that having the Sea Captain as a woman has on this scene – it is two women speaking together, finding a moment of feminine solidarity in a masculine world and in a tense environment. While Jo did not specifically block the scene, what was interesting was how much important texture to Viola’s character and to the play as a whole was drawn out of this one scene.
My own background as a director is more with opera and music-theatre so being able to sit at the heart of these rehearsals and engage with Jo’s process is proving to be a fantastic opportunity to see an exciting production in development as well as to learn more about the practice of directing verse drama today. Apologies if it sounds like I’m gushing too much – I can promise you, it really is this exciting! If only there was an Observer Tuesday-through-Friday position as well...
Twelfth Night runs 13 April - 20 May