Gareth Mattey - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the third week of rehearsals for Twelfth Night, directed by Jo Davies

The first thing I notice coming into the rehearsal room on the third week is that the walls are now getting increasingly covered – with costume designs and drawings, with images of the set model box, with thematic and visual inspirations, with notes on parts of the text and with handwritten responses to what Illyria is like, what Orsino’s household is like. I spend time throughout the day where I can to wander around and read everything – it’s a common rehearsal tactic to stick everything on the walls but one I’ve always loved as it makes the room feel lived in, and devoted to the production at hand. There’s something reassuring about it, rehearsing with the bones and ideas of the play laid bare all around you!

Rehearsal Room Rigorousness

For most of the day (all of the morning and the first part of the afternoon) we are focusing on one section of Act 1 Scene 5, with just Faith (Viola) and Kate (Olivia). It is the scene wherein Viola as Cesario brings her first message to Olivia from Orsino. As we sit to read it through first, it’s readily apparent how much confidence and presence the actors are developing with their characters and it’s not long before they’re up onto their feet with the scene.

This rehearsal bears a lot of the hallmarks of previous ones I’ve observed – the discussions, the questions, the exercises pushing the characters to extremes of emotion. What is significantly different about this rehearsal is the rigorousness of it. This is only a few pages of dialogue between two characters but it is central to the development of the later play – Olivia first falls in love with Cesario here. So much of the later plot development depends on finding out the right way to do this scene, so it’s no surprise that nearly four hours are spent on just these few pages!

Part of this rigorousness is seen in how Jo breaks down the scene with the actors. They find a series of dramatic beats, subtle moments where the relationship between the two slowly shifts and deepens. As they bring it into the space, it is clear that there is so much speech and so much space to work to keep active. Jo responds to this readily and the exercises become more physical, more mobile, never forgetting that this performance is in the round and to keep Shakespeare’s language static is a disservice. Another exercise asks the performers to repeat back the last line spoken to them before carrying on their own lines – through this tactic, they’re forced to really listen to one another, to connect and to respond and to give voice to their own thoughts as they listen.

There’s a lot of trial and error through this process, finding moments that don’t work throughout and a lot of focus from all involved in the room. At times it veers towards a more comic interpretation (Faith demonstrating a clear aptitude for comic timing and invention) and at others, towards a more tragic understanding. By exploring these potentials, and always keeping in mind the questions behind the scene (of grief, of flirting, of honour, of genuineness), the texture of the performance becomes thicker and thicker. At the end of this rehearsal, I wouldn’t say we reached a definitive idea of what should occur in this scene. But what I did see was how such a close, focused approach to a scene, breaking it down into pieces, thinking of the effect of individual lines on characters and relationships, can yield incredible dramatic results. This kind of focus is something that all actors and directors are used to and its great to see it done here, with such a deep sense of commitment and professionalism.

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If music be the food of love, play on

After this, the rehearsal for the rest of the afternoon shifts to music – I’ve been hearing them play and rehearse in the room next to us and I cannot wait to hear some of it being rehearsed live. The dynamic in the rehearsal room subtly changes to one I’m a bit more used to, one where the musical director (Tarek) brings his own creative input alongside Jo’s. There’s a similar pattern to how we’ve rehearsed the scenes before, starting with a sat down sing-through before moving into the space.

We start with one of Feste’s ‘ love songs’, a deep and melancholic piece where we can really hear the influence of folk in the composition but also the darker edge given to this. The music is currently scored for the actor-musician ensemble of violin, accordion, euphonium/trumpet and a guitar, played in a very unique way. Kate O’Donnell’s Feste is relaxed yet deeply melancholic (a sign of a good fool) and Jo and Tarek play with the timings of the scene and the music, with her relationship to her listeners, with how her voice pushes and pulls the musicians into the space. Following this, we hear one of Viola’s songs, sung for Orsino in his household which has a completely different energy – brighter, more playful yet still tinged with an edge of melancholy.

I manage to have a quick chat with Jo about the shift from rehearsing text alone to rehearsing with music. It’s really wonderful to see how excited directors can get when music comes into the room, and Jo insightfully remarks that ‘music is so seductive’. Listening to them play that afternoon, it’s very true that it has completely drawn me in. For the rest of the afternoon, the musicians, musical director and composer play with the accompaniment to Viola’s song, and listening to them play and experiment is truly a wonderful way to end a day.


Twelfth Night runs 13 April - 20 May

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