Maureen O'Neill - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the fourth week of rehearsals for Queen Margaret, directed by Elizabeth Freestone

OBSERVATION ON REHEARSAL WEEK OF 3 SEPTEMBER 2018

The huge advantage with being the first show in the new season is that the theatre is dark until your first performance and this means that the company can get into the space earlier than would normally be possible. Rehearsals in week 4 have, therefore, been taking place in the module all week and this means that the cast have been able to really familiarise themselves with the space.

Although the set was marked out in the rehearsal room, it is quite different from being inside the module for several reasons. Firstly, the timing of entrances and exits is quite different now because the distances are greater and it takes longer to get onto the stage, so that has to be factored in. Secondly, working in the round allows great flexibility, but also presents challenges such as getting to the correct door, so this was also something which Elizabeth and the cast had to devote quite some time to practising, although this will continue to be worked on in Tech Week. Finally, another important difference is that the surface of the stage has been covered in a green grass-like material, which has implications for the actors who may have to sit or lie on it. Without giving too much away, let me just say I can’t wait for Tech Week to see the most exciting feature of this floor which will be very impressive.

INTO THE SPACE

Week 4 is the last full week of rehearsals, though there are still several scheduled for next week in addition to the Tech Rehearsals. The lighting and sound directors were also present in the module for most of the rehearsals this week and we were able to hear more of the soundscape which Adrienne has created, including a song: a haunting melody sung by the whole cast without accompaniment, which fills the module with sound and creates a sombre but defiant mood.

Certain technical issues needed to be solved this week. The battle of Towton has quite complicated exits and entrances, so Elizabeth asked the cast to walk through it several times, to help the moves become automatic and to free the actors up so they can focus on creating the narrative and well, acting.

Image of Queen Margaret, Royal Exchange Theatre

TRANSLATING TEXT TO STAGE

The constant thread running through the four weeks of rehearsals is, of course, the text. There are still some final tweaks taking place and it’s a testament to the very democratic process which Elizabeth and Jeanie have put at the centre of this project, that these changes have come from different members of the company: actors, director and writer. Being in the space and running the play twice this week, has given the company a real sense of the rhythm of the piece as a whole - how it creates the story for the audience - and this has given rise to further questions from the cast. Sometimes this has resulted in lines being cut, moved, given to a different character or even for new lines to be written. I am struck by what an absolute bonus it is to have the writer on hand because she is able to see for herself how the text works on stage now.

The first run took place on Friday - it was described on the schedule as a ‘stagger’ rather than a run - but I think all concerned were pleased to see how close they are now to being able to perform it to the audience. There’s always a sense of relief at this point - you often think of everything that could have gone wrong but didn’t, and there is a real sense of achievement at the end of it. Naturally, there is a lot to learn from a first run through and Elizabeth gave the cast the opportunity to reflect and comment. It was fascinating to listen to even more insights and revelations coming from both the actors and the director.

Image of Queen Margaret, Royal Exchange Theatre

REFLECTIONS

It has been a rare privilege for me to observe these rehearsals, and as this phase comes to a close, I wonder whether it is more of a challenge to direct a play that has been performed before, or one like Queen Margaret, that is completely new. Productions of classics or other well-known plays will always be compared, so in that sense it must be quite liberating to have a ‘clean slate’ and not have to be concerned about upsetting the so-called purists or avant-garde (!). This play is about English history and concerns the lives of historical characters who are more or less known to us. Most of us have heard of Henry VI and Richard, Duke of York, the future Richard III, but in this play Jeanie O’Hare and Elizabeth Freestone put the focus on Margaret of Anjou. In this play we see how Margaret arrives in England as a young and naïve bride and the play charts her transformation into a warrior queen.

This is a fascinating tale and I am sure that audiences will share my view that this production is an outstanding portrayal of a story that still resonates with us in 2018, where we are also beset with questions about national identity and political loyalty. I believe it will become a classic.


Queen Margaret runs 14 September - 6 October 2018, Theatre

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