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

It’s hard to believe how quickly time has passed since that first day and how close we are getting now to the first performance. Rehearsals for the day show this – rather than isolated, individual, scenes, the day is devoted to three scenes (the beginning of Act 3) and putting them together in sequence, building the connective tissue between them. These moments in rehearsals, where you start to put everything together, are so crucial, as you start to see the play as a play, rather than as a series of independent scenes. I know that the company have run Acts 1 and 2 in the week previously, so I’m interested to see how they continue to drive forward this Monday.

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Confidence and Comedy

We start with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, as the latter threatens to leave again. What’s immediately apparent in the morning is how quickly the actors get these scenes up onto their feet. They still start with a read-through but now, after this initial read, everything is played physically, on their feet in the space. This comes across in the verse too – the verse is now starting to sound less like lines learnt by characters and more like dialogue between people. To help maintain this, Simon (Sir Toby) and Harry (Sir Andrew) improvise in modern English before jumping into the scene. It’s a short-lived spur but one that keeps the sense of the scene flowing, finding a conversational tone. As they develop the scene, they build the intensity and excitement of it, physically, aurally and verbally. It’s an active, engaging and very funny short scene, especially when Mina (Maria) joins in.

What Jo identifies as so important in short funny scenes like this is how important it is that comic characters are not just funny, not just caricatures, but that they are real people. The company don’t shy away from moments of seriousness within the comedy (for example, how insulted Sir Andrew can be by Sir Toby) and vice versa. In fact, they continue to embrace these moments and it adds so much to the colour and texture of them. It’s a key point about tragicomic plays like Twelfth Night – not every moment of a ‘funny’ scene needs to be funny, though there’s no question that this is a very funny moment!

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Antonio and Sebastian

Following this, we shift focus to Act 3 Scene 3, between Antonio and Sebastian. I’m glad to have the chance to observe this in rehearsal as not only have I not seen either of the performers in several weeks, but I’ve also always enjoyed the subtle touches of this storyline. After an initial playful line running exercise passing a ball between them (a good physical exercise for an energetic language), we dive straight in. The two of them bring out a lot of subtlety in this moment – a strong sense of camaraderie and friendship with an ambiguous touch of the homoerotic is clear and Jo encourages them to play with the ambiguities of their relationship.

To develop this further, Jo invites them to perform a short improvisation – to think of this scene in light of their last one and to play the moment that Antonio catches up to Sebastian despite foreswearing his company in the last scene. What is their reunion like and how does it affect the scene? There’s a lot of personal and relationship dynamics at work and they progress through it breaking down the scene into different parts and beats, identifying the shifts in mood and the natural places for pauses and hesitations. There are especially a lot of questions about Antonio – so little is said about him so there is a need for some detailed discussion as they explore his role in this world.

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Into the Module

Later in the afternoon, the rehearsal moves out of the rehearsal room and into the theatre itself, the central module. Beforehand, Jo had mentioned to the actors how important it is to not necessarily always try to play the entire space at the same time. She reminds them that not one bit of your body is not being watched and so its essential to play your whole body for everyone – if someone is watching your back, make sure your back is as engaged and a part of things as the rest of you. It’s certainly a challenge (very few theatres need you to engage your back in character!) but an exciting one that makes the Royal Exchange such a special place to perform in.

They put all of this into practice in the space as they rehearse Act 3 Scene 1 before putting these scenes together without stopping – stopping just before the infamous yellow stockings incident. I was quite glad about this as part of me is hoping for that moment to be a complete surprise in performance!

This rehearsal is a lot about embracing the realities of the space – thinking of the practical and technical matters of staging, positioning, how the voice is used and how body language is read. Everything is at play now and the space suddenly feels so huge – there is a lot to play out, and especially up! Jo leads them through many different physical exercises to build things up, to find the strong physical stories that can be read from anywhere in the theatre. It’s taxing work, physically and mentally, to make sure you keep active enough for all audience members and Jo is rigorously preparing them for it.

At the end of the day, we return to the rehearsal room and Jo starts giving notes out to cast members from the previous week’s run. It suddenly strikes me that not only is the piece developing in the rehearsal room, but that it continues to develop outside of the rehearsal room now, as the cast take on Jo’s notes. It really is an all-encompassing, non-stop process and the production will be all the stronger for it!

As notes are finished and we prepare to leave, some of the play’s music bleeds through the walls and it is something truly special – each time I hear a new snippet of music, I get more and more excited for the final result!


Twelfth Night runs 13 April - 20 May

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