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

As we push into the fifth week of rehearsals, I find myself in a bit of a pickle. The show is getting closer and closer to performance and in writing this blog, I find myself thinking – how much can I write without now giving away things about the performance before it even happens? There continues to be so much that excites me in rehearsal that I want to excite any audience members just as much, even if they’ve been reading this blog. So apologies in advance if this blog feels like it’s holding a few things back; the truth is that I am holding things back, but it’s ultimately for your benefit!

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Viola and Orsino

I’m a little bit late to arrive in the morning, and as I enter, Jo and Faith are working on another of Viola’s soliloquys. What is immediately clear is, along with Jo’s process, how much Faith is self-noting with confidence at the beginning and through the rehearsal. Jo and Faith have clearly developed a strong, shared sense of who Viola is and what Viola would do – the two of them are pulling together in the same direction at all times. Even saying this though, Jo continues to give Faith provocations to continue building on an already strong base – freeing up her energy, locking movement, speech and thought together, flowing between comedic and serious moments. It’s amazing how close their relationship and how even in week five, Faith continues to respond to Jo pushing her in working through the scene. Despite being in the rehearsal room, the realities of the Royal Exchange’s main space are constantly present – that was too quiet, this felt too planned, that didn’t feel present enough in the space etc.

Following this, we’re joined by Kevin (playing Orsino) and it’s a treat to watch the two of them together. Playing with completely different energies to Viola’s soliloquy beforehand, balancing Orsino’s relaxed and intimate energy with Viola’s restlessness. There is a great amount of emotional subtlety to this moment, with Kevin inviting further ideas on the power dynamics (a servant telling a duke what he can and cannot do) as well as the ambiguous intimacy between them. There is a very careful management throughout of the tension between them, in relation to the text and to the characters. Andy reminds us how important it is to get this scene right – after this scene (2.4), we don’t see Orsino again until the end of the play. So much important detail about how Orsino and Cesario relate to one another, the detail that makes the ending successful, needs to be developed here.

As we continue to rehearse this scene, the musicians are brought into it and the emotional texture suddenly doubles and triples in one go. Such little gestures – particularly the way in which the guitar is played and handled throughout – bring so much to this moment. The practicalities of working the musicians into this scene are all about taking time. The music doesn’t need to be rushed (even this far into the rehearsal process!), it needs to be woven in, to be given time to establish and given time for us as audience members (and for the performers in the scene) to wait for it and listen to it. Jo and Tarek are very clear that music isn’t to be wedged in for the sake of it, but that they’ve got to work to make sure music is a part of this world. Throughout my blogs, I’ve become more and more excited about the musical dimension of this show and watching this scene develop really shows why – with such skill in music and performance, tiny subtle gestures connect the music to the scene and connect the audience to the scene.

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Act 5, Scene 1

The afternoon is suddenly a lot busier! The entire cast are present to start work on the final scene of the play, Act 5 Scene 1. I find it a little bit surprising that work on the ending has only just started in the fifth week of rehearsals but there is a definite logic to it. This scene is entirely about unravelling the knotty texture of the plot into a ‘happy’ ending; it seems that Jo has focused on making sure the company sees how tight and complex this knot is before turning to how it’s undone.

Starting by reading through the scene, there’s a clear sense that there’s a lot to be done to mitigate the audience expectations and the problems of a Shakespearean finale. We’ve got to avoid the sense that we’re winding down to a happy ending, that the ending is coming now so we can lower the stakes and let things flow to their expected end. Thinking about it more, it’s something that has definitely plagued quite a few productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen (including my own attempts previously) and so, as they get the scene up on it’s feet, there’s a lot to play with (and a lot of people to play it) to make sure the scene still feels like a continuing story. I have to say, I’m quite surprised by just how many significant tonal shifts there are throughout this scene and also how much danger there can be here – it’s a much more complex and interesting scene that I originally envisioned, and I’ve seen and read the play more than a few times!

Watching Jo through this rehearsal is fascinating as so much of what I’ve observed of her process as a director is at work all at once – the practicalities of directing traffic through this space, the management of tone, the facilitation of discussion (especially facilitating the cast to not second-guess some of their instincts when playing with the scene) and the careful guidance towards its conclusion. 

It’s definitely a complicated afternoon, but having seen how Jo works and how much the cast consistently bring to the drama, I have no doubt as to their ability to not only untangle the knot of Twelfth Night’s plot, but to keep it interesting, engaging and present while doing so!


Twelfth Night runs 13 April - 20 May

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