Helen

As part of our ongoing commitment to nurture, support and inspire local theatre-makers, the Royal Exchange Theatre are able to offer directors based in Greater Manchester the opportunity to observe the journey of a production through rehearsals with our Observer Mondays Scheme.

Here is the first blog from KING LEAR observing director Helen Abbott

Being selected by Matthew Xia and Suzanne Bell as the Observer for the King Lear was amazing news. The interview / chat with them was so relaxed and enjoyable. They both made me feel really at ease and spoke so highly of the King Lear team that I knew this was going to be a great production to be involved with.

The first day started with a Meet and Greet for the whole team. When you see everyone in one room together you realise just how many people go into creating a production such as this. We all stood in a circle and introduced ourselves and what our role was to be. The fact that everyone from costume and set design to marketing and box office were there showed just how inclusive the Royal Exchange is.

After introductions from the artistic director and company manager, director Michael Buffong gave a brief outline of his thoughts for the production. He remarked that whenever working on a Shakespeare play he is always asked what his 'take' is, but that for this production there is no special 'take'. He wants to be as truthful to the play as possible and create an elemental world. One which is medieval in feel with candle light and dirt flooring (which deals with the location switching between inside and out). He wants the actors to use their own accents and for the language to feel as natural to each of them as possible.

Michael also touched upon race. Even though most of the actors playing the main characters are black, this is not going to be a play about race. People can read into it what they may but it will not be emphasised and that it is simply representing a time where the strongest and most powerful man ruled, regardless of colour. He finished by talking about trying to find the heartbeat of the play.

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Set designer Signe Beckmann then showed us the model. This is always a great moment and you could sense the cast's excitement. Statements such as 'haze will be used and the light will cut through it', 'the sound will be like another character', 'the lighting will carve out slits and windows to help locate each scene' add layer upon layer of tension.

During lunch the cast continued to get to know each other and proved to be equally welcoming to me. Afterwards, we headed back to the rehearsal room for the read-through. The actors dealt with this in varying ways. Some read their lines quietly and perfunctorily where as others delivered them with performance in mind. As the play moved on however, it seemed impossible for the cast not to invest. Everyone in the room was gripped. Don Warrington's voice is both weighty and effortless. He committed to the reading. Completely. His reading of the lines 'O, let me not be mad, not mad' and 'Never, never, never, never, never!' were heartbreaking. One company member commented to me later that it was like a performance already and that people would happily have paid to be there!

Following drinks with marketing it was the end of day 1 and I am left with both excitement for next Monday and frustration to not be coming in for all the rehearsals! 

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