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 third blog from KING LEAR observing director Helen Abbott

Walking into rehearsals today I was immediately struck by the familiarity in the room. The familiarity between the actors on and off stage but also with the process. Gone was the nervous excitement of strangers from the first day and in its place, a company.

It was great to see how the work from the previous week with Movement Director, Coral Messam, impacted on the scenes. They had looked at how status and pomp and ceremony affects them, physically as individuals but also in relation to each other (how close people would get to the King, would they bow, how different do the knights react to his presence versus the servants, for example) and how to play this without pulling focus or taking up time. This kind of detail helps the audience to quickly discern people's relationships and adds to the continued commitment to telling the story clearly.

The role of King Lear is known, rightly so, to be complex but as the day went on it became more and more apparent what a task it is to play the fool. The options for what could be done with the role – the aesthetics of the actor cast, his voice quality, his physicality – are endless. Each line provides a wealth of choices and in rehearsals each time something new is tried. In its beginning stages Miltos Yerolemov's Fool comes across as having a mixture of great intellect and genuine love for his master, wrapped up in a kind of mania. The relationship between him and Lear is unique and scenes, like today's Act 1 Scene 5, where Lear and the fool are alone together, are incredibly moving.

It is interesting to see how each actor handles the rehearsal process, some are completely 'off-book' preferring empty hands to free them up physically, while others are still fairly reliant on the script till the basic shape of the scene has taken hold.

Today, each scene was read once and then discussed. Michael talked through such things as the important plot points, highlighting any interesting or potentially tricky moments, and then the characters' emotional states, for example, were looked at. Then it was time to get it on its feet. Michael's direction was again gentle but clear. He allows scenes to be played with minimal interruptions, instead mostly preferring to watch them in full. He is then up in the space where he makes any notes or suggestions. This sometimes comes as direction for the scene as a whole or quieter conversations with individuals / pairings. Michael's respect for the actors is clear and you really feel that he trusts them to know their character's intrinsically. This doesn't mean that choices aren't up for debate though and a moment needing clarity will spark the whole company into mining the script for answers.

At the end of the day a few of the cast comment to me about how fast the rehearsals seem to be going. They are almost at the half way point between day 1 and tech week. This is said as we walk past vast rails of beautifully made medieval costumes which adds to the excitement.