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 THE NIGHT WATCH observing director Kayleigh Hawkins
First day. Big room. I admit to having a few nerves. Entering I see the walls are covered with pictures of 1940's clothing, tables are laden with books on the home front and I am excited to see Sarah Waters is present. I’m warmly welcomed by director Rebecca Gatward and quickly we all come together for introductions. It's great to see such a big team and I am aware that there are still more people who will join in the coming weeks.
On to the model of the set. Georgia Lowe's design is sparing and practical. It is compelling to see such restraint, you can tell every choice has been made to serve the story. She talks about reusing the same bits of furniture in different settings and I can't help it my mind is wandering to "make do and mend". Her plans for costume show a commitment to the period with a firm desire to keep the audience attune to time passing and multi-rolling. The set has elements of the industrial and the mechanics of war and Rebecca and Georgia talk about the difference between a novel rich in description and the symbolic choices that can best serve the same story on stage. Georgia explains that in the round so little can be hidden and how an awareness that the audience sees all has lead to some exciting possibilities in design. Rebecca talks about the characters being emotionally stuck and how this could have been in conflict with the need for constant movement that comes with performing in the round. Without wanting to launch into spoilers I shall say little more on this but that their solution is incredibly fitting and I can’t wait to see it all in action.
Rebecca talks about the opening of Sarah’s novel and the abstract way of time passing in moments of deep depression. She talks about how time can loose its normal purpose and meaning such as it only being by marked by daylight slowly moving across the room. I am reminded of a similar moment in Sarah’s Tipping the Velvet where Nan has suffered the severest of betrayals and am aware of how well she portrays unrequited love, a broken heart. We are introduced to the idea of a chorus assisting Kay, pushing her into the start of the play, willing her to move, to open the door, giving her strength. Rebecca’s take hones right into the emotion of Sarah’s characters and the universality of grief.
Next on to a read-through and I have a moment of surprise that there have been no warm-ups or icebreakers until I realise the group don't need it. This is not about performing on a big stage yet, this is more intimate. Everyone is alert and energised by the initial ideas and plans for design and this flows perfectly well into reading the script. Rebecca is keen to limit the reading of stage directions as that interrupts the flow. With my head full of the novel with it’s detailed description and inner monologues and remembering the BBC adaptation scored with the sounds of crowded war torn London it is wonderful to escape all that for a moment and to hear nothing but voices put out into the space. With all the noise and layers momentarily absent I am struck by how succinct Hattie’s adaptation is. Read-through’s can be raw and revealing and it suits these characters to hear them so bare. A beautiful unrehearsed song transports me to the period. This play is so much about relationships and the impact of them in and after war and I get chills already seeing them come to life and this is only day one.
It is lunch time and some of the group are preparing to leave. I see Sarah Waters over the other side of the room, deep in conversation with some cast members, and I get a little giddy. It’s not just a fan girl moment, though I am an admirer of her writing and characters, this is something else. Few have done more to achieve a mainstream appreciation for stories of lesbian and bisexual women in history and to bring these hidden communities and characters to life. Whilst other mediums have embraced Sapphic tales it can feel at times like large scale main house theatre is tailing behind. Sarah’s characters were made to be put on the stage and supporters who waited patiently for a theatre adaptation have found them to be like buses. It is quite wonderful to see it happening and I’m glad the second this year is to be in Manchester.
The novel and play both go back in time with the audience knowing at the start where the characters will end and the journey being in discovering how. After lunch Rebecca has the group read the play backwards from Act 3 to 2 to 1. This is the characters path and we get to see the chronological order of things. This highlights what a task the actors will have on their hands portraying the characters growing and changing through the years but with the play out of order. It is a useful exercise and fascinating to see what is lost by being linear and gained when the audience sees the end first.
Second day and writer Hattie Naylor has joined us. The script whilst mostly finished is still open to be affected by and changed in rehearsal. Hattie explains to me that each process is different and adapting from a popular novel allows for a collaborative approach to fine tuning the script. With to my count at least 10 copies of the novel on the table in varying states of use I can see what she means. We all know the novel and feel determined to honour it. There is also an awareness that what works in one form can not always work for another and cuts have been inevitable, themes have been relaxed or emphasised, characters have disappeared, time scales altered and dialogue changed all serving the different pace and medium of theatre. Hattie is open to hearing requests and suggestions and considers each point thoroughly. The Royal Exchange’s new writing associate Suzanne Bell is also part of the team. She clearly knows her stuff and it’s exciting watching her Rebecca and Hattie bouncing off each other. The input from the actors is incredibly insightful and I’m comforted to see that collaboration does not lessen on a larger scale with more people in the room. Hattie freely cuts and adapts whilst always staying true to her own vision. Sadly I have experienced a number of processes where there is not enough time for this. Lines can get blurred in smaller companies and it is great to witness this scale and the clarity that can come from everyone having a specific role and being very good at it too whilst all working together for the same purpose.
At this early stage I feel I have had a great taste of Rebecca’s style and process. She asks the actors questions. So far with a light touch but having informed everyone that each scene will be gone through around the table in much more detail over the coming days. The actors are encouraged to come up with the answer for themselves with her guiding and adding towards this. The day ends with discussions into individual relationships and I am thrilled so much attention is already going into timelines, backstories and what is motivating the characters. My own style is very much towards specificity and clarity and it is encouraging to be in a room where such questions are being asked from the very start of the process.
And that’s all for me till next week. I am left thinking about what it is to adapt a novel. Choices inevitably must be made as to what are the most important and dynamic moments to focus on and then what is needed to provide context, shape and colour to those chosen moments. Some characters must disappear completely and some become a mentioned force in the background pushing or pulling the characters seen on stage. In those choices the adaptation becomes a play and a piece of art all on its own separate to the original. It’s strange to think how much is likely to have developed from now until I am back in the room and I am looking forward to seeing the progress that will have been made.