It is the first day of rehearsals and as I walk in, there is the bustle of what feels like hundreds of people all milling around in the rehearsal room at Copperfield Studio. It is a large hall with a high ceiling and there is a large table in the centre of the hall with scripts on it and chairs around it set up ready for the read through. The whole team is here: David Hare; the creative team designing set, costume, video, lighting, sound; and the production team. The producers from The Rose and The Crucible, who are co-producing, as well as Daniel Evans, artistic director of Sheffield Crucible, are here as well. Jeremy kicked the day off by saying a few words about the play and the production, and then everyone introduced themselves. We sat down to read through the play with the actors in the middle around the table and everyone else around the outside of the room.
After the read through, we were introduced to the model box, which is a miniature mock-up of the stage. The designer makes this to show us how the stage is dressed and designed to support the play. There is a bare concrete floor covering the stage, with three roller blinds in front of an LED screen upstage. Any necessary furniture will be brought on and set by the actors with help from the stage management as needed, who will be backstage every show, cueing the lights and sound, setting props, and generally managing the show.
After lunch there is a mass exodus of all the production and creative teams. It is just the core team left – the twelve actors, David Hare the writer, Jeremy Herrin the director, Jen the deputy stage manager, George the research assistant and me. For the rest of the week, we worked together to thrash out the events of each scene, the time and date of each scene, the events that have happened in between the scenes, and all the questions that arise from studying them. We discovered that one scene which began in the mid morning ended after the one o’clock news according to the script. This caused much confusion and discussion around the table to choose one time or the other. Jeremy is going to make a virtue of this temporal anomaly. In theatre time works differently to how it does in real life. Scenes that take ten minutes can represent two hours of time. It is one of the ways in which making a play is delightfully freeing. You can live in an abstracted world, if the play can support it.
It was brilliant to have David there. He provided valuable insights to the characters and their background. He shared stories with us of his time researching the play. We all read his book Asking Around, which gives an account of the research that Hare did when he was writing the play, and so allowed us into the world of play. I really enjoyed learning about the ‘shy Tories’, those who vote Tory in secret but are ashamed to be of that political persuasion. They count for around 2% of the Tory vote.
We had three guest experts come into rehearsals to answer our questions.
First there was a Labour Party historian who could answer any question about the Labour Party, we had. The most surprising thing for me was that there hasn’t been Labour Party leader without a university degree since the position was established in 1922.
We also met a Labour Party member who had worked on several election campaigns. She said that one specific line from the play was particularly resonant for her - that the leadership office was “family”.
Our final guest was a journalist who helped answer questions such as “What does my character do?” and “How would my character have got in to this job?” as well as how ‘leaks’ occur, and how the media and government relationship is negotiated.
At the end of an exhausting week immersing ourselves in the world of the play and detailed script work, we took a trip to Sheffield to visit the theatre that The Absence of War will live in for the opening of the tour. We were welcomed and made to feel instantly at home by the enormous team at The Crucible who joined for a meet and greet. Jeremy led some games on the stage and gave the actors time to discuss their characters’ relationships with each other.
In the space, Daniel Evans did a workshop with the actors so they could find the stronger positions on The Crucible stage, as well as discover the space’s vocal challenges. While on the stage, the audience feels very close to you, but when you are far up in the stalls, looking at the stage, the action feels very far away. The challenge will be connecting with furthest seats while inside a very intimate scene. At lunchtime, a delicious spread was provided for us by The Crucible team. Some of the cast and Jeremy spent the hour entertaining press on a speed dating-esque dance from desk to desk sharing our excitement and intentions for the play. After lunch, each cast member had prepared a political speech to perform, and you could instantly get a sense of why The Absence of War is a great choice for that stage. In the theatre, the audience is in close contact with each other as well as with the stage. I sat far back in the stalls to watch and felt like I was at a rally being whipped up to a passionate frenzy.