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23rd Feb 2018 - 2nd Jun 2018

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Common Rehearsal Diary Week Two: Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

By John Haidar

The blueprints DC Moore drafts to set each scene of Common compel the cast and creative team to conjure a visual and sonic landscape that’s just as important as the purely linguistic one. The invention of a theatrical “language” incorporating these elements is at the front of our minds this week as we continue to dig down into the play to get to what’s subversive beneath its surface and put the lives of its characters, and their often-fractious relationships to one another, under the microscope. The more we examine them, the more they reveal about themselves. 

As we sketch the characters’ journeys through the text, the actors start to inhabit the lyricism of the play. As part of this process, voice work with Jeanette Nelson starts with a session onstage in the Olivier Theatre where the fifteen-strong cast get to grips with a range of vocal techniques to ensure they’re able to reach every person in the 1150-capacity auditorium, modelled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus. 

Stephen Warbeck takes the cast through some choral singing for the prologue, in which a community of villagers engages in a ritual sacrifice. In addition, there are several songs in English and Gaelic, some of which Stephen will write music for, as well as creating an original score for transitions between scenes to be played by a live band. 

Joseph Alford, our movement director, leads several morning warm-ups with the cast this week. These usually begin with some gentle stretching and perhaps a bit of yoga, but soon develop into movement exercises, which gradually deepen in complexity and detail until the actors are conjuring the world the characters live in. This might involve harvesting fields, slaughtering livestock, or spending an evening in the village inn. Occasionally, Joseph deliberately heightens movement to encompass ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’, to borrow a phrase from Tennyson – born in the year of our play, 1809 – a poet whose life runs the gamut of the nineteenth century, but who helpfully reflects upon the trials and tribulations of our period. So, for Act 1 Scene 2, set in The Cock Inn, the cast spends half an hour developing various styles of animal movement, which informs the dynamic of the scene. At first, the inn closely resembles a zoo, before the physicality of the scene is refined so that what we’re left with is a primal, animalistic style of movement, which is nevertheless all-too human. 

The National Theatre’s prop makers have expertly crafted several of the animals featured in the production. Laura Cubitt is in charge of our puppetry work and she begins her collaboration with several of the actors tasked with animating an eclectic mix of creatures, including a crow and a pig. Even in these early stages of rehearsals, it’s brilliant to see the human and non-human worlds coalesce, since this symbiosis was (and is) such a principal focus within the English countryside. 

We begin our staging of the first act. In the rehearsal room, there is no such thing as a needless question. Everyone in the company is a “yes” person: ‘Yes, let’s see if that works...yes, let’s try that...yes, that’s the clearest storytelling!’ This breeds an infectious positivity as well as a willingness to fail, and then fail better. With set building underway elsewhere, our stage management team creates a “mark- up” with electrical tape, and the occasional, strategically-placed prop, to simulate Richard’s set design, allowing us to choreograph each of these scenes precisely in advance of technical rehearsals in the Olivier in several weeks’ time.