We complete our first draft of staging early this week and return to the start of the play to anatomise each scene in detail. In parallel, understudy rehearsals are now in full swing. We have a brilliant session with fight directors, Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown, who are briefed to stage several moments in the course of the play, including multiple stabbings, a shooting, a bludgeoning, a disembowelment, and a brawl involving a large rock. Rachel and Ruth are shown the action leading up to and beyond each moment of conflict and are given some context for the specific scene. They then collaborate with the actors, drawing on their natural instincts and honing the ideas presented into something safer and more effective in accordance with the tone we’re looking to achieve.
This week, the company have started to become “off-book”, meaning that they’re able to put the scripts down and inhabit their characters. Paradoxically perhaps, this has a helpful, destabilising effect. When freed from the constraint of holding a script, the cast are able to make much bolder choices, but occasionally they come unstuck when a line doesn’t immediately come to them. Often, this is because the connection between thoughts is not yet completely clear and so our job, at this stage of proceedings, is to decipher an emotional logic. There will be a noticeable change in momentum by the end of the week. We also begin to realise, especially in Part One, that we will need to populate the world of the village Mary returns to. The ensemble cast have been working on additional character backstories for this collection of characters, which includes a butcher, a barmaid, a mower, and a wheelwright.
Jeremy Herrin likes to begin with a sketch of each of the acts before focusing on what it is that the audience should be watching at every moment. For instance, in Act One Scene Two, we join Mary, Graham, and Connor in a village inn, giving us a glimpse into Mary’s gift of foresight, her ability to instinctively read the hearts and minds of those around her. DC Moore gives us so much exquisite detail here, and yet its interrupted by the arrival of Heron and the Lord and some intricate business with a pig, so we run and run this opening, placing the exchange under the microscope until it achieves coherence via a barometer of psychological truth.
Jeanette Nelson leads a company voice session in the rehearsal room, where we discuss the intricacies of rhetorical technique. Within the play, the characters are constantly taking others’ words and turning them to their own advantage. In the same way as we might work on a play by Shakespeare, it’s all about getting into the ear of the listener and, like those Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, antithesis – the construction of oppositions – is a key rhetorical device. Even so, the play is incredibly economical with language, despite it being so verbally exuberant. As Jeanette explains, through the ear, you get to the imagination, so the poetry of the language has an inherently persuasive quality. This is heightened by an extensive use of colons and semi-colons – similar to the plays of George Bernard Shaw, in fact – where that which follows the punctuation marks is all the more significant.
The final couple of fittings have taken place and we have seen photos of the vast array of clothes these characters will wear. It’s great to be able to piece together an entire community, especially in such detailed period costume. Outside of the rehearsal room, Richard Hudson and Suzanne Scotcher, our Wigs, Hair and Make-Up Supervisor, have been designing wounds and working on blood application to capture the best possible effect for one manifestation of horrific violence in the play’s final act. In fact, this work is a perfect metaphor for the process of staging a piece of drama, which is often a kind of elegant chaos, a sequence of carefully-choreographed events that nevertheless possess the appearance of spontaneity. Therein lies the beautiful paradox of the theatre and a reason why it’s impossible for it to be anything other than different every night, as a secular congregation engages in an act of collective will, which transfigures a work of imagination into a living, breathing reality.