This House UK Tour

23rd Feb 2018 - 2nd Jun 2018

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Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme - Rehearsal Diary Week 2

by Bryony Shanahan

This week was all about rolling our sleeves up and diving head first into the play, getting it up on its feet. It’s always a really exciting moment when we take that step, leaving behind the safety of the table work and chats, and seeing what happens when it lives and breathes in front of us. One of the challenges we have in this piece is the potent mix of naturalism set within the infamous facts of World War One, and then the deeply spiritual and even magical element that runs through it. It feels whenever we get too naturalistic we make it hard for some of the more abstracted, felt moments to sing. This conversation has extended into our design too, as we look for ways to give the opportunity to explore both strands. What we’re also learning is that the spiritual, mystical side of the play absolutely solidifies and holds a mirror up to the brutal practicalities that the men endure, and the richness of the text allows for hugely complex ideas to be wrestled with. Each character goes on a hugely significant journey, and each have a moment of raw and vulnerable truth, a coming out of sorts. These deeply intimate and delicate moments make a fascinating partnership with the landscape of war and human sacrifice.

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the third section of the play; ‘Pairing.’ It shows us the men in pairs, on leave back in Ireland and what’s brilliant, is that the last time we saw them, they were on their first day of training. Therefore there’s a pretty big jump in time and they have all experienced the horrors of the war first hand. They have all been changed indefinitely because of this and their relationships have shifted as a result. The actors have to do a lot of work to pull this off, as so much happens off-stage, and we get the clues from how they now behave in contrast to when we first met them. What they’ve experienced exactly is never mentioned, which is incredibly powerful, as an audience go on a journey of imagining and piecing it all together. However, we all need to know exactly what they’ve been through, and so some of the work has been establishing these back-stories. Our research and visits last week to the Imperial War Museum have come in to play big time in this way, and as a result, the guys are coming up with really detailed and vivid experiences that are informing their performances. Also, the nature of this section is that the pairs intricately interweave and cut between each other, which makes a brilliantly rich tapestry of the characters, but throws up lots of staging challenges! How do you move between the sections? What do the pairs do when the focus isn’t on them? What are the rules of the space – do pairs just stick to their individual areas or can they expand into other peoples? It’s tricky and not straight-forward, and Jeremy is keen for us to experiment, and learn by getting it wrong! In this stage of going for it, and seeing what happens, it means the guys are exploring their relationships in great detail. Jeremy has asked them to be flexible and adaptable, and not worry too much about pinning down the exact blocking. Quite often, when working like this, brilliant ‘happy accidents’ happen that we couldn’t plan necessarily, but are great finds – moments of coincidence when two characters end up next to each other, but ‘unaware’ of the other, giving the whole thing a slightly different feel.

This week has also been busy for the whole team, with Niamh Lunny our costume designer, fitting the actors around the rehearsals. Every now and then we’ve caught a glimpse of an actor in uniform, looking very much the part! We’ve also had fight director Bret Yount working his magic, making the scraps look both real but also safe. Jonny Holden stage slapping Marcus Lamb very convincingly was certainly a highlight getting a collective wince from the whole room! And we also filmed a trailer for the show, which included lots of smoke filling the studio and a great voice-over by Sean McGinley!

We’re now at the half-way point and everything is really gearing up. Just enough time for a bank-holiday weekend before we get to the Somme section of the play. It’s all go on the Brixton front.