Rehearsal room for The Effect. Photo: Ellie Kurtz
At the beginning of Week 2, new drafts of sections of the play arrived. Lucy was often away from rehearsals, working on the script. In rehearsal, the script was developed by reading through certain sections. Each section was then discussed by the actors, Rupert and Lucy. Then, where necessary, Lucy went away to work on re-writes. At the moment, a new and full version of the script, with all of the recent changes incorporated into it, is expected to arrive on Monday of Week 3. In the meantime, the actors were told that they could look at all of the scenes in the first half of the play, as these were unlikely to change much, if at all.
Rupert and the actors started to put certain scenes up on their feet, rehearsing them within the stage area marked out in tape on floor of the rehearsal room. Basic objects were used to represent the props and the furniture that would make up the set. Wooden blocks were put together to form the two couch-like banquettes and the four wooden tables. A large empty vase was added to represent a plant that would be on a small side-table. The set design is fairly minimalistic anyway, but there will be a bit more stuff than that!
In a conversation last week, Rupert made reference to the set being a 'Tetris'-like design, and mentioned that he would like to represent this aesthetic and style in the movement of the play as well. This sounded like a really interesting idea, and I will be looking out for how it will be put into practice over the next few weeks.
Monday started very upbeat, with a dance session first thing in the morning, led by Aletta Collins. She choreographed a tap dance for one of the characters, Tristan, played by Jonjo O'Neill. By the end of their 3-hour session, they had not only chosen a piece of music, but also choreographed a tap routine to last the entire length of it. Jonjo even managed to learn it almost completely. It was a joyous session to watch, and Aletta and Jonjo worked really well together - and there is something infectious about tap dancing that just makes you want to join in and smile, a lot!
It was really enjoyable to watch the scenes coming to life, and to have moved into this next stage of rehearsals. Most of the parts of the play that we were working on this week were rehearsed in chronological order, except for one or two. We had to skip certain scenes that Tom Goodman-Hill was in, as he wasn't able to be in rehearsals every day at the moment. He had a prior filming commitment on Mr. Selfridge. We're all really looking forward to him being in rehearsals fully from the start of Week 4.
We started standing up some of the earlier scenes in the play and tried out lots of different staging ideas for each, which was great! Rupert encouraged the actors to swap positions from sitting to standing. He changed the levels and positioning of the actors in the space and in relation to one another. He allowed them to move around freely in the space. Then he suggested that they do the scene in relative stillness, only broken by a few clear and strong physical movements. It was interesting to see how these differences affected their statuses on stage, the relationships between characters and the action itself within each scene. There was also a constant awareness and interest in how these staging options would work in the round.
There was quite a lot of discussion about the sense of space within the play. The entire medical trial takes place in the same one room in the clinic and we discussed the feelings of claustrophobia, tension, repression and frustration that would be present. Alongside this, there would be the actual physical and psychological effect that the drug itself would have on the characters in this situation over several weeks. The overall effect of this, it was concluded, would naturally create an increasing intensity, heightening every sensation the characters would be experiencing. This intensity will be accompanied by the interesting and self-aware theatricality of the play's setting. The audience will be watching volunteers taking part in a medical trial of a new drug, who are themselves being observed by a supervisory doctor, who is in turn being observed by more doctors at a superior level to them. The audience will watch a play about people being observed by other people, who are themselves being monitored by other people!
One scene takes the characters into a different space – a large, dark and abandoned, boarded-up asylum. It was fascinating to watch the actors explore these contrasting surroundings, and to see how the different spaces affected their movements, behaviour and relationships.
There are a number of scenes in which the volunteers on the drugs trial are given their daily dosage of the drug. At the same time, they are also monitored, using the same set of tests and procedures. These actions are repeated again and again throughout the play. They will be staged using choreographed simultaneous physical movements that are underscored by music composed specifically for the show.
Sarah Angliss, the composer, has been working on a piece of music that will fit with the sense, timing, style and tempo of this action. Sarah, Aletta Collins and the sound designer, Christopher Shutt, will be coming in to rehearsals together early next week, so they can work with Rupert and the actors on this scene. It feels important to set this theatrical language. A specific style and set of conventions needs to be developed for these 'medical scenes', as they are repeated a number of times throughout the play. It will be exciting to see all these elements coming together.
During this week, I took some sessions with the actors myself, alongside the work that Rupert was doing in the main rehearsal room. In these sessions, I worked with the actors who were not involved in the scenes that Rupert was rehearsing. I used the time to help them with their line learning. I had two sessions with Billie Piper and Jonjo O'Neill to work on one particularly long scene. While one of the main purposes of this work was to help them learn the lines, it was also really important for them to feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible with each other at this stage. The play follows their characters as they fall in love with each other, quite quickly and intensely, and in very unusual circumstances. So in the first of these sessions, Rupert suggested that I should encourage Billie and Jonjo to go through their lines, moving around freely together in the space. The more they mucked around together and had fun with the scene, the better it was.
In the second of these sessions, they tried an exercise, which involved sitting on the floor, back to back, and speaking the lines of the scene aloud. This produced both a certain stillness, as well as helping them to really listen to each other. It also allowed everything, all the work they had done so far, to settle and enabled them to relax while being physically close. The benefits of this exercise became really clear when they then went back into the main rehearsal room to continue staging the same scene with Rupert. A stillness was now apparent, which helped to ground them during the staging work that they then did. They were more relaxed with each other and in general. They were much freer to really take on direction in the scene from Rupert and let it manifest.
Rupert once mentioned that while watching this scene, which is set in the abandoned asylum, we should feel like we're watching two people falling in love. It is delicate and fragile. This reminded me that both Rupert and Lucy had made references to the characters, Connie and Tristan, as being archetypal lovers, like Romeo and Juliet. This is a parallel that I have a feeling might become more and more illuminated as we progress further into rehearsals.
The first production meeting for The Effect took place this week. It was great to see everyone there, talking about different elements of the production. The discussions that I found most interesting focused on finding an alternative to the Perspex cube that Rupert and the designer, Miriam Buether had originally wanted to use as a central part of the set. They now needed to find an alternative to it, as using the Perspex cube would take us significantly over budget. There were some really interesting suggestions and discussions with the lighting designer Jon Clark, the projection designer Jon Driscoll, Rupert and Miriam regarding the use of different lighting techniques and smoke in the space to create a box-like effect.
The most entertaining and amusingly disgusting conversation was with members of the props department, about the most effective substitute for a real human brain. The two winning suggestions were: a cauliflower par-boiled and dyed grey with red spaghetti sewn into it; and a real calf's brain. Both would be brought into rehearsals next week and tried out!
Last thing on Friday afternoon we had a visit from Prof. Val Curran, a clinical psychologist and psychopharmacologist based at UCL. She was involved with the television programme Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial that had been the topic of much discussion during the first week of rehearsals. It was a fascinating session. Val answered lots of wide-ranging questions from everyone, covering: the pharmaceutical industry, debates on the efficacy of drugs as medication; the power of the placebo effect; the shocking rise in depression and the overwhelming number of prescriptions written last year for antidepressants; the structure and areas of the human brain; clinical drugs trials and centres; the Psychiatry/Psychology or Psychotherapy divide; 'happy pills' and their effects; mental illness; her professional training and background; and her own personal opinions on these issues. She was hugely helpful, and was really excited that a play had finally been written about these areas that are so in need of exposure and discussion.
When she first came into the rehearsal room, the actors were still in the middle of working on a scene. It happened to be one in which the two doctors are looking at the volunteers' fMRI scans and discussing their observations. I noticed that she looked slightly surprised but really enjoyed watching and hearing them mentioning particular medical terms, such as 'dampened amygdala activity', 'pre-frontal cortex' and 'dopaminergic pathways'. These are not terms you often hear spoken in a play!
Rupert has an incredible forward-driving energy. He is always asking questions about every element of what we are working on and, almost simultaneously, thinking ahead to the next thing and every variable related to it. This energy is reflected in a constant industrious buzz in the rehearsal room. I’m looking forward to seeing the progress and many discoveries that the third week if rehearsals will bring.