Jonjo O'Neill in rehearsal. Photo: Ellie Kurtz
This has been an incredibly productive and fascinating week. Lucy has distributed more re-writes. These have ranged from fine-tuning language, to clarifying logic and making certain character-driven changes. Alongside Rupert's continuing dramaturgical discussions with Lucy, rehearsals feel as though they are moving along at quite a pace. We have continued to work chronologically through the play with the actors, putting new scenes up on their feet and re-capping some earlier ones too.
It's an exciting time. As we progress through the play and we can see it beginning to take shape. The characters feel more rooted, their arcs through the story are clearer, and everything on stage is slowly starting to come together. Sarah Angliss (the composer), Christopher Shutt (the sound designer) and Aletta Collins (the choreographer) all attended a session where the admissions procedure scene was rehearsed. A track that Sarah composed track for this scene was used for the rehearsal. Even though the track was far from finished, it added a certain atmosphere and style to the clinical surroundings. There were moments during the rehearsal of this sequence where you got a very clear sense of everything falling into place, a glimpse of the heart of the play coming to life.
At the start of the week, we had a visit from Dr Gareth Smith. After having worked as an NHS consultant psychiatrist for many years, a large part of his work is now with the Big Brother television series. We had previously discussed the similarities between the environment of a clinical drugs trial and the confinement of the Big Brother house in rehearsal. Gareth confirmed how under such confined circumstances, everything becomes heightened and intensified. We couldn’t resist a brief and very entertaining digression about what makes an ideal Big Brother housemate!
It was an incredibly insightful and fascinating session - we heard about psychiatry being the only medical specialty where you can make a decision on behalf of the patient, and the effect that this can have on the practitioner's perception of their own 'power' and their sense of status. It was interesting to hear about how many more psychiatrists there are practicing in comparison to doctors specialized in other medical disciplines. At one time in Glasgow, there were 123 psychiatrists but only four neurologists listed as working in the area. The prevalence of antidepressant medication in the US was discussed. This was illustrated with a story about how it was once very common and fashionable at New York dinner parties for everyone to pop a Prozac after supper for fun, instead of taking cocaine or MDMA. Antidepressants actually have no effect at all on people who do not suffer from depression.
It was also really interesting to find out about how money-driven the pharmaceutical industry has become. No new antibiotics have been produced since 1992, but the number of new antidepressants produced since then has been extremely high. Antibiotics are not cost-effective because people only take them for five days or so and then do not take them again. antidepressants are taken by a patient for many months and sometimes years. A lot of money can be made from a drug that is prescribed for such long periods of time. Hence time and money is spent researching, developing and marketing new anti-depressants because they are so cost-effective.
We discussed the power of placebo effect, which is one of the themes in the play. Gareth told us that capsules are believed to be more effective than tablets or pills containing exactly the same dose of exactly the same drug. Transparent capsules containing lots of tiny little coloured balls are the most effective of all. We discussed the fact that people believe Nurofen is more effective than a pharmacy’s own brand Ibuprofen, even though it is essentially the same thing. Nurofen is packaged in a shiny silver box with a colourful swirling design on it, which makes it appeal seem even more effective to the buyer. It was fascinating to think about how the power of placebo effect actually works in everyday life and to be able to apply it to ourselves so easily.
The play raises questions about the idea of whether there are better or worse circumstances in which to fall in love with someone. Are there right and wrong ways for it to happen? For example, is starting a relationship as a holiday romance any better, worse, or more real than dating someone, while living your regular, daily life? This is reflected in the asylum scene, where Connie argues with Tristan about what makes love real or not, and about what the ideal or appropriate circumstances for falling in love are and are not. In this scene, there's a reference to Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in the film Speed, who fall in love on a bus with a bomb on it! In Connie’s opinion, this is not a good foundation to building a lasting relationship on. She is very pessimistic about the longevity of their love for each other, once the bomb on the bus has been defused.
These questions link to one of the play’s main provocations in the play. Does being in love mean suspending your disbelief about a person, the reality of a situation or the future? The premise is that the nature of being in love is like being in a bubble, which eventually fades or bursts.
We rehearsed a particularly tricky scene this week. It involves two overlapping conversations taking place at two different points in time in the same room. The first conversation is between Dr James and Connie, while the second is between Dr James and Tristan. The two separate dialogues have been spliced together, so that we see them taking place simultaneously in the same scene. When it was staged, Tristan and Connie moved around Dr James in their own space, while Dr James was seated and fairly still. At times, when Dr James kept glancing back and forth between Tristan and Connie, she looked like a spectator watching the tennis at Wimbledon! This scene was first read through and rehearsed with all three characters together, reading the lines as they appeared on the page. Then we tried an exercise where the actors read through as much of their conversations as was possible as two separate scenes, one after the other. This helped the actors with the structure, logic and thread of each conversation, which in turn helped with character arcs within the whole scene. They then put both conversations together again, as they appear in the actual scene.
All scenes were given names during the first days of rehearsals. These names were supposed to be illustrative of the scene itself in some way. Some of the titles, however, are more tenuously linked to the scene they describe than others, so it can sometimes take everyone a while to recall which scene we are actually talking about! The action of a scene called “Columbo” involves Connie trying to find out some information from Dr James. “High Noon” is the name of a scene in which there is a long-awaited show-down between the two doctors. “Club Tropicana” is the title of the scene where Connie and Tristan first get together, letting go of all sense of responsibilities and giving in to their feelings of love and lust for each other in strange and somewhat artificial circumstances, a little like being on holiday, hence the scene name!
The drug effect is a constant variable that effects everything in the play. During rehearsals, there has been a lot of talk about the need to plot the overall arc of the drug throughout for both Connie and Tristan, tracing its effects on them from scene to scene. There is an awareness that the actors need to avoid slipping into a generalized mood of ‘playing the drug’. Rupert stressed the importance of each character’s response or relationship to the drug and its effects on their thinking, behaviour and physiology at any one point. Defining Connie and Tristan’s thoughts about how the drug is affecting them at every stage is very important and it will help keep everything clear and specific, rather than soupy.
With this in mind, an exercise was set to help Billie and Jonjo raise the stakes and set the right tone for this scene. Under the effects of the drug, the characters needed to have more unsettled and intense thoughts about what was going on at that point in the play. The intensity and unsettling nature of the drug effect also needed to be expressed in terms of the physical effects it was having on their bodies. The actors were asked to play the scene speaking their lines with American accents, as if they were in an emergency-disaster-type situation with many alarms going off all around them. They were asked to imagine that they were in a Hollywood-style action movie, at the most intense point of the crisis and in real physical danger. Rupert made constant alarm sounds and kept shouting out updates to their emergency situation. There were mentions of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in ‘Speed’ again!
While this exercise seemed quite difficult for the actors, because they had to run the scene in a completely different way, it was hugely beneficial in illustrating the intensity of thinking in relationship to the drug and its effects that were previously missing for both characters in the scene. It was also really entertaining to watch!
Towards the end of the week, we moved on to staging the one scene that has always been included and remained completely unaltered in every draft of the play I have ever read. It is a very delicate and beautiful scene, made up of a sequence of about twelve vignettes, each of which are just glimpses of Connie and Tristan, falling in love, throughout the first night they spend together. Rupert described this scene as the ‘heart of the play’, and it very much feels as though it is. There is little dialogue, and the scenes are not chronological, jumping back and forth between different times during the night. Rupert had certain ideas regarding some staging positions for these moments, and guided the actors into different tableaux. He then matched up each tableaux to the mini-scene that they fitted best, keeping in mind the tonal balance between them, as well as the rhythm and musicality of the whole scene. The play is about love, and should therefore show every aspect of love. All of the sides of love will hopefully be conveyed in this scene.
Lastly, a brief glimpse of another couple of my highlights from this week’s rehearsals: Anastasia’s completely fearless handling of a real calf's brain; and a particularly challenging yet entertaining session helping Jonjo with line-learning for his amnesia scene!