Every actor loves the phrase “You got the part!” I was in a coffee shop on The Kings Road, getting ready to go to Yorkshire when my agent said that to me. But he sounded confused. Concerned, even. “They want you to go to America to play Don Pedro. And Friar Francis. And Ursula. And a watchman. And a messenger. AND there’s no director. There are only five actors. So… Well… I don’t know how that’s all going to work.” Sounds great, I replied. “You only get four weeks rehearsal.” He continued. “And they pay you direct.” Lovely, I said, entirely honestly. You’ll have to invoice for your commission, I continued through gritted teeth.
“Only” four weeks, he had said. Yeah I know they get 8 or 9 at the RSC, but I was about to go to Yorkshire for the 6th year running to rehearse multiple parts in a very involved promenade Shakespeare at Sprite Productions and we never get more than 3 weeks there. So 4 weeks, surely that’s luxury, even without a director. Or a costume designer. Or a huge team of skilled Stage Managers and ASMs. Or a dedicated Musical Director and Composer. Or an on site producer constantly troubleshooting. Hmmmm.
On second thoughts four weeks is nothing. This is a play by one of the densest theatre writers ever, written in language and social morays that were current 500 years ago. And we have four weeks to do the work of a whole team, while playing multiple parts across gender and class. And singing songs. Maybe this is going to be a heck of a challenge. Bring it!
The Karibu centre in Brixton is a delightful place to rehearse. It’s a very lively community centre with a big upstairs room. We always had a load of space and air around us as we worked, which helped consolidate an atmosphere of freedom in the company. We ended up roping out a stage area in this vast room with, at first, empty cans, then string, and finally, hessian. Karibu is right next to a lively mosque where they frequently broadcast prayer through loudspeakers enthusiastically at lunchtimes. It can get pretty noisy. The centre itself forms a big part of the local community, dealing with young offenders on their community service, holding meetings for AA etc, and managing big groups of hilarious precocious kids who get dragged off en masse to do activities in the park, and to exhaust themselves running around in circles while mum and dad are at work. And since it is rooted in the Caribbean community, they want to cook for you. “Do you want some jerk chicken with rice and peas darling?” became a frequently overheard phrase. And then they would insist on serving you so much on the plate that you feel fit for bursting, because if you don’t finish it THEY WILL MAKE YOU, before trying to peddle mangoes for dessert in such an efficient and determined fashion that you end up eating three of them and taking a melon with you “in case you need a snack for after, lovely.” Fuel though. And we needed it.
5 actors. No director. Many parts. How to begin? Consensus in the group was instant on day one. “Let’s just do the whole play, on it’s feet, now.” So that was the first thing we did. Many confused moments as people went “oh hang on wait I’m talking to myself here for ages,” but also much joy. Instantly it was clear that this was a creative bunch of people. And a diverse bunch. We very quickly improvised props or costume that would stand for characters who were in the scene but currently having to be someone else. In fact, this satsuma was Hero for the whole of the first day:
The rest of the process followed a similar vein. “If someone has an idea, say yes to it and try it out.” And we did. And we stayed ahead of it, exhausting ourselves all day speaking crunchy text before going home to work on lines, or music, or costume, or dance, or physicality. While taking a little time out to live life. A frequently expressed thought from everyone was “everyone is so good, I need to work harder.”
Patsy Rodenburg, my old voice teacher, would frequently say “You’ve got to be fit to do Shakespeare. It’s a physical, vocal and emotional workout.” This is true. Carolyn Lyle, my old English lecturer, used to say “If you look at the structure of the plays, if one of the actors has a big hard emotional scene, then Shakespeare sends in the clowns and lets the poor guy have a breather.” This doesn’t apply when five people are playing all the parts. So yeah, we thought we were fit. But every Friday evening we were knackered. But also inspired.
One of the effects of no director is that we all have to take ownership of the whole piece of work. You can’t cop off when you’re not in that scene to get a coffee, because the only person they’ve got for an outside eye is you. I have known Much Ado for years. I was in it at University, generalising and shouting my way through one of the parts (thankfully not one I’m playing now) with bleached spiked blonde hair and an achingly and effortlessly gained six pack. I’ve seen countless productions of it since, but I’ve never loved it or understood it like I love and understand it now. The thing about good writing is the deeper you go the richer it turns out to be. And Shakespeare really is one of the best.
It’s quite a short play, compared to some. At first we tried to do it complete, and uncut, and it was only after we showed it to some members of the company that we felt we had permission to make a couple of snips. We took some unnecessary entrances that would have made for more trouble than they were worth “Here comes signor Leonato, and the Sexton” Became “Here comes signor Leonato.” Because the Sexton says nothing in the scene, and is played by the same actor as Leonato. Sometimes we chose to make a virtue out of the difficulty of the changes, but in that instance it was too fussy.
The only other major cut we have made so far is all the stuff about Deformed. The cultural references are all long dead, so it just smells a bit funny, and Borachio’s long tirade about fashion felt like it inevitably dropped the pace without dong anything for the plot. But we have kept Imogen, the ghost character, silent wife to Leonato, who is seen in the first scene, never speaks, and is forgotten shortly after. Perhaps once we get to the states, we’ll cut more, or perhaps we’ll find we miss things and put them back. But four weeks on and it still feels like a creative, living, generative group of five weird, passionate and lovely craftspersons. I suppose I should introduce us all, since I’ll be blogging for the whole time we are in America. I’ll do that in the next post. Right now I’m going to have a gin and tonic and watch some of the inflight entertainment. Ahh British airways. Luxury.
(Posted by Al Barclay)