It’s been another busy week on the Play For A Nation project as the Tower team prepared its radio adaptation of the Pyramus and Thisbe section of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was the third preparatory task set for the various Dreamteams by the RSC ahead of rehearsals starting in January (just one month left to go now!). For Task Two, other commitments meant we had had to do the task quickly before various folk disappeared to other parts of the globe. By the same token the same commitments this time meant that everything had to be squeezed in at the latter end of the given time frame. Still it’s always helpful to have a bit of pressure – no really!
Ahead of this, however, we were due our second visit from project director Erica Whyman. In fact this time turned out to be a double header as Assistant Director Kim Sykes was also in attendance. Erica started by letting us have a sneak preview of some of the costume designs. These (along with the setting) are being designed by Tom Piper – one half of the duo responsible for the Tower poppies installation last year. The concept of the production is that the play will be set in the Britain of the late 1940s. As Erica revealed in an article in The Independent recently: “It’s about the country coming together after surviving a traumatic time and about the post war austerity. It fits with the play. It will have a Dad’s Army quality about it. That sense of an ill-equipped group of people.” Not quite sure who Erica is thinking of when she makes the Dad’s Army analogy as the Tower team are all in the first flush of youth (Ahem!) What the costume designs show is that the characters will be very firmly rooted in their professions and that means overalls, aprons, work boots and so on.
After this it was down to some practical work. Firstly, we read through our original audition scene and it was interesting, coming back to it, to see that we soon fell back into the speech rhythms and intonations that we had used previously. Originally I had been playing the scene as though there was some already established antagonism between my Bottom (sorry!) and Maria’s Quince. Erica pointed out that this particular scene was the first time the audience will meet the characters and that if the antagonism starts too early then there is really nowhere for the characters to go and that a more obvious spirit of co-operation at this point would give us greater room for development at a later stage. This, of course, made perfect dramatic sense and when, after being giving a number of other suggestions and ideas, we read the scene again I felt that it worked much better for this new approach.
We then moved onto the scene where the Mechanicals have their first rehearsal of the play they are due to perform; this was one we had not tackled before so was an interesting departure. This time we got the scene “on its feet” and explored various possibilities. All the time both Erica and Kim were building on the good points, trying alternatives and gradually refining what we were doing; at the same time we were encouraged to use our own ideas and develop our sense of the character. As Bottom I had developed a tendency to do a lot of striding about and going up to whichever of the other characters I was addressing, so Erica asked me to try the scene taking up a dominant position down right and not budging throughout. While it was quite difficult to do this it actually gave the character a palpable sense of power. It also meant that the scene didn’t get “closed down” by the actors being too close to one another; we need to keep reminding ourselves that when we get to perform it will be on rather larger and wider stages than most of us are used to. It’s not necessarily the case that the scene will end up in this configuration but it’s instructive to explore possibilities.
As with the previous visit the time we spent together flew by but what a lot we learned in that short space! As Erica and Kim departed it was somewhat sobering to be reminded that the next time we meet directly, we will be in actual proper rehearsals –eek!
And so on to our task of the radio play. For this we allotted one evening for practice and one for recording, both to be carried out in the basement area of director David’s house – it’s not easy finding somewhere in London without extraneous noise. The rehearsal was, as ever, a healthy mixture of work and play and we soon realized there were two distinct elements to the piece; the play within the play and the running commentary that is provided by the onstage audience. This meant some doubling had to take place; not for me fortunately, my character already has enough to say for himself. Thus Tom as well as playing Starveling would use his carefully enunciated tones in playing Duke Theseus, Adam and Al (Flute and Snout) would also take on Lysander and Demetrius and in a chance to get fully involved for the first time Karen (our rehearsal Titania) would be Hippolyta. Strangely although the characters Helena and Hermia are present in the scene they have no lines to say; perhaps Shakespeare is making a point here…although equally perhaps he isn’t. We also decided to add mutterings, murmurings and some laughter from the rest of us as unnamed members of the court.
Recording was a real experience and gave us a taste of how complicated this process could actually be. We were fortunate to be able to call on the skills of film maker and general sound guru Leon Chambers who was able to bring along some top notch equipment and who fortunately had a game plan of how we should proceed. Firstly we recorded all the lines of the play within a play involving Pyramus and Thisbe, the Wall, Lion and Moonshine. This also included the notoriously tricky Prologue by Quince – a test for any actor. A couple of “takes” of each section were tried varying intonation and intensity. All the meaning of course had to be conveyed by our voices alone (the real purpose of the task) although personally I felt it helped to semi act it at the same time as verbalising which led to some extraordinary postures and grimacings at the microphone. As previously, our efforts were being filmed for the BBC documentary so I hope the more excessive contortions won’t be making the final edit.
Next we recorded the interjections by the court characters which are interspersed throughout the scene together with any accompanying laughter (there’s a lot of sycophancy and one upmanship going on here we discovered). Finally and most bizarrely we all sat around for the best part of a minute and chuckled, guffawed, laughed, tittered, hooted, gurgled, sniggered and chortled away to provide linking material. With a speed that defies description, Leon then edited everything together in about 20 minutes and there it was, our 14 minute epic take on “the most lamentable comedy and cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe”.
In a week in which the great Glenda Jackson returned (after a 23 year hiatus – not sure what she’s been doing; oh yes, featuring in a long running comedy set somewhere in Westminster) to appear in a radio play it seemed fitting that the Tower Dreamteam was taking its first faltering steps to glory in that medium. We’ve conquered radio, we’ve been filmed for TV so what next …oh yes, just that little matter of the stage!
Yesterday this blog received a visit from its 1,000th viewer. Sincere thanks for all the support over the last few months – long may it continue.