Week 3 of rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation and the pace is now picking up. For Tower Theatre it meant much time spent south of the river Thames and an increasing familiarity with the environs of Clapham as we journeyed there to practice our scenes.
On Tuesday we were treated to watching the professionals at work as Erica explored the possibilities thrown up by the start of Act V. This last act is when the play within a play gets performed by the Mechanicals so it was extremely helpful to have the pros putting it into context for us. What struck me most forcibly were the number of possibilities which they found within the text and the relish with which they explored them. This section formed the broadcast which went out to the groups throughout the country. Then it was our turn and we worked with Assistant Director Kim on Quince’s two prologues in which the plot and characters of Pyramus and Thisbe are introduced to the Duke’s court. This meant the bulk of the work fell squarely upon Maria’s shoulders while the rest of us had some fun experimenting with our roles in dumb show. Several versions later we felt we had definitely got somewhere with it. One significant practical difference between pro and amateur rehearsals quickly manifested itself when the stage management team produced a number of props for use in the scene and we were invited to make selections – I, for instance, was offered a choice of four (FOUR!) different swords. I can remember doing productions in the past where key props just about managed to appear by dress rehearsal, never mind in the early stages of practising. RSC – you’re just spoiling us now!
On Wednesday evening another first was attempted as there was “a three way” hook up between London, Blackpool and Stratford so that scenes could be tried out in various configurations. Although most of the venues have proscenium arches, Stratford itself has a thrust stage and they are all, of course, different widths and depths. The Barbican (our venue) has one of – if not the – widest performance areas so it was good to find that one of the rooms in Clapham has been marked out with that particular configuration for us to practice in. This is the aptly named Bottom rehearsal room (as in top, middle and…but a nice piece of serendipity all the same).
Thursday was an extended day for me as I took the opportunity to go in early and observe the professionals rehearsing the lover’s scenes. While they only interact with the Mechanicals at the very end of the play it was very interesting to see how another key aspect of the piece has been developing. Laura, Mercy, Jack and Chris (who play the four roles) worked intensely with Erica trying a myriad of variations until hitting on combinations of interpretation with which they all felt comfortable. What occurred to me was i) the fun they had in trying out various combinations and ii) the amount of discussion and thought that went into proceedings. In “amateurland” time pressures often take their toll and far from having all day to get a scene right it is often a case of cramming in a couple of hours after a full working day. In the afternoon the rehearsal continued with Sian the movement director and AD Kim. Having more or less blocked the scenes in the morning, the afternoon was all about finessing and nuancing. The day finished with the arrival of several other professionals to rehearse the Bergomask (the dance which happens just before the play concludes). Great fun to watch – especially Kim busting moves as a stand-in Bottom.
Then, in the evening the Tower team gathered in the aforementioned Bottom rehearsal room to try two of the Mechanicals’ scenes – one of which we had never tackled before. Inspired by what I had seen earlier, I found it much easier to let go of any set notions about how a scene should look and be played and tried out a number of variations of what we were doing. Meanwhile upstairs another tri-cornered broadcast between Truro, Kidderminster and London was going ahead with the Mechanicals’ professional understudies in attendance. If you’re wondering why we weren’t watching, this was a conscious decision – sometimes it’s better to just get on and do. In any case the recordings of the broadcasts are being made available for us online to watch at our convenience. Alongside these recordings we are also due to have access to a number of digital lessons. So far we have had examples of a vocal warm up, how to sing Bottom’s song and the choreography for the Bergomask dance. I’m just waiting for the one that teaches the ancient art of braying like a donkey!
The last rehearsal of the week was the Saturday Bottom hub and what a gathering it proved to be. Nine Bottoms in the same room (plus one at the other end of a camera in Cornwall) at once may seem like overkill but as someone pointed out “You can never really have too many Bottoms”. Ayesha seemed to take this all in her stride, one minute acting opposite Stratford Bottom (David), the next with Canterbury Bottom (Lisa) before turning her attention to Norwich Bottom (Owen) and Cardiff Bottom (Steven). She even managed a brief scene with Truro Bottom (Peter) through the magic of the Internet. At one point everyone in the room attempted the Bergomask dance (see above) for the first time; I need to take my time with something like this so will definitely be studying the digital lesson carefully.
And that was it for Week 3 – halfway through rehearsals already! A slightly scary thought especially, I suspect, for the groups who are early on in the tour run.
As a footnote there was one other highly enjoyable aspect to the week which was connected to the Dream2016 project. This was being invited to Broadcasting House for the BBC Press Launch of their Shakespeare 2016 season due to start on April 23rd. Seeing clips of the forthcoming programmes along with live turns from the Horrible Histories troupe, Hip Hop Shakespeare and an interview with David Tennant was a very enjoyable way to spend a morning. Greg Doran (commander in chief) introduced the RSC’s 2016 programme highlighting the Dream tour as its flagship production. This was followed by ten pupils from Eastbury school (one of the schools we will be working with) and some of the adult cast performing Titania’s lullaby from the show. Apparently they had had only one brief rehearsal – and they were utterly brilliant. My personal highlight was when Erica introduced me to Simon Russell Beale who will be returning to the RSC to play Prospero in a unique and highly technological take on The Tempest at the end of the year. He was lovely to talk to and he was particularly interested and intrigued by the Dream project. However, if I was hoping for any tips it was to prove disappointing. Despite extensive experience in Shakespeare’s work and the fact that it would seem ideal casting, SRB has never played Bottom or, indeed, been in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So then, Dream2016 Bottoms – 1: SRB – Nil!