Cheek by jowl

Last December, as rehearsals for the project were about to begin, I was pleased to be able to publish an interview with professional cast member Jack Holden (playing Lysander). As a way of celebrating the end of rehearsals and the opening performances of the production here’s a post which has been written in collaboration with another member of the cast, Chris Nayak (playing Demetrius). Many thanks, Chris, for your all your work on this and, of course, in the play.

One of the key elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation has been sharing and it is with that in mind that I wanted to investigate more closely a typical rehearsal session for one of the professionals in the cast. Essentially, via a milder form of job shadowing, I wanted to see what lessons such an exercise could deliver to those of us in the amateur part of the company. I am therefore grateful to Chris Nayak for allowing me to put him under scrutiny for one afternoon in Week 5 of rehearsals. In the ongoing spirit of co-operation Chris has also kindly agreed to add some of his own thoughts so I’ll be quiet for a minute and let him introduce himself.

Chris Nayak

CN: Hello! Very pleased to be able to contribute to this blog. I last worked for the RSC in 2015, and amongst the shows I performed in was The Christmas Truce, a new play which Erica Whyman directed. I really enjoyed working with her, so was thrilled when she asked me to be a part of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation. It’s the kind of typically bold and adventurous project that she and the RSC are so brilliant at doing, and it’s great fun to be part of.

Date: Thursday 4th February 2016 Venue: RSC Rehearsal Rooms, Clapham, London

2.45 pm Chris has been called for a 3.00pm start and I find him in the Green Room with two fellow cast members Jack (Lysander) and Mercy (Hermia). They are discussing their arrangements for accommodation during the tour of the play. Chris, like many actors, is based in London and therefore will be away from his home for quite some time and he and the others are comparing notes about this. I hadn’t really thought about the logistics that are involved in going on tour and perhaps had some far-fetched notion that the actors would have all this done for them (not sure by whom – told you I hadn’t thought it through). Though they do indeed make their own final decisions about where they will lodge, the Company Manager supplies the actors with a list of “digs” which helps to narrow the field considerably. Transport to Stratford upon Avon and in between the various venues is also a topic for exploration – the movement of bulky duvets seems to be a particular preoccupation.

CN: Touring is, for me, one of the biggest mixed blessings of being an actor. On the one hand, we will get to visit some of the most interesting theatres in the UK. We will have to adapt the show for big spaces and small spaces, thrusts and proscenium arches. And we will get the chance to share this play with a huge variety of different audiences, some of whom will never have seen a Shakespeare play before. On the other hand, I like my own bed! I’ll miss my wife when we’re not in London, I’ll miss seeing friends, and there can be something quite tiring about being on the road. Luckily we’re blessed with a lovely company, who will hopefully make being away slightly more bearable.

3.00 pm Chris makes his way downstairs to the rehearsal room but the previous session is running a bit late and the etiquette is not to go in until “a suitable break in the performance”. Chris and his fellows are alert to not disturbing the creative process. Instead the conversation about touring broadens to include other new arrivals from the cast; Alex starts an impromptu singalong with his guitar.

CN: It sounds a bit precious maybe, but it’s so important not to go barging into the rehearsal room while there’s a scene in progress. When you’re discovering things for the first time, they’re at their rawest and most interesting, but your concentration can also be at its most fragile. I’d feel terrible if I interrupted a scene and ruined someone else’s work.

Chris Nayak and shoe
Chris and that shoe

3.15 pm As a number of the musicians appear everyone goes through to the rehearsal room catching up on their day on their way in; some are running lines as a warm up. The designated scene is Act 3, Scene 2 right at the heart of the play. There is a lot of physical action in this scene as Demetrius and the other lovers chase through the night time forest steered in their actions by the impish Puck; Sian the movement director monitors closely considering theatrical effect as well as personal safety. There are also a number of music cues so a good deal of patience on the part of the actors is required while the musicians get the timing right. Chris is, I note, word perfect but for some unaccountable reason is playing the scene right shoe in hand. In a brief break while music cues are checked I take the opportunity to ask Chris about the rogue shoe. It appears it is not just a random decision but continues from something which happens in an earlier scene. That explains it then!

3.45 pm Another short break sees Chris checking the timing of his delivery to fit in with the music and ensuring that his fellow actors are comfortable with this. One thing that becomes instantly apparent is that Chris is a highly collaborative worker thinking what is best for the production as a whole. As the scene begins again there is a good deal of rolling around on the ground and some yawning practice – both of these (I assure you) are integral to the scene.

Chris & Jack
Chris and Jack Holden

4.00 pm By now the scene is being rerun for the third or fourth time though Chris’s own current position is recumbent on the floor; Demetrius is now asleep – charmed by Puck and the fairies (hence the earlier yawning practice). Eventually the whole scene is run through without stopping and Chris builds on what he has done previously to provide an even more rounded performance. Each time this scene has been run he has subtly built on what went before to make the final result seem effortless when it is, in fact, very fully thought through.

CN: Demetrius is a fascinating character. He’s very forthright, very front-footed, and yet has managed to get into a huge tangle of his own making through courting first Helena and now Hermia. Why has he abandoned one girl for the other? Our production is set in the 1940s, and Demetrius and Egeus (Hermia’s dad) are both military men – there’s a sense in which Demetrius’ choosing of Hermia is the young soldier wanting to marry the Colonel’s daughter because of what she represents, as much as who she is. But there’s more to it than that. He claims he loves her, and he goes to great lengths to prove it – so is he lying to himself, or is he, as Lysander puts it, a ‘spotted and inconstant man’? These questions – and more importantly, working out what to do with my footwear – are what I’m thinking about at this stage in rehearsal.

Stella's workshop
Discussion on 1940s etiquette

4.35 pm Following a short tea break the attending actors gather chairs into a circle to have a session with Stella Moss the production’s historical consultant. She is an expert in the late 1940s period (when the production is set) and talks to the company about the hopes and aspirations of the time which sat alongside the sense of loss for those killed in the war and the rationing that, if anything, had become more stringent. She is also clear about the sort of social etiquette that existed for men and women and between the social classes at the time. Chris raises questions about National Service (Demetrius is to have a military background) and how his character’s treatment of Helena immediately before the action of the play begins would have been viewed by contemporaries.

5.15 pm Chris is back on his feet and the cast are rehearsing the opening of the play. What he has just been hearing from Stella can be immediately put into practice as Demetrius marches in and smartly salutes the Duke. There is also sheepishness present in his eyes as Lysander accuses Demetrius of toying with Helena’s affections. Although onstage for several pages Chris actually has only two lines to deliver. I ask him if it is difficult to establish a character with relatively little dialogue to work with; his reply is typically thoughtful.

CN: You can do a great deal on stage even when you have nothing to say. The great genius of Shakespeare is of course his language, and there’s nothing more powerful in this play than using his words. But it’s amazing how much you can do with just a couple of lines. And I think audiences – even those who go to the theatre very rarely – are incredibly adept at picking up things about a character based on the tiniest movements and gestures on stage.

5.30 pm Erica discusses the scene with the actors and suggests various revisions that they might try. Chris is thinking about the shoes he will be wearing (there seems to be a theme building here) and discusses with Peter (Egeus) how to get the best sounding military click as heels are brought together. The second half of the scene is then run. This does not involve Chris directly as his character has exited but he watches intently, developing a sense of the arc of the full scene. It is here that Helena decides she will reveal Lysander and Hermia’s elopement plans to Demetrius; this actually takes place offstage and Chris will then have to play the result of this decision so close attention is being paid.

5.45 pm After further directorial thoughts the whole scene is run through. The intention is to provide a strong opening to the play and create a sense of danger and threat against which the later comedy will play out. As Erica explains she does not want the start to be cosy – after all it is about a young woman being forced into an arranged marriage and threatened with losing her life if she does not comply. She urges the actors to be alert to keeping the scene alive or “we risk losing the risk”.

6.00 pm Chris’s afternoon draws to a close. It’s been a pretty full session but he is still bouncing ideas around. Is he in a good place at this point in time; to my untrained eye, I’d say so!

CN: There’s always for me a mix of excitement and nerves at this stage. We’ve got a bunch of ideas that we’re really excited to put into practice in a performance. At the same time, there’s so much that still needs to be explored. And there’s the great unknown: we have no idea whether an audience will enjoy this production, and we won’t know until it opens. Ultimately that’s all we want – for people to feel they’ve had a good night out, and to feel that these words from 400 years ago are still speaking to them today.

Chris Jack & Mercy
Chris (Demetrius) and Jack (Lysander) restrain Mercy (Hermia) Photograph by Topher McGrillis

So what might be learned from all this then? Clearly much of the process will ring bells with amateurs even if we’re not able to approach it quite so intently. The interplay and collaboration with one’s fellows seems paramount; as in any good working team if everyone is pulling in the same direction things are going to be much smoother and more fulfilling. An alertness to the project as a whole also seems key – I have, unfortunately, met amateurs in the past who seem to have little idea as to what goes on in a play other than their own part in it (and sometimes not even that!) Finally, making sure one is “in the moment” on stage and alert to the nuances that others may be bringing to the scene seems to be essential. Oh yes, one more thing, make sure you’ve sorted out your footwear!

The current week’s performances are at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. Click the side bar for amateur group details

Cheek by jowl