Assistant Director on Duet for One, Poppy Burton - Morgan, gives us a week by week update about progress in the rehersal room.
Well this has been a hard week for everyone - putting scenes together and beginning to run but still not completely secure on lines. Tricky.
It was now time to start pinning some things down so that Henry and Juliet have some physical anchors in each scene. This was particularly useful for Juliet because it meant pinning down the physical symptoms and manifestations of her MS as realised through-out the play - which hopefully creates an accurate and very realistic suggestion of the illness, without pulling focus from the relationship and the life and death struggle between Stephanie and Dr Feldmann.
Saturday morning was the first run-through of the whole play, which is always a nerve-wracking experience. It was nice to havea few friendly faces in rehearsals, but even playing to familiar faces proved a daunting experience for Juliet and Henry. However, it got the adrenaline pumping and perhaps because of this the run itself was astonishing - the pace was up - the scenes were for the most part fluid and fluent but above all it was incredibly moving. I always cry at the end of Session Three where Stephanie breaks down - which is pretty amazing considering how many times I've now seen it - but I also found myself in floods of tears throughout Session Five - which is testament to Henry's great skill and humanity as an actor in making Dr Feldmann such a compassionate figure even when he loses it and launches a tirade of abuse against Stephanie.
So a week of extreme emotions - hard work and late nights - but it looks like all the hard work has finally paid off - bring on tech week
This week has been particularly hectic. Back to in rehearsals after the Christmas break, we started working through the play from the beginning. Working through each scene, or session, starting with a quick line run and then getting up on stage.
It soon became apparent that Tom Kempinski's genius for writing incredibly naturalistic, brilliantly real speech, was bit of a pain for the actors to learn! It is particularly difficult for Juliet Stevenson, the actor playing Stephanie, as the character’s speech gets especially fragmented, broken down, circuitous and repetitive as the MS takes hold and she has an emotional breakdown. This makes the speech less logical and therefore it is much harder to learn as it is not a rational argument which logically precedes from premise to conclusion.
Henry Goodman, the actor playing Dr Feldmann faces a different linguistic challenge, he has to learn very accurately the slightly 'wrong' Europeanised English of a native German speaker. As both Henry and Juliet are such eloquent and articulate people themselves they often unconsciously correct the intentional grammatical mistakes in the text. So the actors are practicing their lines very hard to ensure absolute accuracy.
This week also saw the beginning of some explorations into costume. Henry had a fitting with Lez our costume designer, which was very productive. Feldmann stays on stage almost all the time and therefore can't have many costume changes, but more importantly artistically speaking doesn't go through such obvious emotional, physical and mental changes as Stephanie and consequently neither does his outward appearance.
Stephanie on the other hand starts off incredibly smart, stylish and well-put together and because of the emotional journey the character takes, goes through a complete physical transformation and the costume must reflect this.
The week finished with some more sessions with Warwick, the physiotherapist. On Saturday morning he brought in an incredible machine which essentially gives you an electric shock to therapeutically induce movement in muscles. For our purposes however it gave Juliet the opportunity to feel what it is like to have involuntary muscle spasms and cramps, which are common symptoms of MS. This meant that she could form muscle memories based on the experience and recreate the appearance of the physical symptoms within the play. This was possibly the biggest break-through of the week as she felt like she finally had a grasp on the physical reality of the condition and hence how to portray it on stage. It also means she can be incredibly specific in deciding whether a spasm in her hand starts from the little finger or the thumb, whether it immediately becomes a claw, the duration, and also where she would alleviate the spasm - in actuality the muscles that control our fingers are actually in our fore-arm (which is where the electrodes that induced the shock were placed) and so it is there rather than the hand itself that one would massage to alleviate the pain/spasm.
We also started the education project for Duet For One. This is a devised piece of theatre based on the same themes, with twenty, fifteen year olds students from a local school. I am directing the project and it has got off to a flying start and is incredibly exciting for all involved. The drama teacher at the school told us after the first session the other drama class, not involved in the project, had been complaining and were generally very jealous that the other pupils get to perform on the Almeida stage!
So a hugely productive week - and now only one more to go - eek!
Monday started working through the remaining scenes of the play. We had been worried about not getting through all the scenes before the end of the week, but we had got through everything so took the opportunity on Friday afternoon to read-through the entire play again. This gave a great sense both of how far we'd come in developing the characters but also of the shape and feel of the play as a whole, which is easy to forget when you're working in depth and in great detail scene by scene. We've still got two weeks of rehearsals after the Christmas break but already the production has such an impact that even sitting round a table re-reading it we were all in tears by the end of the first act!
We scheduled a meeting for Tuesday morning for the designer and costume supervisor to come in and talk to the actors, Henry and Juliet about their costumes. We also talked generally about the set and the revisions we'd made to the design during rehearsals. We talked a bit about props - my stepfather, who is a Psychiatrist, is kindly donating a full bookcase worth of Psychiatric Journals to furnish Feldmann's office so we started thinking about the logistics of getting them to the theatre.
On Tuesday morning Juliet went to meet with an MS nurse to try and find out a bit more about the symptoms and physical experience of having MS.She got lots of factual and anecdotal information from her.
One of the most moving anecdotes Juliet was told was that MS patients frequently use McDonalds restaurants, because one of the major symptoms of MS is incontinence and McDonalds is one of the few places where you can use the toilets freely. This story led to the discussion of Juliet's character Stephanie having a moment of incontinence at some point during the show - probably at a point of high stress - and how to achieve this technically.
Later in the week, on Thursday, we had a fantastic Physiotherapist called Warwick Thompson come in to rehearsals for an hour, not just to talk about the symptoms of the disease but also how to create and suggest them as an actor. Warwick works a lot with actors, he worked with Henry when he played Richard III for the RSC, a role which demands a variety of physical deformities. Warwick knew how to describe the symptoms and then suggest ways that Juliet could convey them on stage without risking her own physical and vocal health by having to repeat things over a long run in a demanding role.
What a lovely place the Almeida Theatre is. First thing on Monday morning the cast and crew were welcomed by Artistic Director Michael Attenborough and the rest of the Almeida Theatre team, plus a load of Danish pastries and fruit! Fruit has now become a regular feature in our rehearsal room – and it makes a great change from the usual staple of biscuits and donuts!
After the initial introductions, everyone crowded round the model box to have a look at Lez Brotherston's set design. This is useful for everyone involved in the show, as it helps everyone to visualise the play.
We then got stuck into the read-through – this is where the actors read the play aloud for the first time. The play is a duologue and focuses on the relationship between a world-famous concert violinist, played by Juliet Stevenson and her psychiatrist played by Henry Goodman. The initial reading was astonishing, this is clearly going to be a great show!
The play is incredibly complex it has a lot of layers - so a lot of the rehearsal this week was spent working around a table on the text – discussing the character and the story.
The show’s director, Matthew Lloyd is wonderfully open and collaborative, and the actors Henry and Juliet are both highly intelligent and articulate. They have undertaken a great deal of research into the characters and the issues they face in the play.
I have also undertaken lots of research. This week I have been contacting patients with MS and asking if they would be prepared to meet with Juliet, so she can find out what it really means to live with the disease. I think this will really inform her portrayal of the character and make her portrayal realistic.
I have also been looking up you-tube links for the many classical music references within the play and chatting to my step-dad, who luckily is a consultant psychiatrist about the tools and techniques of psychiatry.
The play was written in 1981 but we're updating it to the present, which means a fair bit of re-writing so that references to contemporary culture and medical treatments are accurate and up to date. Working in these changes are really important because the play is so real - such a slice of life - that the text needs to be accurate to create a believable reality on stage.
In the middle of the week, the actors began to stand up and put the words on stage. We began to explore the text in situ - on a mock-up of the set within the rehearsal room.
By the end of the week we'd got through the first two of six scenes. So hopefully we'll get through the remaining four scenes by the end of next week before we break for two weeks over Christmas. But already after only a few days real work Juliet and Henry are giving performances that I would spend four weeks trying to tease out of an actor - I think we're in exceptional and very safe hands.