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Come behind the scenes for insights and interviews.

Category: Rehearsing


Taj Atwal: I wanted the ground to swallow me whole

portrait of actress Taj Atwal

photo by Helen Murray

Taj Atwal stars as Rita in our new production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Andrea Dunbar’s iconic play. Read about Taj’s first encounter with the work of a young woman who would come to be her favourite playwright.

I was a loud, passionate 18 year old heading off to drama school in leafy Surrey. It was a world away from North Yorkshire but I was fearless and streetwise, and felt I’d be able to settle in with no issues. But drama school was, it turned out, a world unknown to me. Sat in a circle on the first day we were asked to say one fascinating thing about ourselves and what we had been doing that summer. Teens shared stories of backpacking on their gap year around Vietnam, Cambodia and the Americas, others reeled off Shakespeare plays they had seen at the Globe. I muttered something about my own summer highlight, a trip to see my idols, the Spice Girls.

Some gasped, most laughed. I wanted the ground to swallow me whole. For the first time in my life, I was aware of a class divide, and it set me up for three years of feeling inadequate. I’d lived my life first on a council estate in Norwich and then growing up among working-class northerners in York. Presuming myself to be out of my depth, I struggled to apply myself to Shakespeare or other remote-seeming classical texts.

Taj Atwal rehearsing a scene from Rita, Sue and Bob Too, with Gemma Dobson

One rainy winter morning I was sulking in the library, attempting to choose a play to perform for our next module and unable to find one that resonated, when I stumbled across Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor. WOW. “This is me,” I mumbled, turning page after page. Here were words that sounded like mine, characters I had grown up with. Eager to read more I spent the afternoon on the internet soaking up Andrea’s short and shocking life of hunger, teenage pregnancy, poverty and success, and her tragic early death. She hailed from the Buttershaw Estate on the outskirts of Bradford, coming of age at a time when unemployment was at a peak of three million. Out of this despair came her words, so true, raw and unfiltered and funny.

When she wrote The Arbor, Andrea was only 15 and struggling to complete English homework. A teacher encouraged her to write a play instead. From this The Arbor was born, and after sending it to the Royal Court young writers programme, Andrea’s play received a successful run, followed by a commission that led to her second, most famous play and subsequent film.

Alan Clarke’s film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (photo: BFI)

Rita, Sue and Bob Too is about two teenage girls and their affair with an older man. These girls came from a place where the opportunity to thrive was non-existent. I play Rita, who has no father, several siblings, lives with her mother and is Sue’s best friend. Rita instantly falls for Bob’s charm. He shows her attention and – it seems to her – the adoration she has never received. He listens to her and having never had a male role model she looks up to him and doesn’t see his flaws.

Taj Atwal in rehearsal for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, with James Atherton.

I love the complexity Andrea gives Rita. On the surface, she’s a normal 15 year old girl up for a laugh. But underneath are layers of vulnerability and naivety – she’s easily manipulated by both Sue and Bob. And she harbours an aspiration to be something more than her circumstances promise. Like Andrea, these girls came from a place where the opportunity to thrive was almost non-existent, where the only permitted ambition for a girl was to be married with kids in a nice house. Bob is quick to put down her dreams of studying to be a policewoman or travelling, and it’s because of Bob she loses the chance to pursue them.

At 15 I was resolute that I would leave my city, see the world and become an actress. I also recall an overwhelming loneliness and the hunger to be something more. That’s what drives the characters in this play – the fight to be heard, to be loved and to be more than what their situation allows them to be. Why do they feel so real? Because Andrea knew these people, lived with them, grew up with them. As with all great playwriting, parts of her are in all of her characters. She gave a voice to a community who were suffering in Thatcher’s Britain – whether they wanted it or not.

Paul Copley, Lesley Manville and Joanne Whalley in the 1982 world premiere of Rita, Sue and Bob Too (photo: John Haynes)

Andrea wasn’t unique in her experience of alcoholism, domestic abuse and underage sex and pregnancy, nor in clawing some kind of life back from it. But her voice was unique, and silenced tragically young – she was dead at 29 from a brain haemorrhage, possibly triggered by a pub fight. She’d had three plays staged at one of the world’s most famous theatres, and in practical terms it hadn’t changed the course of her life at all.


Interview with Max Stafford-Clark

Max Stafford-Clark, shot by Beinn Muir at Wilton's Music Hall during rehearsals for All That Fall

Max Stafford-Clark, shot by Beinn Muir at Wilton’s Music Hall during rehearsals for All That Fall

Out of Joint is bringing Max Stafford-Clark’s in-the-dark staging of Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall  into the West End for just 5 weeks from 13 April, following sell-out performances in London and Bristol. He talks about why the play appeals to him more than Beckett’s better known work – and his love of trains – with Jon Bradfield.

JB: When did you first encounter All That Fall?

MSC: I read it I suppose about 25 years ago. I think I find myself out of sympathy with the nihilistic, non-specific worlds of Beckett’s better known stage plays, such as Waiting for Godot, so I was intrigued to find that Michael Billington had chosen not one of the better known plays but All That Fall for his book The 101 Greatest Plays.

What’s interesting is it contains the tropes of Beckett, the decay and death and that view of the world he had after the war when belief in Christianity, or socialism, seemed to have been eradicated…

But it’s softened in All That Fall?

It’s contextualised more, and therefore it’s more comprehensible. I find his a gloomy philosophy of life but it’s one he held, and when you read his life you begin to understand his certain cynicism. He was a medical orderly and a nurse in a bombed-out French village after the war. And indeed his experiences in occupied France – the local priest in the place he was hiding was involved in giving information to the Gestapo.

I think the fact that All That Fall is socially specific, that it evokes a particular suburban world of Anglo-Irish Protestantism drew me to the play.

It’s a very simple story – Mrs Rooney’s journey to the station to pick up her blind husband on a Saturday lunchtime. It would have been quite normal to for people in office jobs to work on a Saturday morning. But to that simple structure he adds a specificity of the social class of people she meets.

It’s certainly more naturalistic than Godot or Endgame or Happy Days. Is the Irishness part of the draw too? Like Beckett you were at Trinity College, your wife [playwright Stella Feehily] is Irish, you’ve worked regularly with Sebastian Barry, you’ve twice directed Tom Kilroy’s Irish version of The Seagull…

Well I’m a Hibernophile from way back. And Beckett was drawing on real life. Connolly’s van passes Mrs Rooney on her outward journey in the play, and there was a grocers called Connolly’s in Foxrock… When I was in Dublin in the early sixties it was still a collision of country and town. Donkeys were used as working animals in rural towns around Dublin.

So Foxrock would have been semi rural?

It would have been completely rural and is now suburban. The station has gone.

The play is slightly unresolved. We’re left not knowing if Mr Rooney had something to do with the incident that’s revealed at the end of the play – and there’s a mystery around the object that he’s dropped. Do you and the cast need to know these answers in rehearsal to make the play work?

I left it open as late as possible last year but by the middle of the run the actor playing Mr Rooney became convinced he was involved. When Beckett himself was asked he said “if I knew I’d tell you” so he was deliberately out to create an unresolved mystery.

And do you like that, or do you find it frustrating?

Initially frustrating, but eventually I found it very satisfying that we don’t know.

It’s a way of suggesting a distance between them as a couple.

The thing about them as a couple is that in the first half when Mrs Rooney’s going to the station by herself she’s entirely dominant. She’s a rather acerbic and fractious neighbour to the people she meets. Yet when she meets her husband she’s totally dominated by him. It rings true of a number of literary relationships and probably rings true of a number of relationships Beckett had.

You like your trains. Was that part of the appeal?

It was part of the appeal of the sound effects, yes! There’s scope for a couple of trains to pass and I have a very clear picture in my mind of what kind of locomotives would have been involved.

maxstafford-clark_leaning RGB

Max on the Bluebell steam railway during rehearsals for The Permanent Way, David Hare’s play about the privatisation of the railways. Photo by John Haynes.

Someone recently suggested to me that steam trains are magical to us because they’re the closest we’ve come to creating life.

I’ll have to digest that but they’re very exciting creatures.

They sort of breathe.

Yeah that’s right. I think my first memory was driving down to Devon with my parents for a holiday. There was a huge traffic jam outside Honiton and we stopped and walked across a field, my father and I, and sat on a fence above a railway cutting and saw these extraordinarily beautiful and noisy steam engines going by. And as you know I have an extensive model railway that I return to every night.

You play with it every day?

Operate it. Not play! It’s a complete world, it’s Vermont in 1956, about the same time as All That Fall in fact, so I’m fifteen when I go in there, and Stella doesn’t exist.

So coming back to the play, for this revival is there anything you’d like to change from when you staged it last year in Enniskillen?

I think I’ll make Mrs Rooney a bit more impossible. I mean, I think she’s a person that if you saw her coming down the street you might cross over to the other side of the road rather than risk a social confrontation with her.

She’s both flirty and scolding isn’t she.

That’s right – she’s that kind of unpredictability that’s quite difficult socially. You don’t know if she’s going to tear you off a strip or ask you to tea.

Did you know Beckett?

No. I met him a few times. He’d talk about the impossibility of guarding his work. “I spend my life trying…” So when we sought permission from the Beckett estate to stage All That Fall and Edward Beckett asked me what was my vision for the play, I knew the correct answer was that there was no vision at all. Beckett’s instruction was that the voices come “as from the void”.

Trains RGB

Max’s model railway

BOOK TICKETS TO ALL THAT FALL

From play to paintings – interview with Pippa Blake

Detail from "It's a damned paradise"

Detail from “It’s a damned paradise”

JON BRADFIELD talks to artist Pippa Blake about her new theatre-inspired exhibition.

Theatre’s a pretty transient art-form – once the last performance is over and the lights go down, it’s over. The cast moves on to other projects, the costumes are sent back and dry-cleaned, and we get on with the business of planning our next tour.

So we’re excited to have an unusual, permanent artistic legacy to one of our recent shows. The painter Pippa Blake joined us in rehearsals last year for our production of Pitcairn, a new play by Richard Bean about the colonizing of a South Pacific island in 1789. Pippa has completed a series of paintings inspired by the piece which are about to go on display (see dates below). Some clearly show their origins in the theatre production, while others seem to take us onto the island itself.

 


Two paintings by Pippa Blake

Two paintings by Pippa Blake

Was this the first time you’ve used theatre as a starting point?

I’d never used the theatre as a starting point before but the idea came to me while watching Howard Barker’s play Scenes from an Execution at the National Theatre in 2012. Everything resonated – I’d been making war paintings, and here was a 16th Century female war artist struggling in a male dominated world and wanting to show the truth, not what the bureaucrats wanted her to depict.

How did those war paintings come about? Those scenes of bombed cities and military helicopters, what was your source for them, and what are you trying to do with them?

I have been interested in war since studying the First World War poets at school. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ had a profound impact on me – I remember scribbling skeletons on essay papers at the time. I started out a landscape painter, then around ten years ago wanted to be saying more about the world. All the images of the Middle Eastern war on television began to affect me and move me towards making work – as well as the anniversary of Auschwitz in 2005 and the powerful images from 9/11 also. There is something about the soulfulness and loneliness of the bombed street scenes, which resonates with something inside of me, and perhaps I am trying to show that within the work

Your Pitcairn paintings evoke the production but you also spent time in rehearsals.

That was crucial. Although I haven’t used the drawings I made during them it gave me a greater insight into how a play is made and to get to the very bones of how life is breathed into it. It helped me understand what was behind the story of Pitcairn.

Detail: The Rehearsal

Detail: The Rehearsal

Aside from sketching, how was the experience of watching the play being rehearsed? 

Artist or not I found the rehearsals fascinating, listening to Max Stafford-Clark challenging the actors in getting into the character of their parts. I felt it was a privilege to be an onlooker and not only to watch the characters take shape and how they worked with each other but also how the actors reacted with each other personally.

Be strong we are taking control

Be strong we are taking control

Are you much of a theatregoer?

I grew up near Chichester Festival Theatre and was taken by my parents early on and there were school visits to Stratford and the Yvonne Arnaud at Guildford. During art school at Camberwell we would get cheap seats to the National. I would call myself a keen theatergoer who doesn’t go often enough.

Some of your paintings have been very abstract, some figurative, some are somewhere between the two. Do you always know when you start painting where you’re going to land between those two extremes?

That is a good question for me as I have been a very abstract painter and never a very figurative painter, at least in terms of realism. And of course the very nature of working with the theatre means that figures come into play. I never know when I begin a work what is going to happen on the canvas. I have an image as a starting point –a photograph or a drawing – and during the process of making the painting I lose the original photographic image, return to it, and then might lose it again. It used to worry me that I had these two apparently different approaches but now rest easy with the fact that I could go either way and perhaps have two styles – look at the work of Gerhard Richter to see how he sits within the two ways of working.

So when do you have an idea of what the finished painting will be?

It’s something I arrive at. Quite often I will completely change the painting and begin a new one on the same surface, which seems to be establishing itself as the way I work. Really I need to have many layers of work on the canvas until I begin finding what it is I am searching for.

Our sentence a life sentence

We're a crop and we have a blight

We’re a crop and we have a blight

In one of the Pitcairn paintings there’s a definite suggestion of theatre lighting, and another is called “the rehearsal”, but in most of them there’s no inherent reference to their genesis in a theatre production. So what do you think the paintings are “of”? Are they a recording of actors in 2014 performing a play about people and events on Pitcairn in 1789; or do they somehow bypass the show to become a depiction of the people and events on Pitcairn themselves? To put it another way: Are the clothes in these paintings the costumes from the play, which clearly they resemble; or are they the naval uniforms and Tahitian dress from 1789?

They are certainly the costumes from the play because the paintings could never have emerged without my experience of the play. However I would like to think that I have taken the paintings beyond the visual level of the theatre production in that there is very little direct reference to the stage-set (apologies to designer Tim Shortall!) although I was initially very inspired by the drama of his sets.

What is important is that I get across an emotion or feeling of atmosphere about the bones of the play. I ‘m trying to pare down to the essence of what is going on. I am also well aware of recent goings on in Pitcairn Island and the historical implications of life on the island that I am also mindful of in the work.

Do you generally work in phases, or series? I mean, you generally work on a number of pictures on a theme or style at the same time or in close succession?

Yes – I like to treat the work as a project involving investigation and research, so work on a series of paintings with the same subject matter. I work on several canvases at once – one reason is purely practical in that working in layers with oil paint I need to wait for paint to dry! And I like to be able to imbue the same spirit into all the works. so it is helpful to not stop and start one at a time.

Six paintings of characters from Pitcairn

Six paintings of characters from Pitcairn

What artists do you like? Current and historical

I grew up looking at Cezanne, Bonnard, Matisse and then Richard Diebenkorn, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Philip Guston. Current artists I look at are Anselm Kieffer, Gerhard Richter, Peter Doig, Cai Guo-Qiang, Tacita Dean and Adrian Ghenie amongst others.

Do you buy much art?

I used to buy work from artist friends but not so much these days – artists are not normally in a position to buy much art. When I visit galleries and exhibitions I like to decide which would be the one I would take away with me were it possible.

How do you spend your time when you’re not painting?

I travel a great deal and spend time in New Zealand, which is second home for me. I love walking up hills, watching movies, going to theatre, reading, drinking wine and I love dancing. I also have a small wooden boat, which I love to sail on fair weather days.

Paradise

Paradise

You’ve travelled a lot. Best three places/experiences?

I’ve spent time in French Polynesia and love the island of Tara – vanilla plantations, lush and warm. I’ve spent time in the Amazon on an expedition boat, working as an artist with the sense of being surrounded by a vast forest and its remoteness. Likewise sailing across the Indian Ocean, being on the dawn watch as the sun rose and feeling the vastness of the ocean and world around you. A very recent trip to China was fascinating and inspiring to go back to learn more about it’s history and politics.

Has your art been influenced by art you’ve encountered from different culture when you’ve travelled?

No, I don’t feel I’ve been influenced particularly from the art of different cultures although back in the late 70’s going to New York and seeing the Abstract Expressionists first hand had a huge impact on me – particularly Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Philip Guston.

 


See the Pitcairn pictures here:

Pippa Blake | Utopia : Dystopia
26-31 May: Embassy Tea Gallery, 195-205 Union Street, London SE1 0PB
5-17 June: West Dean Collage, Nr Chichester, West Sussex, PO18 0QZ

Interview with Rhys ap William

Rhys ap William holding a rugby ball

RHYS AP WILLIAM stars in Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, Robin Soans’ new play about gay Welsh rugby icon Gareth “Alfie” Thomas. He took time out from technical rehearsals to answer a few questions.

Tell us about the show?
It’s a story about a rugby man and his home town. A roller coaster. I play Baz, Alfie’s dad, and Gareth himself. Baz is a great role and his scenes with Vonnie are great fun. Playing Gareth is an honour. He came to watch a run in week 5 and that was an emotional afternoon.

Rhys rehearsing with Katie Elin-SaltYou’ve been involved in rugby most of your life.  Are you still playing?
I’ve been player,chairman, treasurer and barman at my current club, Clwb Rygbi Cymry Caerdydd since around 1999.  I’ve played since the age of 5 and would love a game in my 40th year, injuries permitting.  The future for me in rugby terms is the committee room and my blazer.

Were you aware Alfie was gay before he came out – or at least aware of rumours?
Wales is a small place, like a big village! Rumours travel fast but the truth remained a mystery.

Have there been rumours about other players?
A lot of names were flying about when Alfie’s rumours started circulating, but he’s the only one that has come out. There are a few good fake tans in Welsh rugby!

Do you think it’s still difficult for people in team sports like Rugby Union in Wales to come out?
I think he was in a great sport to do what he did. Rugby Union is a tight family and team mates look after each other. It is difficult for anybody to come out in any sport due to the public perception of players. Follow Alfie’s lead.

Rhys in rehearsals with Bethan Witcomb looking towards someone throwing a rugby ball towards themYou’re the “face and voice” of Welsh Rugby Union at the Millennium Stadium. How did that come about? And – commiserations! – what was the atmosphere like at England v Wales in the Six Nations last week?
It’s a dream job. Apart from the England game! I’ve been doing it for 10 years, it started from doing a voice-over for the BBC. My role has evolved from “voice of god” at the stadium to match day presenter for WRU TV. I watch the game from the tunnel, and the atmosphere’s always electric. It’s not quite playing but it’s a good second place.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
No idea! I guess it started in chapel and primary school. I was always reading and performing and loved it. I’m 40 this year and still think about my university application form – I had all sorts on it but chose the Theatre Media Music option. I’m still just about employable so I guess I chose wisely.

Has working with Max Stafford-Clark?
I knew of Max and his work, but I didn’t know what to expect and certainly didn’t know about his rugby pedigree. He has opened my eyes to actioning text and indeed on performing as a whole. I’ve loved the rehearsal time with him and learned a hell of a lot.

Rhys in rehearsals with Patrick Brennan reading a script Where in Wales are you from, and what’s it like there?
I’m from Cwmllynfell. It’s a small mining and farming village at the foot of the Black Mountain at the top of the Swansea Valley. It’s a beautiful place that I don’t see enough of. Hills, rivers, trees and rugby! What a place to grow up. Unman yn debyg i gatre – that’s Welsh for “no place like home”.

Do you enjoy touring?
With a 7 month old daughter at home it’s not quite as much fun as it used to be, but with the great cast and crew we’ll have a top time. We’ll be at some great theatres all over the country and I’m looking forward to the London run at the Arcola.

Watch Rhys in Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, touring Wales and England, February – June 2015.

Mutiny!

Jack Tarlton

Pitcairn‘s director, Max Stafford-Clark, likes to use improvisation to help actors immerse themselves in their characters and situations. But he doesn’t usually put himself in the firing line… Here’s actor Jack Tarlton’s rehearsal blog. 

Being a True and most Accurate account by Jack Tarlton of the Treacherous and Convoluted Rebellion onboard Out of Joint

It is only a couple of days into the voyage of rehearsals for Richard Beans new play Pitcairn, and mutiny is in the air. The play chronicles the aftermath of the mutiny on the Bounty, and the attempt by Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers to establish a new life on the incredibly isolated island of Pitcairn.

Our director Max Stafford-Clark produces his well thumbed pack of playing cards and passes them around the table where the company is sat working line-by-line through the play. Each of us has to take a card without allowing anyone else to see which card we have. If it is a red suit then we remain loyal to Max and the rehearsal process. If it is black then we are mutinous. The higher the card the more loyal or rebellious we are. The lowest is 2, the highest 10. My card is Black 9.

Max says that between now and press night, some six weeks away, rebels who have drawn a black card must somehow cause an outbreak of mutiny. All options are open. “You could try to replace me with Sir Peter Hall if you want” Max advises. The loyal reds must try to stop the uprising. There is also an informant amongst us as the Joker was included and whoever selected this card must try to find out when the revolt is scheduled to take place and tell Max.

With one of the highest black cards in the room this makes me responsible for planning what form the mutiny will take. I will have to subtly work out who my fellow mutineers are, while avoiding giving any indication to any loyalists and must at all costs not reveal my plans to the informant. Not convinced that smuggling in the former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre to take over rehearsals is entirely feasible and with at least six weeks until we open I decide to play the long game, waiting to see if anyone will reveal their hand first.

It’s odd as these first few days of rehearsal are the very important time when you get to know your new cast mates and bonds and friendships slowly start to develop. Now though, there is another parallel game of secret relationships being played out in the tea breaks and lunch hours.

I have another job at Latitude Festival this weekend, and so I leave rehearsals on Thursday evening to drive to Suffolk. I discover I feel a sense of release that I do not have to think of the mutiny for four days, and it is definitely the responsibility of that as opposed to the work on the play itself that I feel freed from.

Upon returning on Monday morning though I discover that the deadline for the uprising has been drastically shifted to this coming Saturday. Probably a wise decision – what would happen if half the company didn’t turn up for the first night?

I now have to act fast. I decide that Saturday itself will be the day of the uprising. You’ll be hard pressed to find an actor that wants to rehearse on a Saturday, so this will hopefully give me the best leverage and perhaps even offer the possibility of turning a few low-numbered reds. This is my version of Fletcher Christian’s promise of the wonders of Tahiti to those onboard the Bounty.

I get bolder in dropping the subject into conversation and am fairly confident that I have found my first ally, Henry. I tell him that I am going to try to get this Saturday off for the mutineers. If we get enough on our side we will meet at a café near the rehearsal rooms and phone to say that we aren’t coming in. He gives me Siubhan and Adam’s names as probable mutineers. That makes four, but will that be enough to stage a daring raid on Max Stafford-Clark’s authority? And all the time I am worried that I could be talking to the informant.

Then suddenly, an unexpected opportunity opens up. Asking around I find myself in with a small nucleus of loyalists, including Adam and Naveed. I lie and say that I am a Red 4 and ask red Adam if he knows of anyone who is against us. He gives me a list of those he is pretty sure are rebels. Henry and Siubhan are there as are Lois and Ash. Blatantly asking Siubhan if I can borrow a pen and paper I write these names down, in the same fashion that a list of potential mutineers’ names were discovered inscribed on paper on Tahiti before the mutiny.

But this means that the Reds are compiling names. So I decide to bring things to a head and send an email to my potential co-conspirators, very aware that I am taking a huge risk in exposing my plan to someone who might not be a mutineer.

I’m Black 9. I’ve got in with Adam and Naveed, both Red 6 and they think I’m one of them, but they are onto us and think we are going to do it on Saturday morning. I propose we meet Wednesday morning (tomorrow) at 9.30am in the rehearsal room hopefully before the others are there. We barricade the door and don’t let anyone in unless Max agrees to give us Saturday morning off. Or if Max is in his office we take him hostage and do it there. Others can choose to join us. Who’s in?

Jack

By the end of the day I have confirmation from all of them – a wink, a pat on the back or a shared nod, and Lois tells me she thinks that Vanessa and Cassie could also be on our side. Leaving rehearsals that day I think that we had a solid plan, but am then hit by a broadside. I check the next day’s call on the way home – Max is not in until 12pm tomorrow.

Should I postpone? I fear that this will give the Reds time to flush me out. And so –

I just checked the call for tomorrow and Max is not in until 12pm, so change of plan. I assume that we’ll take a tea break just before Max arrives… As soon as Max arrives we lock him in the rehearsal room with us. If there is anyone not in our group still in the room then (and to confirm out group is Jack, Sam, Lois, Ash, Siubhan and Henry) then when I say “It’s Time” we walk them calmly to the door and barricade it behind them. We all remain inside the room.

Don’t do anything until I say “It’s Time.” We will then issue our demands – this Saturday off – and allow anyone who wants in to join us.

I go to bed knowing that tomorrow will bring either triumph or humiliating defeat. And then I dream about it all night.

By the time I get to work I have received confirmation from all but Siubhan. The first couple of hours are spent continuing to work in detail through each line of the play with our Assistant Director Tim, but I find it very hard to concentrate, constantly glancing at the time with a growing sense of unease as it gets closer to 12pm and Max’s arrival.

“Ok we’ll take a tea break there.” Tim says.

It’s time.

“Traitor!” Adam Newington sees the mutiny through the rehearsal room door.

Except that Siubhan, Ash and Henry have just wandered out of the room along with the bulk of the company. That’s not what we agreed! And there is still no sign of Max. Sam and Lois remain, and we exchange furtive glances and talk in hushed tones. Vanessa remains inside the room, checking her phone. Is she one of us? Sally our stage manager is on her computer. Tim walks back in. Sam, Lois and me look innocent. I can feel a knot in my stomach. And then a car draws up. Max is getting out. He’s entering the room. I’m approaching Sally. My throat feels dry. “Could I talk to you outside please?” I’m shutting the door behind her. Pulling heavy boxes over to barricade the door. I’ve just shouted “It’s Time!”

The first surprise is that Tim is suddenly telling Max “This is it! This is the Mutiny. We’re holding you hostage!” and tying him up with a skipping rope. By complete good fortune, he’s one of us! And Vanessa too! Adam is calling me a traitor through an open window. Then, there’s a banging on the fire door, those faithful to Max are trying to break in to save their director. Lois is there, making sure they don’t succeed. Some people have managed to slip in through the main door. Cutlasses have appeared from nowhere and my fellow mutineers are brandishing them to hold people back.

And I’m on a chair, shouting our demands – either Max agrees to give us Saturday off or we hold him here indefinitely and rehearsals will not be allowed to continue. He says that our writer Richard Bean is scheduled to work with us this weekend so that is out of the question. He asks Tim for his advise. “I’m a mutineer, I have to say we should have the day off!”

Eventually a compromise is reached. Max might give us a week on Saturday off, to go to the National Maritime Museum instead. This is a very watered down version of what I was demanding, but the reality of the situation is now piercing the adrenalin of the revolution. How long can I keep this up for? We’ve got to actually do some work at some point today. The plan worked. I’ve led the insurrection. But we need Max’s word. On the back of my script I hastily scrawl

“If rehearsals go well, you will give us Saturday 2nd August off (to go to the Maritime Museum) & let us know by Monday 28th July.”

Our director signs MAX in bright yellow highlighter pen. We untie him and everyone allowed back into the room.

Then the truth is revealed – the reason that Siubhan never answered my last email and left the room was that she thought I was the informant trying to incriminate her. But the biggest shock is Ash. The reason he left was because he was the Joker in the pack. I had allowed the spy into our very midst. His plan was to leave at the tea break and intercept Max’s car on the way in and warn him. Having played it so coolly throughout though, at the very last minute he thought he probably had enough time to go to the shop for a drink. By the time he was back it was too late, his mission failed. His captain was taken and the mutinous dogs were in control.

Henry had just forgotten.

Postscript
In the end we went to the National Maritime on Friday 1st August. And were all called into rehearsals the next day.

.

Love and a Bottle – the making of a restoration comedy

Love and a Bottle email

See this show for £6. Use the code OOJ when booking. Performances at Greenwich Theatre on 9, 12 or 14 July  Book tickets.  


Max Stafford-Clark and writer Stella Feehily are working with students from LAMDA drama school on their final year show – a major rewriting of the “lost” restoration comedy Love and a Bottle by George Farquhar. Here we talk to Max and Stella, and below you can read the experience of one of the young actors, Joseph Prowen.

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“We sent one of the students, who plays a beggar, to Finsbury Park station to beg – he wasn’t allowed to come back until he got at least 50p! It took him about three quarters of an hour and he said it was a mortifying experience. But when he came back, he played the scene completely differently”

Max Stafford-Clark and Stella Feehily talk to us about the process of creating Love and a Bottle and working with LAMDA students

What was it about the play made you want to rework it?

SF I’d read Love and a Bottle and loved it. It seemed like the perfect project to work with LAMDA students on. It’s young and full of spirit. The females in it are also resourceful, strong and very, very funny – that’s the other reason I wanted to do it. It’s quite sassy. Max had asked me to do it and I said the only way I would is if I could do it with LAMDA.

MSC Farquhar gives identities to his characters and he also gives them an emotional existence. Stella has done just this through workshopping the piece, especially with a character called Mrs Trudge, who she has since renamed Mistress Endwright. She’s gone from a fifteen line part to having one of the biggest parts in the play. By doing this, Stella has really released a whole emotional strand of the play.

What does the process involve? How do you begin?

SF Well Max has actually worked with LAMDA students before on a verbatim play called Mixed Up North, which was written by Robin Soans. Max and Robin went up north and interviewed locals and that formed the basis of the play. Whereas this project was quite different – I had this ancient text which I had to try and make sense of to begin with. Then I had an idea that because there were so many different characters, it would be best to conflate them all – I cut the character of a playwright named Lyrick and instead gave that role to Roebuck – which meant that we actually brought the play much closer to the autobiographical account of Farquhar’s first visit to London. So by the time we had our first proper rehearsal I already had a draft of this new version. From there, we started to cut the play – it needed to be a lot leaner. Once we’d done the cutting, we went through the process of casting, and once we knew who was playing who, I started to write each character to match the students’ personalities. So the creative process really sprung from the students’ differing personalities and writing each character to suit them. Joseph, for example, is a talented musician, so I have adapted his character Roebuck to play the violin.

How has it been working with LAMDA students?

SF Having the opportunity to knock the piece around with enthusiastic, talented drama students was essential in helping me write this play. I would ask them to do silly things to help me which I perhaps wouldn’t ask professional actors to do; they would run around the room and try out different accents, which really helped me envisage where the energy should be in the scene. Coming from an improvisational background myself, that is exactly what I wanted – for people to say yes, let’s go, let’s try that. They’re such a warm bunch of actors, and we loved seeing them develop so much from the initial readings to seeing them create these gorgeous, hilarious characters and speak the language so fluently and with ease.

We sent one of the students, who plays a beggar, to Finsbury Park station to beg – he wasn’t allowed to come back until he got at least 50p! It took him about three quarters of an hour and he said it was a mortifying experience. But when he came back, he played the scene completely differently; the humility that he brought to it was just extraordinary.

What are the differences between working with student actors and working actors?

MSC I would say it’s very similar. The first job you have as a director is to create a company – and the majority of that has been done for you because you’re presented with a company when coming to LAMDA. The second thing is to be able to harness the actors’ enthusiasm for the project, which has to be led by my own enthusiasm and the ability to turn the energy of discovery into the energy of performance. Immersing the students in the historical background was fun for both of us, and it was a learning curve for me as well as for them.

How important are drama schools in the role of new writing?

MSC Well the facilities are marvellous. Having the opportunity to unearth a hidden gem means we’re also restoring it to the canon and saying this play is worth considering, which will be a considerable service to the whole theatre community that LAMDA has expedited.


“Stella’s created a more well-rounded play, with clearer resolutions and she’s fleshed out the characters”

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Joseph Prowen, a graduating BA (Hons) Professional Acting student at LAMDA, tells us about his time working with Stella Feehily and Max Stafford-Clark on a new version of George Farquhar’s Love and a Bottle, showing at Greenwich Theatre on 9, 12 & 14 July.

We began the LAMDA Long Project – an opportunity for students to work with a professional writer and director to produce the first draft of a new play – in our second year.  The process essentially involves research, readings, actioning and improvisation. We had a couple of sessions back in January last year, purely to talk about the play and do a read-through with Max and Stella. From there, everybody had the opportunity to read for each part – Max would say ‘tomorrow this will be the cast’, and then it would change every day. You’d then go home, look at the scene you were going to read, think about the character you were going to be reading for and do any relevant research that needed to be done. It’s really lovely to think that the end product of this play will have been made by us, and that Stella took inspiration from improvisations we did in rehearsals. Everyone had a chance to contribute something to each character.

Working with Max and Stella isn’t just an interesting dramatic process; a lot of the preparation was in the historical research. On our first day, Max did a quiz with us – what happened this year? When did this happen? When was this battle? We’d be asked to carry out some research around the period, or about different parts of Ireland – we might be asked to do a presentation on the Battle of the Boyne one week or John Dryden the next. You’ve really got to turn up having done your research, which is great as it encourages you to work hard.

Unlike a lot of new writing that happens, we had a leg up in that we took a play that already existed, Love and a Bottle, which was George Farquhar’s first play. The play is about a young Irishman named George Roebuck, who I play, and is based on Farquhar. When we got it, Love and a Bottle was great – youthful and exciting – but it felt like it needed some work. So what Stella did with us was to rework it and what you will see when the show opens is an amalgamation of Farquhar and Feehily. Stella’s created a more well-rounded play, with clearer resolutions and she’s fleshed out the characters, making them three-dimensional and much more human.

When we perform Love and a Bottle, there will only be a handful of us playing the same part as we were last year in rehearsals. So going into it again this summer has been like entering into a completely different play: workshopping a piece really is an ever-changing process, which I love. It’s such a rare opportunity for an actor to be able to completely immerse yourself in a process like this – especially with funding cuts. This is also our first major collaboration of this scale, which is great as the training at LAMDA is very much geared towards working as an ensemble, so this is something that’s perfect to do. We really felt like a company this year.

Love and a Bottle opens at Greenwich Theatre on Wednesday 9 July in collaboration with Out of Joint. To book tickets please call 020 8858 7755 or book online at www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk

 

Kinnock, Campaigners and a trip to hospital – a rehearsal diary for This May Hurt A Bit

Hywel Morgan plays NHS founder Nye Bevan in This May Hurt A Bit. Here’s his personal rehearsal journey.


‘Aneurin Bevan?, Architect of the NHS and my political hero?! I’ll bite your arm off.’

The statue of Aneurin Bevan in Cardiff.

That was what I told my agent before I’d even read Stella Feehilly’s script for ‘This May Hurt A Bit’. Despite having died twelve years before I was born, coming from South Wales, Nye Bevan is a massive figure. Robert Thomas’ life size bronze at the end of Queen Street in Cardiff appeared during my teenage years and espite sometimes being crowned with a traffic cone the morning after an International, his legacy was never obscured: ‘Aneurin Bevan 1897-1960. Founder of the NHS.’

Over the years and particularly under the current government, Nye’s excoriating quotes about the Tories and the NHS have become seared into my memory and it brought tears of joy to my eyes when Danny Boyle put the NHS centre stage at the Olympics. ‘Now let them try and privatise it’, I thought. But the Health and Social Care Bill, despite being widely reported as deeply flawed and heavily amended by both Houses of Parliament still got through.

I’d seen Max’s production of ‘The Permanent Way’ in 2005 and left the theatre burning with anger about the effects of privatisation on the railways. If I’m honest, I’d paid scant attention to the subject beforehand. I urged everyone to see it and foisted my programme playscript on people after the run had closed. From the first speech in the play, I knew ‘This May Hurt A Bit’ had the potential of sending out a similar message about the NHS.

The odds are stacked against me: Nye was ten years older than me and a little more portly in stature (a consequence of his reputation as a socialist and Bon Viveur, no doubt.) Secondly, although his political quotes are almost as well known as Churchill’s, his speaking voice is quite individual. For a barrel-chested Welshman, it was very high pitched, littered with peculiar traits and a stammer to boot. I pored over archive footage, united and actioned the speech then took myself off to Crystal Palace park to work on it. I banked that no-one would come near a ranting Welshman in the middle if a maze on a windy Thursday afternoon and I was right. By sunset, I had something approaching Nye’s extraordinary fluting pitch and delivery and a good sense of the desire to shame the BMA that drives the speech. Thankfully it was only after I’d read the speech that Max told me that they’d been workshopping the play at the National Studio since 2008 and that Neil Kinnock had been playing Nye.

I try to forget about auditions once they’re over in case it doesn’t work out. That way madness lies. When the offer comes through on Monday, I’m initially ecstatic then realise that it means my wife will have to take sole care of our little boy while I’m away on tour. He’s just turned one and up until now we’ve been able to juggle work commitments around him. Despite trying not to think about the play, Mellony tells me I’ve been lecturing her about the history of the NHS, Bevan and the threat of privatisation over the weekend. She knows how much it means to me and assures me well find a way to manage. The fact that we’ve got five weeks rehearsing in London is a huge relief. It’ll be March before I go away so we’ve got time to get our heads around it and adjust to both being full time working parents for the first time.


Hywel Morgan in rehearsal

REHEARSALS – WORKING ON THE TEXT

28th January

Day one. Greeted warmly in Welsh by Stephanie Cole who is playing Iris. It’s a lovely ice breaker.

We read through the play. By following Iris’s family, Stella explores the history and ethos of the NHS then events take us on a journey through the NHS in its current form – understaffed wards, overworked staff, fallible computer systems. It’s blackly funny, absurd in places and very sobering. The scenes all have Brechtian titles and Max describes the opening of the second act ‘Bring on the Dancing Nurses’ as a tribute to Danny Boyle’s Olympic ceremony.

29 January

Day two of rehearsals and we’re straight into “actioning” the play. This involves deciding on a transitive verb to describe our character’s intention on each line. A transitive verb is something you do to someone else, such as enlist, or tease, or provoke.

I’d already actioned the opening speech for my audition, but when we confer about the choices I’ve made, Max makes some better suggestions which give the speech much more light and shade. I’ve used actioning before but this really is a lesson from the master. It’s a brilliant framework to work within, and liberating. I wonder if it’s actions, not lines that Johnny Depp has fed into his earpiece!

By the end, Bevan’s slushy, stammering, little cornet of a voice is sweetly chiding and shaming the BMA and rallying the Labour benches with the Spirit of ’45.


REHEARSALS – MEETING THE EXPERTS

31 January

Stella and Max have invited a number of NHS experts to meet us, and today we welcome Dr Lucy Reynolds. Lucy is a Policy Strategist who used to work for large multinational companies in mergers and acquisitions. Having returned to the UK after working abroad she was horrified when she read the Health and Social Care bill and realised its implications: the bill is structured so that the NHS resembles a corporation that is being prepared for a takeover. It is being ‘harmonised’ for integration with large private healthcare insurance companies (in which over 200 sitting MP’s have interests).

If Bevan was the architect of the NHS then John Redwood planned it’s demolition under Thatcher many years ago. New Labour’s love of Private Finance Initiatives meant many new hospitals were built and although the balances didn’t appear on the books because they weren’t government funded, the public were saddled with the debt; but the NHS was further weakened by Alan Milburn who imported the Foundation Trust Hospital model from Spain. This allowed hospitals to act like businesses, to seek investment from private companies and opened the door to further marketisation of some NHS services. The New Health and Social care act utilised this change to widen the bridge of privatisation. David Cameron’s statements about ‘No top down reorganisation’ and ‘We will not sell off the NHS’ bear no relation to the act that was actually passed. It opens the door to ‘Any Qualified Provider’ being able to compete to provide services within the NHS.

Stephanie Cole and Natalie Klamar in rehearsal

The problem is that there is far more admin for both the NHS and the private companies, and the result is that money is being diverted away from patient care. The new system is 1/3 admin costs as opposed to 1/20th under Bevan. Lucy is incredibly passionate, almost shaking with fury as she talks and at the end apologises for ranting at us.  It feels like a fait accompli: that the eventual demise of the NHS is inevitable, especially if the EU signs up to EU/US trade deal, (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP). If the NHS is not exempted from this deal it would have to operate within strict EU competition laws, meaning that the section of ‘Any Qualified Provider’ would be thrown open to the huge companies that dominate the US healthcare industry and there’s no way of reversing it.

3rd February

Lucy’s talk on Friday left me feeling quite depressed. Today we met Dr Jacky Davis, a Consultant Radiologist, and she restored my faith a little. Jacky founded the NHS National Health Action party and co-authored ‘NHS: SOS’ which I’ve been reading on the way to and from rehearsals. It has a foreword by Ken Loach and she asks us if we’ve seen his film ‘The Spirit of ’45’. We chorus ‘Yes’ and she beams: ‘Ah well, you’re already enlightened then!’

Jacky’s opinion is that Labour must make a convincing commitment to repeal the Health and Social care act, restore the Health Minister as being the person responsible for delivering a health service and taking on the debts from PFI hospitals into central Government borrowing, thereby putting it on the balance sheets but getting away from the crippling interest rates.

Finally, she tells us that we’ve lost over 50% of hospital beds over the last 20 years. There are huge shortages in acute and mental care wards as a result. The weakest and most vulnerable in our society are paying the price of austerity. Jacky is convinced that the NHS will be a major factor in the 2015 elections and is delighted that we’re doing this play.

4 February

In This May Hurt A Bit, one of the characters has a fit, and the ward staff have to respond. So today Dr Polly Brown, a Junior Doctor, took us through the anatomy of a medical emergency. In the play, “Doctor Gray” is on the ward doing rounds. Being the first person on the scene, she would take charge unless someone of a higher grade arrived, and would call for members of the on-duty Medical Emergency Team.

The Junior Doctor roleplays the situation for us, joining in the scene. Franc, who is playing Dr Gray, and Stella take notes. It’s very jargon heavy – we end up talking in acronyms – but shorthand is needed when time is short, and the emphasis is on a calm response and clear communication.

The thing is, we’ll be acting this out every night, knowing exactly what’s happening to our patient and that he’ll survive. In the real world, we wouldn’t know.

5th February

The most scary day for me so far. Max and Stella have invited Neil Kinnock to rehearsals. Neil is a direct conduit to Nye Bevan. They’re both from Tredegar, Nye was Neil’s hero and Neil is one of mine. Having hoped to join us in the morning he finally bursts into the rehearsal room at 5, throws his head back and booms a four letter word in frustration and apology for the delay. There’s a tube strike and it’s taken him four hours to get from Westminster to Finsbury Park. It’s raining but he’s dropped Glenys off to walk the rest of the way home.

He throws himself enthusiastically into meeting everyone. I shake his hand, which is cold, and introduce myself. ‘Where you from, kid?’ he beams back. It’s like speaking to my Uncle. He banters with me about familiar places and ends up confessing he crashed a car in Skewen once, (not his fault he assures us.)

Neil is here to give me notes on how I’m playing Nye, in front of the entire company. He’s relaxes and staring at me through his glasses. I’m not sure if I know the words yet, and I panic and launch into a torrent of high pitched Welsh shouting. All the subtlety, rhetoric and light and shade that I’ve worked on with Max and Stella goes straight out the window.

Neil is kind, tells me where I’m on the right track, enlightens me on a part of the speech that I’d misinterpreted and gives me notes about Nye’s stammer, which he says was caused by ‘a bastard of a teacher’. He surprises us all by explaining that this speech was delivered in the House of Lords because the commons was bomb damaged and says that Nye ‘always started small and finished big’.

Max gets me to do my party piece of impersonating Tony Blair before we finish. I oblige. Neil chuckles and tells us that cartoonists and impressionists are still having real trouble capturing Cameron because he’s so anonymous.

6th February

Following our roleplay of the MET call (which Stella has now honed into a taut scene worthy of E.R.) today we’re visited by Alan who’s been a paramedic in London for many years. We launch into a scene and within seconds he’s stopped us. ‘Sorry, you just wouldn’t be that rude to members of the public’ he says.

Alan takes us through the whole process from making the phone call to the emergency services to arriving at hospital. We ask Alan about what effect the cuts have had on him. He says there are less hospital beds now which means A&E departments get backed up and are often working way beyond their capacity. As he’s waiting for his taxi at the end, Max starts an exercise in the rehearsal room which involves the use of a lot of expletives. Alan glances back though the door to see Stephanie Cole cursing at other company members. He is horrified, Stephanie is in stitches.

7th February

Dr Louise Irvine was the driving force behind the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign. She explains how, despite being financially solvent, Lewisham Hospital was under threat of closure recently. A nearby Healthcare Trust had gone into administration and the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had tried to downgrade Lewisham Hospital’s A&E in order to balance the books. The move prompted a huge public campaign which culminated in a legal challenge to the government. They won a landmark judgement, the government appealed and lost but the fight is not over – the Government are now trying to amend the law itself. If they manage to do so, it will give the health secretary the power to close any hospital in the country without consultation.

Lewisham is my nearest A&E and they have a fabulous Children’s A&E there so it was lovely to be able to express my deep gratitude to her for saving our local hospital from closure. Turns out Louise is also Franc’s G.P. These are people at the coal face fighting for the longevity of the NHS and gathering huge public support. Louise and all the people in the campaign are living proof of Nye Bevan’s words: ‘The NHS will survive as long as there a folk left with the faith to fight for it.’


REHEARSALS – A DAY AT THE HOSPITAL WITH “JJ”

London’s Whittington Hospital

Today I had the privilege of meeting a man who for me embodies the very spirit of the NHS. ‘I wish you’d been here yesterday’, he tells me, ‘You’d have met someone important.’ He’s referring to Ed Milliband, who’d been at the Whittington Hospital the previous day. John James or ‘JJ’ McConnell has been working in the NHS for thirty years. Smartly turned out in a well-ironed pale blue shirt, black trousers and sensible shoes, he sports an ID lanyard and a small container of hand gel which hangs off his belt.

JJ started off in operating theatres and for the last seven years has been proud to be ‘Front of House’ at the Whittington. From his little cubby hole just off the main entrance to the Whittington, JJ has a panoramic view of everyone that arrives at the hospital. Even before they’ve entered the building, he has been watching patients arrive and assessing if they need assistance. As a result he is often at the front door to greet them as they arrive. He has several types of porters chairs, decorated in hazard tape and postcards of London. ‘to stop taxi drivers taking them by mistake’ he explains.

JJ’s calm demeanour and gentle inquiries mask an expert ability to assess people on sight. His years of experience mean that he gets people where they need to be with the minimum of fuss and the with the maximum of discretion and care. During the couple of hours I spend with him, we deal with several patients, (one infirm, another needing emergency care and a third routine but elderly.) All of them come back to thank him before leaving the Whittington.

What does he think of the cuts to hospitals? He describes a hospital as a body, with A&E at its heart. ‘Once you close the A&E, that cuts off the blood supply to the hospital. You lose the supply of patients to Intensive Care Units so they’re next to go and eventually you end up hacking off all the limbs until there’s nothing left.’ It’s reminiscent of Bevan’s final lines in the play, comparing the NHS to Lavinia in Titus Andronicus.

In his time at the Whittington, JJ’s been voted employee of the year, been invited to Downing St and had glowing letters of praise from people he’s helped. Although he’s proud of these achievements, (he keeps copies in a carrier bag in his locker) he doesn’t crave the attention. ‘I don’t like the thought that people are scrutinising me’ he says, ‘I just want you to go away with the truth.’ I feel impelled to give him a huge hug before I leave. He truly is a gentleman.

 

Born this way

Kathryn O’Reilly has returned to Out of Joint to give a widely-praised performance as the ferocious, damaged, and very funny Liz Morden in Our Country’s Good. Here she talks about her character, the play’s messages and her own experiences of the power of theatre.

 “Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal”. Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)

It can take one person to help change someone’s life, or steer them in the right direction. When I was at school, and they were trying to chuck me out, I went to my first drama teacher for help. The head of the board of Governors asked me, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” “An actress” I replied. The head scoffed and said “I suppose we think we have another Emma Thompson on our hands.” My drama teacher was very encouraging and I found drama such a positive way to channel my energies.

Theatre has had a massive and positive impact on my life. Prior to training at LAMDA, I spent years working in forum theatre and role playing in equality and diversity work. I worked for the NHS, the Police, and ran my own children’s theatre company.

Our Country’s Good asks massive questions about society, crime and humanity that I find absolutely fascinating. Its great theme for me is the power of theatre in changing, inspiring and educating lives. I believe passionately in this power of the theatre and the arts.

I play a character called Liz Morden, a convict who comes across as pretty intimidating when she first joins the cast of The Recruiting Officer in the play. Liz had virtually no chance from the off. Her journey from victim to perpetrator is incredibly interesting. Of course, not every person who suffers like Liz turns to crime and ends up behind bars but it is easy to see how it happens. And it makes sense to Liz too: by the time in the play when she is arrested for stealing food, and put into prison within the colony – a prison within a prison – and facing death, it seems inevitable, as if everything in her life has been leading up to this.

Liz’s story is timeless. She was born into extreme poverty, with a broken home life and no formal education. A lack of positive role models, of love, care, affection and encouragement. She has to grow up very quickly. She’s betrayed and abandoned by her family. She enters a life of crime. Sentenced and imprisoned.

When she was still a child, her own father betrayed her: he shifted the blame to her very publically for a theft in order to save his own skin. She was beaten and humiliated in the street , with no one running to her aid, and so this traumatising experience further fuelled in her feelings of low self-esteem, a confused sense of identity, fear and rage and . In that moment of betrayal, her chances and choices in life were suddenly and dramatically shrunk. Liz also feels deeply unattractive. Her own brother tells her to her face she is ugly and he plants the seed that she can earn money by going on the game, suggesting that, after all, most men don’t look at the mantelpiece. This is further rammed home by her pimp who tells her as she ages to supplement, or “spice”, her dwindling earnings by following in her father’s footsteps to be a “nibbler”, or small-time thief.

It’s easy to see, with this kind of cycle, how the idea came about that crime was (to use modern parlance) in the genes; that there was a criminal mind, even a “criminal class”. In the play, we hear Captain Tench describe the convict’s as “born that way”. Back then, when Our Country’s Good is set, the Government dealt with this criminal class by initiating the biggest single exile in history, loading them on a ship and sending them half way around the world. Out of sight, out of mind. Thinking this would eradicate them. Liz is described as “foul mouthed and lower than an animal” by officers. Times change, but the language used to write off a whole section of society doesn’t sound all that alien to our own era.

But Liz has a hero, in the figure of the progressive Governor of the colony, Captain Phillip. Whether you believe “act like a king and people will treat you like a king” or “treat someone like a king and they will act like one”, belief and behaviour has to start somewhere. Phillip believes this. That we are born free, that everyone is equal – and then life happens. “Treat her as a corpse and of course she will die” he says. Instead, “try a little kindness”. As I said, it can take one person.

Liz was played by Linda Bassett in the original production 25 years ago (no pressure!). I see her as my most prestigious role to date and I’ve had to dig deep to portray her. As an actor you have to find the character you’re playing, from the text, all the facts about them, the events, given circumstances, goals and obstacles, what other characters say about them, the language your character uses, all these go into building your creation. Working with Max Stafford-Clark he also requires us to carry out research, reading books and reporting back on interesting findings, he also sets improvisations as well as facilitating a delving into one’s own personal stories from which a parallel can be drawn and used effectively. For example, to help me find the sense of empowerment Liz gets from taking part in a play, Max asked me in rehearsals “when did you fall in love with theatre?”. I was thirteen, playing a Jet Girl in West Side Story (with my first drama teacher directing it). It was completely thrilling.

I love Liz. She has integrity, humour, and she’s a survivor. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting her too.

Follow Kathryn on Twitter @kathryn1oreilly 

Legacy – an actor on the pressures of making a classic new

Our Country’s Good cast member John Hollingworth has written this thoughtful piece for us. Recommended.

John Hollingworth in Our Country’s Good

Legacy. Post-Olympics the papers are full of the word and, as we present Our Country’s Good to the national press in Birmingham, so are my thoughts about the play.

This is Max’s third production of the play. He originally staged it at the Royal Court in 1988, reviving it in the West End and on Broadway; then it was toured in 1998 in a co-production with the Young Vic. Out of Joint have asked us to write something about the rehearsal process for their education pages but I found myself thinking more about the nature and inherent pressures of re-staging a modern classic.

It’s becoming something of a career trait, this revival business.  I was part of the National Youth Theatre’s re-staging of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 2000. I reprised the roles created by the much-loved and sadly missed Bob Peck: John Browdie and Mulberry Hawk.  It was a fantastic experience with a great company of actors, most of whom went on to drama school and professional careers, but wherever we went, the spectacle of the original hovered over us.  A woman came up to me after a performance in Los Angeles, clasped my hand and thanked the company for ‘letting me see it one more time before I die.’  ‘But’, she added, ‘whyever get rid of that wonderful wooden stage?’  The original had unfolded on a double deck of latticed wood, something like the deck of an Elizabethan ship, but ours, alas for the woman in question, did not.

Since I became a professional actor, I’ve been in revivals of other modern classics: Frank McGuiness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at the Hampstead; Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes In London on tour for the National; and most recently Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar.  All faced the same questions: how do we respond to previous productions?  Is it cheating to do what they did?  Can people remember the original productions anyway (like my accoster in LA)?

John Hollingworth in Our Country’s Good

Max has been naturally very alive to such questions.  In our first week of notes (when the director gives us feedback on a performance) in Bolton he recounted a similar experience to the one I had in LA. A woman of similar age tentatively approached our scribbling director and thanked him for bringing Our Country’s Good to Bolton. She said she’d loved Out of Joint’s previous shows Mixed Up North and Bang Bang Bang and was thrilled to see Timberlake’s play again, but what on earth had he done with a certain character?  So fixed was the woman’s understanding of the play that anything but slavish reproduction of exactly what happened before was anathema.

Max has warned us that we’ll be treading on people’s cherished dreams of the show as it was in 1988 and 1998.  A few hardcore fans have even been to Bolton in order to be the first to “collect the set” and see all three Stafford-Clark productions of the piece (at the time of writing the company have no plans to release a commemorative t-shirt.)  But I notice we are billed at the St James Theatre in London as the 25th Anniversary Production, which sounds pretty definitive.

Last night, after a performance in Birmingham we had one of the company’s regular audience Q&A sessions. When someone asked what was different about Max’s approach this time his reply was, “nothing”. He didn’t set out to resolve problems with previous productions or design himself out of previous stagings, but simply to encounter the text again in the rehearsal room and stage it as best he could with the cast he’s chosen.

Given Out Of Joint’s recent funding cut Max concedes that there’s a financial imperative to mounting this show but in the rehearsal room he’s been driven by a love of the play and a sincere feeling that it should be seen by a new generation of theatregoers.  I raced to see Out Of Joint’s production of Top Girls when it transferred from Chichester to London last year for precisely that reason. I’d never seen the play and jumped at the chance to see its original director revisit the text and reconnect with it. Sitting in the audience felt like an event as well as a night at the theatre.

Matthew Needham and John Hollingworth in Our Country’s Good

The literary critic Harold Bloom talked about something he called “the anxiety of influence” – the difficulty for writers to overcome an awareness of what’s been done before and to make something new. And in the first weeks of rehearsal for Our Country’s Good I had the actorly equivalent.  Now of course it’s much easier to be an actor than a writer.  We’ve no blank page to face: the words are there for you and you’ve got to find the best way to serve them.  However, I’ve been struck by the ownership surrounding Timberlake’s play.  So many people have seen it, read it, studied it, sat in a theatre for the first time ever at a performance of it.  For so many, the very name conjures furtive teenage romances and ticking down the school clock until adult life begins.  It’s become a rite of passage as well as a canonical, curricular play.  Some of the teachers who came to watch rehearsals even gave us notes, so clear was their vision of the play!  All of which baggage made it more difficult than I’ve ever found before to get up and say the lines as if they’d come from me, and not from a book.

Timberlake’s response to this feeling of baggage and predecessors was “don’t be so respectful of the text, enjoy yourself more”.  Max’s response came from his past at the Royal Court, the mission statement of which had been articulated by his predecessor Lindsay Anderson as ‘presenting new plays as classics and classics as new plays’. That’s been a sound lodestar by which to navigate the revival.  Timberlake’s play has gone from new play to modern classic in twenty five years.  Max has set about it with the same rehearsal strategy of improvisations, fact-finding exercises and status games that he’d employ in rehearsing any new text.  My roles have been played by fantastic actors before me – Ron Cook in the first production. But I’ve forgotten about who and what came before and got on with having fun playing what is a physical and emotional gym of a piece.

We’ve had three weeks of performances in Bolton so far, and have just begun weekly touring in Birmingham. Only this afternoon Max made his final tweaks and blocking changes before we go before the first of the national press tonight.  It’ll be interesting to see how they respond.  Wish me luck – but just don’t mention Ron Cook!

 

Songs and Poems

Actors’ Songs

We asked actors on twitter whether they listen to music before going on stage, and if so what helps them get in the right mood or headspace. You can find their replies, plus a link to a Spotify playlist, here. It ranges from classical to the Beastie Boys. Replies included:

“I once played a rancid, racist thug and got myself wound up with Asian Dub Foundation’s Fortress Europe” @robertsoftley

“Got the civil war, mudered father, blood-lust stirrings to play Richard in Henry VI using Arcade Fire’s Intervention.” @andycurry1

“I make playlists from the period or for each character. Those playlists are as good as production stills to reminisce to.@flisswalton

Convict’s poems

Our co-producing theatre for Our Country’s Good, the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, host live poetry events themed to their shows.

Dave Jones brought together poems inspired by the play, including those directly about and by convicts, and these were read by cast-members of the show. Dave has kindly pulled them together into a document,and has supplied notes on their backgrounds too.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE POEMS