It truly is a fascinating play, that delves into the mind of Aksenty Ivanovitch Poprichtchine, a lowly civil servant in the Russian bureaucratic machine, to a psychological depth that I have never worked before. The story explores the effect of schizophrenia on the mind of Poprichtchine from Poprichtchine's own perspective - we see the world through the eyes of a madman. Not only do we see the world from the perspective of a schizophrenic but from the perspective of the most accurately depicted fictional representation of a schizophrenic ever written. In typical Gogol style, the play is also both farcically comic and deeply moving.
I have very quickly realised how lucky I am to be working as an assistant on this production. There are a huge number of reasons why this provides invaluable experience for a young director:
Firstly, it provides the opportunity to work in a foreign language. French has a very different quality to English - it has a much faster pace and doesn't contain mid-sentence 'pauses for thought' in the same way that English does. Words and phrases that are comic in English, simply don't work when directly translated into French. I am by no means a French-speaker and it has been (and will be) a real challenge getting to grips with a difficult language - my GCSE French is certainly being stretched to the limit! - but this is a fantastic opportunity to see how different languages behave differently on stage.
Secondly, it provides the opportunity to work in a different country. It sounds stupid but I had never really considered the possibility of working outside of the anglo-phone world before. For me (and, I imagine, most other young British directors) I had always thought in terms of gaining experience in regional theatre and fringe theatre before eventually breaking onto the West End and the larger subsidised theatres like the NT, RSC and Globe. This has opened up a whole other world of possibilities for me. Surely gaining experience of theatre in other cultures and languages can only have a positive impact on the theatre that I then create myself in my own.
Thirdly, as a one man show, it provides a brilliant insight into the actor-director relationship and allows for incredibly detailed work. Our rehearsal process is principally about one actor creating a completely believable individual on stage. As a result, it is an excellent case study in characterisation. It has also really demonstrated the importance of recognising and specifying changes of thought and intention - one thought has to completely end before the next begins but at the same time there can be no point where thought ceases entirely. Having only one actor highlights very clearly how a momentary lack of specific focus can completely drain the energy from a scene. I have learnt an awful lot in just six rehearsals!
Fourthly, since music provides a crucial accompaniment to this production, it has provided me with an excellent opportunity to experience how music can be integrated into a piece and how a composer-director relationship can work. Music is used throughout our production to reflect Poprichtchine's state of mind. One of our biggest challenges over the next couple of weeks is going to be getting the music and the acting to become two halves of a complete whole.
There are undoubtedly many other reasons why this is an excellent opportunity for me but it would bore you to death for me to list them all here! What it has demonstrated, more than anything, is the importance of simply being back in a professional rehearsal room.
The assistant work has also had an immediate impact on my own directing. I directed another piece for Blackshaw Theatre at their New Writing Night this month which, coincidentally, was a one man short with more than an echo of mental illness! The play was called Geppetto's Funeral by Eva Moon and imagines a middle-aged Pinocchio after the death of his creator and father Geppetto. Working with actor, Merlin Fox, I was immediately able to put into practice what I had learnt on Fou. We went through the text pin-pointing each change of thought, highlighting the points of introspection in contrast to those directed to his invisible interlocutor, the Blue Fairy. It was a very challenging piece for just a few hours of rehearsal and I was really pleased with the results and the positive feedback that we all received. As always, the Blackshaw team were brilliant and organised a really enjoyable and varied evening of new writing - I will be sorry to miss their next night when I will be working hard over a glass of rosé in the south of France!
As I mentioned last month, May has seen my new production company, Cyphers, begin to take on a more established form, as we build a team for our first production, Henry V. This month we interviewed for assistant directors - it was slightly bizarre leaving rehearsals as an assistant director in order to interview candidates for my own assistant director! This was also an excellent experience for me - reading and assessing applications was the perfect way for me to see what directors are looking for in an assistant, and will hopefully benefit me when I start applying for assistant positions again later in the year.
As well as interviewing for an assistant director, we also auditioned for our two student actors from The King's Shakespeare Company. I always find auditioning people an incredibly nerve-wracking experience - much more so than being auditioned myself. When I'm auditioning actors I'm always acutely aware that I am being assessed as a director - that they are working out whether they want to work with me just as much as I am assessing their suitability for the production. In the first half of the day we saw each of the applicants individually, before having a group workshop in the afternoon to see if they would respond to our collaborative, story-telling approach to the play. This workshop was also the first opportunity I had to test out my ideas for the production! During the workshop I asked the actors, in groups, to explore sections of the Chorus from Henry V, finding a way of telling us the story of the speech, in their own words and using sounds and physical actions as imaginatively as possible. After this they then transferred what they had learnt to their delivery of Shakespeare's words. The results were fantastic and unlike any other rendition of Shakespeare that I have experienced to date. It got us all very excited about September!
Shockingly, I have only been to the theatre once this month - it is certainly true that as soon as you are working in theatre you have much less time to see any. The one play that I did see was, however, an absolute treat. Privacy at the Donmar Warehouse (rapidly becoming my most frequented theatre) is a triumph. Josie Rourke has created a production that perfectly mixes cutting, relevant satire, audience interaction and engaging narrative. I am not normally a fan of 'techie' theatre, but the use of projection really aided the storytelling and completed a fully-conceived world on stage. It was also a production that made you think and had you on edge - you were never sure whether your personal information or 'selfie' would appear on the rear wall of the theatre (all with your consent, of course - you just didn't know if or when it would happen). Multi-roling was used to great effect - with actors literally switching characters mid-speech. Once more, however, like in Jane Eyre (see my March blog), one actor (in this instance the quite brilliant Josh McGuire, who delights and impresses in everything he does) played one character throughout and this did ground you as an audience member, giving you a focal point you could rely upon. Which was just as well, since there wasn't much else in the production that you could rely upon - the production was full of twists and turns, though there was one particularly brilliant twist that we were sworn to secrecy over at the end of the play! Will be surprised if this doesn't transfer - it certainly deserves to.
Focus is now almost completely on Fou for the next couple of months, whilst getting everything in place for Henry V and my next blog will almost certainly be from Avignon! I am also managing to get some cricket played - in between the appalling weather. I think it is good and healthy to have a complete break from theatre every now and again. Weather-permitting I should be able to get three or four more games in before leaving for France.