Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Catching Up: Avignon and Henry V

Well, it's been a long time since my last blog - over three months in fact. I wrote my last blog from sunny Avignon in the height of the French summer; I am writing this one from a rather cold room on a dark and wet autumn afternoon in Berkshire. This is not an example of some kind of grand pathetic fallacy, however, the weather may have declined considerably in the last few months but my mood certainly has not! In truth, this has been one of the most productive and exciting periods of my career to date.

To return to where I left off - Avignon. To be honest, Avignon feels like a lifetime ago already and seems something of a dream. I can't quite believe that I spent half the summer working in the south of France, on a play in French, with a largely French team. But what an incredible opportunity for a young director this was. I have already written about how much I learnt from the rehearsal process but this was also the first time I had worked on a production that was to run for a full three weeks. As a result, I feel like I now have a much fuller understanding of how a piece of theatre develops over its run and the struggle to maintain both quality and freshness at the same time.

These challenges were inevitably heightened by the fact that this was essentially a one-man show - I say 'essentially' because it was really one actor and two musicians, and it is unfair on the musicians to term this as a one-man venture since their input was vital. But, much as the musicians shaped the play and communicated with Mark Antoine (the actor), it is not the same as having another human body on stage to talk to and receive fresh input from. This taught me the immense value of "Points of Concentration", or "Points of Focus" as I tend to call them. Giving an actor (or group of actors) a specific element of the play to focus on for that run really helps to keep it fresh. Assuming the rehearsal process has worked, the other elements won't be lost but, by focussing on just one specific element (i.e. the character's use of language or the use of the space), it prevents the actor from attempting to focus on everything (an impossibility) and allows the work done in the rehearsal room to take its own course on stage. This is something that I later utilised in Henry V rehearsals and intend to develop more in the future.

On returning from France, I almost immediately started preparations for Henry V - a joint venture between my new company, Cyphers, and the King's Shakespeare Company, based at King's College London. This marked the beginning of our work at Cyphers to bridge the gap between student and professional theatre by providing apprentice-style opportunities for actors who are already undertaking a degree. If you're interested in my thoughts on this, take a look at my guest blog on A Younger Theatre that can be found here: http://www.ayoungertheatre.com/guest-blog-blurring-the-lines-between-student-and-professional/

Henry V has been a fantastic journey and one that I am sure is not over yet. The seed for this production was sown back in January when I saw Michael Grandage's production with Jude Law in the title role. As undoubtedly solid and accomplished as this production was, the role of the Chorus frustrated me. It annoyed me greatly that in the end-on/pros-arch setting of the Noel Coward Theatre with lights down on the audience, the Chorus had no means of telling the story directly to his audience. Plus, it occurred to me that directors very rarely take the Chorus at its word. The opening Chorus quite explicitly says that we cannot possibly show you the events of 1415: we cannot take you to France; we cannot show you horses and sieges and battles and thousands of soldiers - you, the audience, have to use your imagination. Why, after telling the audience this, then persist in a futile attempt to show the audience all of these things, thus contradicting what the text has just told you? I wanted to direct a production that put the Chorus and the audience's imagination at the heart of the play. And, I believe, we achieved that.

The other thing that occurred to me whilst watching Grandage's production, was that there were only ever five significant characters on stage at any one time. So in my typical manner, I went home looked at the script and decided that the production could undoubtedly be done with just five actors (and a hell of a lot of multi-roling!). I can now definitively say it can be done with five actors. In fact, I can say more than that, it has been done with five actors!

So the initial concept was born in January, I got the agreement to work with KSC in April, auditioned and interviewed KSC members in May, auditioned professionals in August, we rehearsed through September and then performed in October. This in itself taught me a great lesson: it takes at least 6-10 months to put a production together.

This was a production that represented many firsts for me as a director. For a start, this was the first production that I have done considerable research for. I spent weeks researching the period of the Hundred Year's War, Henry's campaign to France of 1415, the ages and defining characteristics of those historical figures who appear in the play - I felt that small things like the characters' first names were important. I also looked at Medieval customs of the period - kneeling and greetings, religious beliefs, and military strategy.

This all affected our interpretations of scenes in rehearsals. The history shows that Henry was a man looking for an excuse to go to war, he'd already decided that he was going to war with France he just needed a pretext for it, however tenuous. This impacted the portrayal of the first scene when the Dauphin presents him with the 'Paris balls'. Later in the play, when Henry is threatening the besieged town of Harfleur, he is following what the Bible (in Deuteronomy) tells a ruler to do when besieging a town that won't surrender (ie kill everything within it!). This gave the scene much more power, transforming it from simply 'all's fair in love and war', into a ruler following (in his eyes) divine instruction. Perhaps, most interestingly, we discovered that Charles VI, King of France, struggled with mental health problems - at times he did not recognise his own children, at one point he refused to wash for 6 months and another time he believed that he was made of glass. This last point, in particular, was a brilliant aid to characterisation that could not have been found from working on Shakespeare's text alone.

It was at this point that I realised just how useful three years studying history at university was for me as a theatre director! I have been trained to research people and periods of history - especially relevant when working on a history play but really necessary on any piece. My degree has taught me where to look and how to quickly and efficiently find relevant information. Here, however, my research had a very direct and practical purpose - everything was there to serve the play, if it did not serve the play (even if it was historically accurate) it was not relevant and was discarded. I compiled all of the useful information into a research pack for the actors and creative team to refer to during rehearsals. Much as this process undoubtedly helped us, it was also, somewhat cynically, an excellent tool for immediately demonstrating to the cast that I meant business and that I was prepared to work bloody hard on this play!

There were two major experiments for me with this play, the first was the concept of pushing the audience's imagination to the limit (resulting in one lighting state on both actors and audience throughout, as well as no recorded sound), and the second was the rehearsal process. Previously, I have always directed in what might be called a traditional fashion: we started with a read through, then we gradually put each scene on its feet, I would tell actor A to cross down stage right on line X and deliver line Y with a smile to actor B, etc. The process for Henry V could not have been further removed from this! My aim was to free the actors from the constraints of blocking so that they could follow their instincts and keep their performances fresh and alive.

In order to do this, the actors had to be absolutely secure in their knowledge and interpretation of the text, in their character(s) and in the style in which we were presenting the whole production. As such, the rehearsal period was divided between these three areas. We started, not with a read through, but with the actors telling each other stories, which they then found a way of presenting as a group. We integrated design elements (specifically, a handful of wooden fruit crates that made up the set) from the first day of rehearsals to get the actors used to creating different locations and worlds with them. The stories got the actors comfortable with speaking directly to an audience and feeling confident as storytellers. It also served as a brilliant bonding exercise, forcing them to work together and for each other.

The text work ran alongside storytelling work in the first week. We sat around a table as a company and worked through the play unit by unit. One actor would read a line, then the next would translate it into their own words - though they could only translate if the line was not their own. In this way, the actors were forced to consider other interpretations of their lines and also to actively engage with the play as a whole. From this we then actioned the play and put each unit on its feet straightaway but speaking the actions instead of the lines. This meant that by the end of the first week, all the actors had a clear understanding of what they were doing in the play.

This then laid the platform for character exploration. Before rehearsals, I had asked the actors to prepare a series of lists about their character(s), these provided the company with all the information the text had on any given character. We then cross-referenced this with any useful historical information, and discussed the characters' motivations, their dominant Laban efforts, their emotional centres, their animals etc. After this discussion, I gave the actors half-an-hour just to explore an aspect of the character that intrigued them - the actor who was actually playing the part could then step in and out and observe what the other members of the company were coming up with.

The common feature of all these elements was getting the actors to work together as a company: they worked on style together, they worked on text together and they worked on each character together. This gave the whole play a coherency as the actors were inhabiting the same world and were listening to each other the whole time.

Now, in part, I think I was incredibly lucky with this production. The cast worked incredibly well together and they were a very giving group of actors. Casting is incredibly important in any play but especially when you're working in this way - one person can completely destroy the atmosphere of creativity and mutual support.

I will leave my assessment of the rehearsal period there, otherwise we'll be here all night. Admittedly this is probably a slightly flattering presentation of the rehearsal period and the process has also shown me many areas where I need to improve and develop. Part of me is frankly amazed by how successful rehearsals were, especially since I was using many of these processes and exercises for the very first time. The new writing nights I have been working on over the past year did, however, provide me with excellent opportunities to test out this method of directing on a much smaller scale. In fact, I cannot recommend working on short pieces at nights like these enough to any director, they really keep you on your toes and give you a fantastic chance to try out new ideas and approaches.

Henry V received overwhelmingly positive feedback when we performed at both Reading School and at The Proud Archivist in London. The Reading School boys really took to our informal style, one saying that it was the first piece of Shakespeare he had ever enjoyed - you couldn't ask for more for a school performance really! The school posted a lovely piece on their website about the show here: http://www.reading-school.co.uk/31/latest-news/article/343/henry-v-gets-rave-reviews

After the school performance we had a bit of time to work on a few things before we performed in London the following week. We only had one review but what a lovely review it was, really grasping what we were trying to achieve with the production: http://thegoodreview.co.uk/2014/10/henry-v-the-proud-archivist/

We are now hoping to take the show on tour. My aim is to take it to Medieval and Renaissance great halls as I think this would be the best setting for our particular production. It is not designed for a traditional theatre space and would work best in a place with character and history. So there's lots of hard work to come over the next month or so. But it has been a fantastic start to Cyphers and a fantastic step forward in my directing career.

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