With apologies for its late arrival (blame this blog’s server), this is a further post about the preparations for the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast of Richard II to cinemas on 13 November in the UK (and later around the world). As you’ll see below, we are mostly in the rehearsal room this week, glimpses of which are in Production Diary no. 4 with the RSC’s Head of Voice Lyn Darnley and actors Miranda Nolan and Gracy Goldman.
In other news, RSC Education has released the first education pack for the production, The director’s process. Available as a free download here, this is intended primarily for teachers, but it has lots of interest for the rest of us. Tickets have gone on sale for Richard II screenings in Russia and also in Valleta, Malta; details here. And I saw the production trailer in a cinema for the first time – at Clapham Picturehouse on Sunday afternoon – which was rather thrilling.
Monday morning, at the RSC’s rehearsal rooms. The production is spread across two floors, and on each is a large room with the shape of the stage marked out on the floor in tape. The anonymous spaces have lots of natural light as well as the insistent noise of traffic from outside. There is a piano in one, and in the lower room a scaffolding bridge has been constructed at just over head height.
The cast and stage management arrive from 9.30 or so onwards. The adjacent green room offers coffee and tea until 10am, when a half hour of warm-ups begin. The camera crew and I wait outside, as do the stage managers, while the cast do physical and voice exercises. When we do go in the scene is much like that at the end of Francois Truffaut’s film of Fahrenheit 451, with people walking round individually but in a crowd, each speaking a piece of poetry to themselves.
Director Greg Doran calls them to order, and many of the cast get ready by donning a key piece of costume – a large skirt, weighty gloves – or taking up a prop, like a sword or a crozier. David Tennant puts on a crown and picks up his sceptre. Otherwise, everyone is dressed in everyday clothes. Among the other watchers are designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and movement director Mike Ashton.
This is the start of week four of six weeks in these spaces. After that, the production will begin to work in the theatre itself. For more than a fortnight Greg and the cast worked only on the text, reading their own and the parts of others around a table, discussing its meanings, finding paraphrases. By now there is a basic blocking, at least of Act I Scene 1 which is what is being worked on this morning. Everyone also knows their lines, and only very occasionally does someone look for a prompt.
Around the taped area is a line of chairs, approximating the first row of the stalls. Beyond them is a mess of props and furniture, including a plywood throne. In the centre of the “stage” is a large box standing in for a coffin. This is the focus of a series of entrances which are choreographed to take place before the first line of the play. Greg asks the cast to imagine Paul Englishby’s ‘absolutely extraordinarily beautiful music’.
All but one or two of the cast are present in this first scene, the two hundred lines of which (although there are some cuts) they initially run through to the end. ‘Cut,’ says Greg as they come to the end. ‘That was absolutely fascinating and really difficult at the same time.’ He begins to talk through aspects of the scene, and especially of the tensions at work in its confrontations. Several of the actors ask questions.
Now they begin again from the top, but taking the scene in shorter sections, trying out new ideas, refining their positions, adding details to their movements and expressions. Cast members make suggestions, talking about the back-story of how they arrived at this place, thinking about the differences between what we know of history and Shakespeare’s account in the text. Greg picks up and incorporates some of the ideas from the actors, others he quietly bats away or ignores.
The scene unfolds with Bolingbroke (Nigel Lindsay) challenging Mowbray (Antony Byrne). There is much play with the throwing down of gages – heavy gloves backed by armour. A playful humour is already apparent in the reactions of the king. But the reactions of the on-lookers are as important, with Greg giving notes to each, including the trio of Bushey, Bagot and Greene, Richard’s ‘special advisers’ who following The Thick of It he refers to as the SPADs.
After perhaps ninety minutes of prodding at and testing their first sketch of this, the cast run through it all again. It’s a focussed process, committed, with suggestions from many but with clearly a director in control. ‘Good,’ Greg says, ‘can we get a sense of heightening this sense of improvisation?’ As a practice it also seems physical rather than predominantly mental at this point, with people trying out how it feels to move in a particular way and to place their body in relation to others.
Changes are made, and then sections of the scene are run again, with new ideas incorporated or jettisoned. In many ways it’s all rather unremarkable, but at the same time an uninitiated observer can see something emerging that will be funny and solemn and threatening and full of meaning just below a surface. All of which is promising. ‘Right, let’s go back to the king’s entrance.’