‘Taste of it first’ [updated]

11th October 2013

If it’s Thursday, it must be the first preview of Richard II. My posts from Stratford-upon-Avon towards the live broadcasts to cinemas have been appearing mostly on Mondays, but from now on there will be more than a weekly schedule can accommodate. Next Monday I will start a post to record links to as many substantive Richard II reviews and responses as I can, but today there is a new production diary with Simon Ash, senior production manager and the man responsible for getting the show into the theatre – with some terrific time-lapse footage here of the fit-up. And after that notes from yesterday’s dress rehearsal and first preview performance.

Cast and crew started what is known as the technical rehearsal on Monday evening, and this continued through Tuesday and Wednesday. The process began a little late because the get-in of the complex stage machinery was, well, complex. The ‘tech’ involves working through the play pinning down all the lighting cues, props, scene changes, sounds and much else, as well as having the actors familiarise themselves with the new space. It is also when key problems jump, metaphorically, out of the woodwork, although there seemed to be mercifully few of these.

By the time I arrive at the theatre around midday, there are final adjustments being made but everyone seems in good spirits. Time then, for a rather good haddock fish cake in the Green Room. (I should explain to new readers that on our earlier filmed productions of Hamlet (2009) and Macbeth (2010), we had exceptionally good location caterers. The lunch menu was a major talking point and a focus for much comment on the blog posts – links to which can be found here for Hamlet and here for Macbeth. Lunch, as a consequence, has its part to play.)

By around 1.20pm, everything is ready for the dress rehearsal. The pre-set is in place and the first cue of Paul Englishby’s ethereal music floats through the theatre. My intention is not in any sense to ‘review’ the production here, or probably at any point, and I do not want to spoil any of the surprises. But inevitably some judgements will creep in and I hope you’ll forgive those.

Into the complex – and meaningful – choreography of the first scene, and all goes well. The setting looks spectacular – and throughout there is a simple, stripped-back beauty that is glorious (and that should look great on a cinema screen). Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis and lighting designer Tim Mitchell have done brilliant work (which we’ll do our d*mnd*st not to mess up in the broadcast).

At the end of Act I Scene 2 there is the first (and only significant) problem. An element of the automation system crashes and part of the scenery fails to appear. There is a break of a few minutes before everything is working again, the cast pick up from the end of the previous scene and all goes well to the interval.

Ranged across the auditorium are various temporary desks at which the stage managers, lighting and sound departments are working, calling the cues, making changes, annotating complex charts. Our broadcast team is in with the RSC’s film unit making a ‘scratch’ tape showing simply a wide-shot of the stage. From this, our screen director Robin Lough will create a camera script over the next fortnight, detailing each of the framings and cuts – and it is this that we will try out a first camera rehearsal.

Also present are two of our cameramen and the vision mixer, familiarising themselves with the production and beginning to visualise the work they will do on the night of 13 November. There are others from the company ranged around the seats and there is also photographer Kwame Lestrade dancing around the stalls taking the production images that will appear shortly. The digital clicks of his camera join the low hum of exchanges amongst the technical teams as they adjust and amend.

The second half, which is shorter, passes without any obvious hitches – and we applaud. Only then does director Greg Doran walk the cast through the curtain call, the final element of rehearsal that he has saved until now. After which, he explains to cast and crew that he has only one superstition (in addition to magpies). Which is, that nothing, absolutely nothing, gets changed between the dress rehearsal and the first preview.

‘Not a music cue is altered,’ Greg says, ‘not a lighting state, and if anyone gives you a new costume, just say no. Do just what you did this afternoon. Tonight is when we see how it plays in the theatre. Enjoy that, and allow the extra energy the audience gives you to bolster you. But it’s looking great, sounding great, and moving very smoothly. So just the same tonight.’

I am in my stalls seat by 7.15pm and from then on it’s truly fascinating to see how a show that I watched last Friday in a rehearsal room is transformed by the theatre and its audience. There was, for example, one of the central performances that I thought a little under-powered last week, but it emerges here in dazzling form – and I realise how naive I was not to recognise it was being held back for now.

There are supportive laughs, murmurings of surprise and appreciation (not least at the hair extensions worn by David Tennant), and towards the end a moment or two of shock that bring forth gasps. And most precious of all, there are times when a pin could fall from the flies and the resulting noise thunder through the house – the audience is silently engrossed in the way that makes theatre so special.

Part one runs one hour and forty-one minutes and we return for the scene in which the Queen overhears the gardeners talking about King Richard being deposed. Joshua Richards as the Gardener whips a cane through the air as he tells of the king’s favourites being executed – and the stick snaps, part of it flying into the front row. The audience gasps, the man who was hit indicates he is fine, and Joshua recovers brilliantly. You don’t see that at the movies.

By the end of the final hour we know we have seen something special. There is clarity and precision and intelligence and wonder. People are up out of their seats as the cast take the curtain call. The production will mature more across the coming week, the performances will develop in confidence and become yet more finely defined. Many small adjustments will be made, but for me (and many others) this is already theatre at the highest level of achievement. Now all we have to do is produce a broadcast that does it justice.

Image: detail from the Liber Regalis, showing Richard and his queen, Anne of Bohemia; Westminster Abbey, MS 38, f. 20.


  1. Carol Clements says:

    Hi John : glad to see that lunch got a mention 🙂

    I was at the preview last night too – thoroughly enjoyed it. The music is amazing, the set & lighting incredible and the acting… well, just sublime, particularly Oliver Ford Davies. There are a few tweaks to be done, naturally, but this show will just get better as it progresses. Already looking forward to the DVD 😀

  2. Sylvia Morris says:

    Wonderful post John. My appetite is well and truly whetted!

  3. Quinn says:

    Thank you so much for this detailed glimpse of what sounds like a brilliant production. How I would love to see this play! Transatlantic flight put the price of attendance beyond reach, but I will follow and enjoy vicariously.

  4. Gail says:

    Thank you for this, John, and for all your insights into the making of this play.

    I was there last night, too: I was one of the gaspers! I can only add that the production was so enthralling that I breathed “Wow!” at the end.

    I’ll be seeing it again next month (on stage, and on screen!), and again in January. I’m looking forward to seeing the little differences that will be inevitable after the previews, and I’m really curious about how it will look on screen, and how it will be played in the different space of the Barbican.

  5. Rebecca says:

    I can not *wait* the little over two weeks til I fly over to see this. I also can’t sufficiently express how grateful i am for your blog and the videos. It’s so exciting. Thank you !

  6. Tracy says:

    Thanks for another great post, John. As a follower of your blog since the days of Hamlet I was pleased to see the lunch mention tradition continuing 😉

    I’ll be going to a cinema screening and am looking forward to it even more now!

  7. Kathrin Franke says:

    Well, I was lucky enough to have seen both Thursday’s and Friday’s previews (staying in Birmingham I went into Stratford early Friday morning and was lucky enough to get a standing ticket for the night). Now I’m completely broke but I don’t regret a single penny I spent, it was well worth it.
    I remember the scene with the stick, even though I couldn’t really see what happened – I assumed the stick had fallen down, instead of snapping – but the resulting laughs gave a bit of relief before the rest of the drama. There was a surprisingly large number of laughs throughout the play too, sometimes because the lines just became so clear by the way they were said, sometimes by the way the scenes were played (as when Richard was handing over the crown).
    Can’t wait to see it on screen, and in London too.

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