Bard day’s work: what I learned from eavesdropping on RSC rehearsals

·4-min read

The creative process normally takes place behind closed doors. But the RSC has boldly upended that idea by streaming its Open Rehearsal Project for Henry VI Part One. What this means, in practice, is that cameras are admitted for three sessions each day. At 10am we watch a half-hour company warm-up. From noon, for 90 minutes, we get to see either a class (movement, combat, verse-speaking) or the rehearsal of a scene. Then at 6pm we eavesdrop on a green-room chat, in which company members mull over progress so far. After dipping in and out for the first fortnight – and there’s still more than a week to go before a streamed performance on 23 June – I’m intrigued by how much I’ve learned.

But are open rehearsals a good idea? There was a pivotal moment when Gregory Doran – who shares direction of the project with Owen Horsley – quoted a letter he’d received from an actor who said “the rehearsal room is sacrosanct – actors must not be exposed like this”. I spoke to a veteran actor who said she too was horrified by the idea of the public witnessing the trial and error that takes place in a rehearsal room.

I fully get that but there are extenuating circumstances that justify this experiment. As Jamie Wilkes, one of the company, pointed out: “It is about the process – not the product.” There is none of the pressure of an imminent press night or fully staged production. Mariah Gale also shrewdly observed that what works for an ensemble piece such as Henry VI Part One would be less suited to Hamlet or Macbeth, where individuals wrestle with intractable problems. But the ultimate vindication is that, for both participants and spectators, there is a peculiar joy about total immersion in Shakespeare after 15 barren, largely Bard-free months.

The main lesson, for me, has been that warm-ups and movement classes are more fun for the actors than the observers: there is only so much pleasure to be had from seeing actors engaging in clapping exercises to encourage communality. The real revelation came on the Friday of the first week when Horsley led a verse session with six of the cast. He firstly got them to physicalise the iambic pentameter by repeatedly counting from one to 10, with appropriate stresses, as they crossed the rehearsal-room floor. As he said, “It’s a bit like Sesame Street to start with” but it paid off in that it instilled the rhythm of the standard Shakespearean verse-line.

The actors then worked minutely on a speech in Act One Scene Two, when Joan la Pucelle confronts the French Dauphin. They discovered that in her very first line – “Dauphin, I am by birth a shepherd’s daughter” – Joan goes off-beat in that the heavy stress lies on the first syllable. “She’s utilising rhythm,” suggested Horsley, “to get his attention.” The more they worked on the speech, the more the actors realised how regular iambics were mixed with irregular – such as “God’s mother deigned to appear to me” – and how Joan used language to enchant, captivate and convince her auditor. Watching this session took me back to John Barton’s 1984 TV series Playing Shakespeare, which offered a definitive analysis of Shakespeare’s verse.

The delight, as always, lies in the detail: the more you explore the nitty-gritty of a Shakespeare text, the more fascinating the plays become. One morning we saw Doran and the actors working on the crucial Act Two Scene Four, when Richard Plantagenet and Somerset engage in a feud in Temple Gardens that leads to the Wars of the Roses. There was a long democratic debate about the meaning of the scene. Having listened to everyone, Doran concluded that “it’s one of those rows that’s not what it’s about” and that behind it lay the Yorkist Richard’s claim to the throne. That was something vividly clarified in an earlier green-room session, where Doran explained to Michael Balogun (who plays York) and Marty Cruickshank (Mortimer) the complex genealogy in which the roots of civil disorder can be traced back to the birth of seven sons to Edward III.

These rehearsals explore the multiple facets that make up a Shakespeare production – such as fights, movement, music, stage management – but for me two memories prevail. One is the visible sense of relief among the actors at being released from the privations of the past 15 months: “it feels like I’ve come home to a rehearsal room,” says someone. The other is that the heart and soul of the RSC lies in the detailed exploration of text. “A curiosity about language is integral,” says Horsley. That line could stand as a final justification for breaching a time-honoured code and demystifying the theatrical process.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting