Insights into the Richard III rehearsal process by Associate Director Ali Pidsley.
Rehearsals for Richard III are underway. After a week of rehearsals, the company of actors, creatives and stage management feel fully immersed in the world of Medieval England, the world of the play, and perhaps most intensely we find ourselves inside the head of Richard. A strange place to be. Quite a scary place to be.
The week begins with the whole company coming together for a meet and greet, Jeremy Herrin welcoming us to Headlong and John Haidar – our director – introducing to us the play and the production. Chiara Stephenson – our designer – shares her model box of the set. The moment that a new company gets to see a scale replica of the set is always one of the most exciting in any rehearsal process. It starts to get all of our imaginations firing and immediately gives the company a shared picture of the direction we’re moving in. This shared picture is of a world full of circles and glass, and swathed in black. The visual world is creating a sense for the audience of being inside Richard’s head; a space that is full of tricks and deception and double standards. That’s the world in which one of Shakespeare’s most infamous villains operates.
During the rest of the week we learn more and more about that world. Tiffany Stern – Professor of Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the Shakespeare Institute – came in and spoke to us about the history of the text, and some Early Modern production history of the play. On the next day the whole company took a field trip to the Tower of London and were joined by John Watts, Professor of Late Medieval History at Oxford University. John spoke to us about the period and the political machinations during the Wars of the Roses, and the tangible history of the characters of the play as real people who lived and breathed is now really prominent in our minds. The Tower is almost an additional character in Shakespeare’s play, and is the scene of the death of King Henry VI, and where the two young princes famously disappear to. To be able to spend some time in the physical space where scenes from the play occurred is a real gift, and has given us a solid platform from which to jump into next week and really explore the fiction of the play.
Week 2 rehearsals are done, and we are already halfway through our time together in London, before we move into technical rehearsals in Bristol. We are making fast progress and it’s Week 2 where we really see all the various elements of the production starting to be threaded together.
This production brings together a fantastic array of specialists in a range of fields to ensure that we can deliver the story of Richard in the most detailed and accessible way. In Week 2 we have had sessions with our Movement Director, Georgina Lamb; with Bret Yount, our Fight Director; and Richard Ryder who is working with the cast as a vocal coach. As well as this we have filmed a trailer for the production, and have been learning some singing with choir master Harvey Brough, who, along with our Sound Designer, George Dennis, is helping us build the sound world of the show. These sessions are exciting, and are opening up new, imaginative avenues for the play to advance into. They are also physically exhausting, especially the work with Georgina Lamb, and are giving the play a visceral and immediate texture. Week 2 is making the play more than just Shakespeare’s words; it’s becoming sweat and blood and a tangible thing that you can smell and touch and feel.
The other exciting development of Week 2 was welcoming the young actors playing Prince Edward and the Duke of York into the company. The infamous ‘Princes in the Tower’ are Richard’s nephews, and heirs to the throne when their father, King Edward IV, dies. The characters are twelve and nine in the play, and we are working with actors who are very close to their characters in age, which brings an authentic innocence and an honesty to those roles. Every time I work with young actors, I find myself amazed and inspired by their skill and their maturity. These Princes are going to be a real asset to the company.
Our third week in the rehearsal room is all about returning to the work that has been done in the first two weeks, going over it again, finessing and refining and adding detail. Once we have worked through the whole play, and started lacing in elements of movement, singing and fight direction, the whole company has a clearer idea of the overall shape of the play, and the various journeys their characters undertake. The actors have a strong footing in the historical and Shakespearean context of their characters, but the thing that’s important in bringing a new production to an audience is for those characters to feel like real people with a life and a personality of their own. I am continually amazed and inspired by the originality of the actors and their choices, their commitment to emotional energy as well as their technical dexterity with Shakespearean verse.
We have Richard Ryder working with us as Voice Coach and he is able to offer support to the cast in terms of verse, dialect and vocal energy. The fact that the production is touring and will need to adapt to fit into six different venues is a consideration on many levels, but particularly regarding the actors’ technical ability to fill six different auditoriums, some of which are quite different from one another.
As we head into our final week in the rehearsal room, the thing that feels really encouraging the characters are expanding and growing to fill the production, flexing their various personalities and feeling like new and original versions of themselves.
Now that we’re into the final week of rehearsals for Richard, we are focusing on how the production fits together, and how the various elements run into one another. A rehearsal room run is a fascinating phenomenon, because we treat it as if it’s a run in a theatre, with a full audience, but obviously there’s a lot that’s missing, as the technical elements are inevitably still partly in our heads; those elements are going to be implemented in during the technical rehearsals once we’re in Bristol. So, a run of the show in the rehearsal room is an experience that really fires the imagination; we see so much of the play come together with the work the actors are doing, and can now more fully visualise what the physical production needs to be doing around them.
Running the show from beginning to end also gives the actors a more detailed insight into the journey of the play, both for themselves and their characters, and for the play as a whole. It suddenly makes incredibly clear the various story points and details of plot that need clarifying for our audience. It’s a complex story, with many interweaving characters, political machinations and switching of sides, and it’s only really when we can see the whole play run together that these details can be seen in their entirety. Pace, energy, and tone are other, less tangible qualities which need fine tuning when you are running the whole play together; you learn where you need to let there be a tonal shift, where the actors really need to power through a scene and when they can afford to take a bit more time. There are points where we learn we really need to let Richard build a relationship with the audience; so much of the play is made up of soliloquies and the key to the plays success really is the audience getting “on side” with their central villain.
Now all we need, once we’ve layered in the technical elements next week in the theatre, is an audience.