| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week Two, Day One

I rejoin rehearsals for an afternoon session at the start of the second week, in which Michael and the cast are focusing on scenes Two and Three. There are a number of interesting props in the room, including a corpse and two dead cats. Props Supervisor, Celia Strainge, is using swatches to check actors’ skin tones in order to prepare realistic dismembered limbs.

Scaffolding has been erected at the far end of the space to enable the team to suspend actor Brian Martin, playing James, in a harness for Scene Two, during which Padraic tortures him. The Aerial Engineer and his colleague, who are responsible for the scaffolding and harness, talk Brian, his understudy Matthew Blaney and Stage Management through all the health and safety aspects of the equipment. Company Stage Manager Lorna Cobbold asks lots of questions about where the harness should be positioned in order to distribute the actor’s weight and Brian asks if it can be more evenly distributed on his hips. The team makes adjustments accordingly.

In terms of suspending Brian, Michael prefers a height that still allows him to touch the floor with his fingertips. The team also has to consider the best position from which Padraic can cut James’ nipple. The actor is actually lifted by a motor in the wings, operated by Stage Management, who then move him into position across the stage. The mechanism itself won’t be visible, it will be above the border of the stage. What connects this mechanism to the actor is entirely the Creative Team’s decision – for example, it could be chain, rope, electrical flex, etc.

seated man looking up
The Lieutenant of Inishmore rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

For today they’re going to rehearse the scene with Brian sitting in a chair, his hands behind his back. Michael says they’ll return to the scene in just over a week’s time and suggests the Aerial Engineer return then to supervise. He proposes they gradually increase the amount of time the actor is suspended upside down.

Focusing on the scene itself, Michael says of Padraic: ‘We’ve definitely got a more lenient person from the one we meet later in the play.’ He reflects on James’ response to Padraic’s interrogation, which despite his predicament is direct and often derisory. ‘There’s no version of that you can dress up,’ Michael says to Brian, ‘it’s facetious so let him have it.’

Both actors are already off book and only occasionally need a prompt from Stage Management. Having run the scene once, Michael comments: ‘Very good on all of that.’ He wonders whether Padraic should be sitting as this is the first time we meet the title-character? Ultimately he decides it’s better for him to be standing close to James, ready to torture him: ‘It’ll heighten the nastiness for us.’

Michael reflects on the encounter as a whole: ‘Everything in this scene is about finding the right tone. You’re not doing this, but obviously it can’t be about shouting at one another. This is also beyond absurdist humour – “Whichever’s your favourite nipple I won’t be touching that fella at all…’ – so we can’t lose that. As with all violence, it’s incredibly graphic for us.’

He then goes back over the scene, picking out different moments. ‘Be careful you don’t lose that line – “You’ll have had both by the end of the day” – in losing your train of thought,’ he says to Aidan. Michael focuses specifically on these lines: ‘Now, just for clarity, that – about nipples – wasn’t the train of thought you’ve lost?’ He and Aidan conclude that the ‘train of thought’ refers to Padraic’s ‘next item on the agenda’ for torturing James. ‘ “So be picking your nipple…” is the intensification of the focus,’ adds Michael.

He concentrates on James’ reference to his cat, which ultimately contributes to his reprieve from Padraic’s torturing. Michael questions Padraic’s gullibility, asking Aidan: ‘Do you get suspicious before your first, “What’s his name?” or after? So I put my mind at rest, can we try a version where you’re suspicious from, “How do you know so much about ringworm?” .’ Michael wants to ensure he and the actors have fully understood this moment: ‘I’m trying to get into Martin’s head here.’ Regarding Padraic’s suspicions about James and his cat, Michael reflects to Aidan: ‘I don’t think Padraic wants to explore that too much.’ Of James’ eventual escape, Michael thinks it’s important to maintain the tension: ‘If he’s able to come fantastically out of his dilemma it questions whether the dilemma was ever really there.’

He’s pleased with the overall shape of the scene. ‘The only alteration I’d suggest is just keeping a physical focus,’ Michael says to Aidan, ‘don’t wander too much.’ As an example, he cites Padraic walking behind James’ back when talking about what he plans to do to him next – ‘It slightly dilutes it.’ Michael reflects on the challenge of this particular scene: ‘We have to do two things – make the audience go “Urgh!” and make them laugh at the same time, and that’s what this play does brilliantly.’

In terms of pacing the actors through rehearsals, Michael’s conscious that they’re only at the start of the second week of five: ‘I don’t want to rehearse that scene too much because you’re hitting something just right. Whatever you’re accessing is spot on.’ He suggests another runthrough in order to consolidate the notes from today’s session: ‘Let’s do it once more because the next time we do it will be next Tuesday.’

They run the scene again, following which Michael says: ‘Great. So, questions… Have either of you got any about the road map of this scene? I can’t see any from where I’m sitting.’ There’s a discussion about the practical details – for example, how many guns does Padraic use when shooting his mobile phone and where do they come from? His holster?

Michael thinks the scene is developing well, enjoying Padraic’s digression about James’ toenails and the medical attention he should seek: ‘I really loved that. You took me right through the speech.’ He offers some specific notes: ‘Aidan, just try staying over there when you take the telephone call. There’s something rather funny about you hanging over James’ nipple while you answer the call from your dad. I always see the phone call as the halfway point of the scene.’ And later: ‘Make sure you introduce the idea of a “splinter group”.’

He notes a change in tone towards the end of the scene: ‘There’s a strange coda to this scene – there’s suddenly a lot of care from Padraic at the end. The care will come out of cutting James down, it’ll take a while. We actually get something quite different here from what’s set up, in terms of what we hear about Padraic – that he’s too mad to be in the IRA. Here he’s actually rather concerned about James.’

Bringing the session to a close, Michael concludes: ‘The whole thing about the tone of this scene is how we balance the threat of violence with actual violence.’ He turns to Brian: ‘When you really analyse the scene, it’s a man saying, “Fuck you!” most of the time.’ He looks ahead to next week’s rehearsals and returning to this scene, suggesting to Stage Management: ‘Next time we’ll add a shirt and rucksack.’ To the actors, Michael says: ‘One thing you could both profitably do is get absolutely word perfect for week three.’

After a short break rehearsals continue, now focused on Scene Three. Chris Walley, Charlie Murphy and Will Irvine – playing Davey, Mairead and Christy respectively – join Michael in the room. They start by walking through the short fight near the beginning of the scene, in which Davey pushes Mairead to the ground. This has previously been set by Fight Director Kate Waters and Michael praises Kate on her approach to her work, commenting that in the past many Fight Directors often didn’t read the script so the fight didn’t come organically out of the world of the play.

He works through the fight methodically, especially Mairead’s retaliation when she begins stamping on Davey’s beloved bicycle, Michael observing: ‘This is a play full of people who love strange things – Padraic his cat, Davey his bike.’ He asks Charlie: ‘How can you bang on the bike and let Chris get his line in? It’s a technical note, which we should rehearse now.’ He sets Mairead’s stomps on the bike to ensure we hear all of Davey’s lines. ‘You need to work together to build the fight incrementally,’ Michael says to the two actors. ‘Charlie, you have to give Chris permission to push you.’ He suggests the push creates a dividing line within the scene.

woman seated
The Lieutenant of Inishmore rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Running the scene from the top, Michael says to Charlie: ‘I’d come on a bit earlier. I’m just trying to work out what the value of that was as an off-stage line (“In the cheek, is it? …That was the object, to have your fecking eye out!”). I’m a big fan of the entrance, in terms of actually having one!’ He encourages both actors to take their time with the lines: ‘Charlie, make sure you give some air to, “The news it was on”. Don’t rush it.’ To Chris he says: ‘For half a nanosecond you think it could just possibly have been on the news.’ Michael refers to ‘levels of incredulity and bare-faced lies’ within the play.

Critically he encourages both actors to connect with one another: ‘Just make sure the two of you fully engage in a full-on conversation about cows. Let each thing come out of the other. As you hear a point of view, you both take on a different point of view. It’s not about shouting each other down. It’s about articulating an argument. Just make sure the very last section of that doesn’t get lost.’

Charlie wonders why Mairead seems so embarrassed about shooting cows’ eyes – ‘Is it because it’s all she’s known for?’ Michael encourages her to embrace the points Mairead’s making: ‘There’s a mini triumph in your thought-process there, “For who would want to buy a blind cow?” Really pin him down on that, really get behind your argument. Make sure you get that.’

Of Davey’s account of helping Donny, Michael says to Chris: ‘Remember, you’re explaining something there. Make sure you’re taking us through it.’ He focuses on a specific line (‘He’s got me roaming the country to find a black cat identical to his Wee Thomas…’): ‘Now that’s new information for us, so we need help with that. We need a little spin on that. Just say it one more time and explain it. If you explain it to her, we’ll get it.’

Chris, Charlie and Will run the scene again, incorporating Michael’s notes. ‘That was really good,’ he comments afterwards, ‘you landed all of those things.’ He focuses on the blocking, from crossing the stage – ‘Let’s find that movement… It might not be the right movement, but let’s find it’ – to small details: ‘So you don’t upstage yourself there, push his face downstage on that line.’ Following a run through, Michael might comment: ‘The only move I didn’t understand…’ And then give an example of a piece of blocking that seemed false.

Michael encourages the actors to find the right pace – ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself’ – and the detail within the text: ‘It just helps us to pick that out.’ He highlights the need to keep the storytelling clear, using Mairead’s reference to her cat, Sir Roger, as an example (‘Look at my Sir Roger. Sir Roger has a different personality to any cat…’): ‘Just in terms of your responsibility to the exposition of this play, make sure you introduce this character.’ He asks Chris: ‘Can you try and come over Mairead’s line, rather than under it, with your, “He’s a snooty bitch…” so you top her.’

Bringing the afternoon’s rehearsal to a close, Michael congratulates the actors: ‘Well done. You’re in a very good place with all of that.’ He reflects on Scene Three: ‘One general note for this scene is you’d be surprised how much information is in it. There’s a danger that this scene could simply happen and we think it’s just about a girl kicking a boy’s bike and a man walking past, but there are several important plot-points in it. Martin McDonagh does that brilliantly. He gives exposition straight from character. He says it once clearly and he trusts us to get it.’ Michael outlines the challenge for the actors: ‘You have to be true to character and find your way into introducing all those bits of information. You have to think, “What information do the audience need to get from this scene?” Really take some breathing space to let it expand and find the right tone.’