| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week One, Day One

Education Associate Dominic Francis provides an insight into the cast and Creative Team’s rehearsal process for A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Having assembled the cast and Creative Team of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the customary ‘Meet and Greet’ on the morning of the first day of rehearsals, director Michael Grandage outlines his working process for that day and the coming weeks.

theatre rehearsals in a rehearsal room
A Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

There’ll be no read through, as Michael thinks they’re an ‘unlevel playing field’, and he tends to avoid table work, preferring to get up earlier and quicker. His aim is to have the entire play ‘on its feet’ by the end of the first week. ‘For those of you who haven’t done this before, hold onto yourself,’ he advises the cast. ‘It can feel a little unsettling.’ Michael reassures them that, ‘There’s no such thing as a stupid question – ever, ever, ever’. He rehearses scenes with just those actors in them in the room. This means precise schedules and call-times.

Present throughout the first week will be Text Consultant Russell Jackson, who has worked with Michael many times before. At the end of week one, Movement Director Ben Wright will be introduced. From week three, the understudies will also be in the room, observing rehearsals. And throughout this period elements of costume and music will be added and experimented with.

Michael briefly discusses the play and the intention behind the production. ‘The beginning of my relationship with Shakespeare, as a director, started at the Sheffield Theatres,’ he explains. Michael staged a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream there, but it had a short run and he didn’t feel he’d fully investigated it. He thinks the play offers a ‘heightened sensory experience’, commenting of Shakespeare, ‘No writer worth his salt writes a drama about an ordinary day’.

Michael talks about the connection necessary between the cast and the play, referring to an ‘invisible thread’. ‘It exists between each actor, tight and alive and never dropped. There’s also an invisible thread between you and the audience.’ He clarifies his point: ‘The “it” is the narrative of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which we can never depart from.’ Michael invites the cast to embrace this process. ‘Let today be the start of freeing your imagination.’

He then turns his attention to the world of the play, which is set in Athens. ‘Why Athens? What does it have to offer?’ asks Michael. ‘A sense of society – two hundred thousand citizens.’ Referring to the design, he poses the questions: ‘Where are we? And when?’ Michael places the production somewhere between the mid-twentieth century and the present day – essentially ‘now’ – before handing over to designer Christopher Oram.

Christopher champions A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Along with The Tempest, it’s the most thrilling play in the English narrative. Every time I go back to the text I see a different layer.’ Unveiling the scale-model of the set, he explains that, ‘The court references a 1940s’, ‘50s’ look, which was broken down in the ‘60s’. Theseus’ dwelling – stately and grand – presents a ‘classically-proportioned room’, which is in stark contrast to the woods.

Christopher describes the world outdoors as an ‘abstraction of a forest with a bombed-out look’. It’s a real playground for the cast: ‘A space you can run around in and feel the wind through your hair.’ The inspiration for this was taken from the ‘Burning Man’ culture, an alternative community living in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

To conclude the Meet and Greet, Michael asks the Composers and Sound Designers, Ben and Max Ringham, to play the ‘opening percussive cue’. A strikingly contemporary piece of music plays – part rave, part trance – that has the whole cast nodding their heads, before morphing into the Carpenters’ Touch Me When We’re Dancing. Michael refers to the latter as the ‘Lovers’ Song’, turning to Sheridan Smith and Padraic Delaney – playing Hippolyta/Titania and Theseus/Oberon – and commenting, ‘This is a story about you two being brought together’. Listening to the song, he smiles – ‘When I was at school that was called a “smooch”!’

With a much smaller group of people, just those actors in Scene One – plus Russell Jackson, Associate Director Tara Robinson and Deputy Stage Manager Lorna Earl – Michael starts work on the opening scene of the play. He begins by explaining that the script they’re using is a version prepared by him and long-term collaborator David Hunt. Russell, an academic and practitioner specialising in Shakespeare, will act as a guide to the text, referring to various editions of the play.

‘If we have to remember one thing about this play,’ observes Michael, ‘we do absolutely go through a confusing array of emotions.’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream is referred to as a comedy, but Michael questions this in relation to Scene One: ‘It’s actually suggested someone in this scene be sentenced to death.’ (Hermia by her father, Egeus.) ‘It’s about getting the balance right – between tragedy and comedy.’

theatre rehearsals in a rehearsal room
A Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Sitting on chairs in front of Michael and the team, the cast read through the scene once, asking questions about story and character and clarifying the meaning of certain words and phrases – for example, ‘nuptial hour’ referring to Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding day. Occasionally, Michael will modify an actor’s pronunciation of a particular word, for the purpose of the rhythm of the verse, consulting Russell where necessary.

Referring to Theseus’ line, ‘four happy days bring in / Another moon’, Michael explains that the action of the play is meant to last a few days, but following this scene all reference to its time-scheme is dropped. He also notes Hippolyta’s response, ‘Four nights will quickly dream away the time’ – ‘The very first mention of “dream” in our production.’

Focusing on this couple, Michael suggests that Theseus and Hippolyta have equivalent status to a king and queen: ‘There’s no reference elsewhere in the play to anyone higher.’ The challenge, he thinks, is to ground them in reality. ‘We need to find out who they are for you and us to relate to. They’re not Wills and Kate.’

Michael asks how long they’ve been engaged? And more significantly, whether they love each other? The couple’s back-story is then discussed. A war has recently been fought between the Athenians and the Amazonians, which the Athenians – led by Theseus – won. As victor, he claims Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, as his bride. Their marriage is a direct result of the conflict. Despite this, reflects Michael, ‘On the surface of the three opening speeches there’s harmony in this world’.

The function and position of the other characters is also clarified. For example, Philostrate is Theseus’ Master of the Revels, a high-status courtier.

Michael then turns his attention to the four young Lovers: Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius. He doesn’t think the frequent interpretation of them being old friends particularly helpful, preferring to examine the intricacy of their complex relationships instead. He suggests it’s common knowledge within Theseus’ court that Demetrius switched his affections from Helena to Hermia. A question Michael constantly asks of himself and the actors is, ‘Where’s the evidence in the text to support that view?’

This brings him to the fundamental issue at the centre of the opening scene, which prompts the ensuing action of the play: ‘Why is Egeus so implacable about Hermia marrying Demetrius? Shakespeare’s written a really entrenched character. The ownership factor – father owning daughter – has to be a more interesting aspect to play than simply anger.’ Michael encourages Leo Wringer, playing Egeus, to find all the different colours in the character and scene. Speculating on the old man’s back-story, Michael notes that there’s a missing wife. He suggests Egeus has a sense of things coming to an end – the end of the family line.

Michael also highlights Hermia’s outspoken attitude towards her father – answering back, etc. – which would have been considered shocking to Shakespeare’s audience. He explores the other characters’ reactions to events in the scene, commenting that while they all know the ancient Athenian laws to which Egeus refers, no one believes he’d actually exercise them.

The end of the scene focuses on Hermia and Helena’s friendship. In her closing speech, we see the start of Helena’s ‘cattiness’ towards her former playmate. Michael counsels Katherine Kingsley, playing Helena, to find the right pitch: ‘We need to save up the maliciousness.’ He thinks Hermia a very recognisable character, commenting wryly, ‘We’ve all got them – friends we wouldn’t leave alone with our partners!’

theatre rehearsals in a rehearsal room
A Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Following this discussion, the actors get up on their feet to start ‘sketching’ the scene. ‘I don’t know whether we’ll start with music,’ says Michael. ‘We might save that up for later.’

At this early stage, he takes the opportunity to establish some basic principles with regard to blocking: ‘I want to avoid playing too much on the mid-stage because the woodland scenes are set there.’ Michael encourages the cast to ‘naturally go off into your diagonals’. Occasionally he’ll give more specific directions to actors: ‘Keep your distance across the other side of the stage – use the width.’ And later: ‘Use that little encounter you have with her there as an opportunity to bring her downstage and play that on the fore, with him up on the diagonal.’

At the end of the session, Michael’s pleased: ‘All of this sort of works. Just mark that down as a general sketch of the scene.’

theatre rehearsals in a rehearsal room
A Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

The actors swap over and work begins in the same way on Scene Two. Michael reflects on the developing story of the play: ‘At the end of ten pages we know that two narratives are joining up.’ The Mechanicals have entered the world of the Court.

He wonders about the origins of the craftsmen’s acting troupe: ‘How were they formed? Make it up, make it clear.’ Michael suggests the Mechanicals may be ‘Shakespeare’s dig at amateur dramatics’, although he’s cautious about making too strong a judgement regarding the characters. ‘I think it’s a mistake to bring on a group who are a load of village idiots. It’s not particularly helpful for us.’ He asks whether their names reveal anything about them? (For example – Francis Flute, a bellow’s mender.) ‘I’d love the production to offer up six very different character studies,’ says Michael. He also questions the significance of the doubling-up – Mechanicals playing Fairies – and whether there’s any meaning in that? He suggests the Fairies might be more appropriately named ‘Forest Dwellers’.

David Walliams, playing Nick Bottom, and Michael have been exploring the idea that his character and fellow Mechanical Peter Quince are actually a couple. ‘Big ideas often fall short,’ comments Michael, ‘but this one works all the way through. It brings a very specific dynamic right into the centre of this group.’ He thinks the relationship between the two should be at the centre of this scene.

Putting it on its feet, Michael asks, ‘Where are you?’ An undefined meeting place is rejected in favour of Theseus’ court, Theseus having recently departed. ‘They don’t know if their play’s going to be selected,’ suggests Michael, ‘and they’ve come to recce the venue.’ He thinks this helpful – ‘It informs the scene.’ They wonder whether Philostrate, as Master of the Revels, should lead the acting troupe on to show them the space? In reading the text, Michael takes nothing for granted. Considering Quince’s registering of the group, he asks actor Richard Dempsey, ‘Is it possible that you’re calling them because you don’t know them yet?’

Regarding the scene as a whole, Michael compares Shakespeare to a screenwriter – ‘He’s great at pre-credit sequences.’ He thinks this sequence particularly effective, economically introducing the Mechanicals. ‘It’s a good scene to keep a bit of our powder dry. By the end of it, the audience need a sense of who you are.’ Michael encourages the actors to maintain the momentum throughout: ‘Keep the motor of this scene going but still making sure we’re keeping the rhythm.’

At the end of the session he asks, ‘What do we need to look at when we next come to this scene?’ With the actors, Michael’s constantly questioning the text: ‘We must see what we need to discover there.’ He wants to explore all the details – ‘Find the grace notes.’

theatre rehearsals in a rehearsal room
A Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Work begins on Scene Three next – the introduction to the world of the Fairies in the woods. Michael notes that it’s the first scene set at night, following two daytime ones. ‘The biggest thing that an audience should take from this scene is that all is not well. The natural order has been overturned, is on its head.’ He counsels the actors to remain in control of the storytelling: ‘Never let us get ahead of you in Scene Three. At the end of it we should be quite breathless – everything’s in chaos.’

He considers the opening exchange between Puck and another Fairy, in particular their relationship – ‘What’s the connection between them?’ Craig Vye, playing the First Fairy, suggests he ‘scouts ahead’ for Puck. This leads to a discussion about tribes and Michael refers to eco-warriors and ‘disparate groups who share one common energy’. He also describes the forest dwellers as ‘quite feral’ and comments that a potential problem of their costumes – hippyish in look – is that ‘it all becomes too chilled out’.

The tone of the scene shifts after Oberon’s argument with Titania, followed by Helena and Lysander’s equally charged exchange. ‘By the end,’ reflects Michael, ‘it’s a very different scene to the expectation set up by the entrance of Puck and the Fairy.’