| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week One, Day Three

Education Associate Dominic Francis provides an insight into the cast and Creative Team’s rehearsal process for Orlando.

It’s the middle of the first week of rehearsals for MGC’s production of Orlando, adapted by writer Neil Bartlett from Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel of the same name. There are fewer people in the rehearsal room today than there were on Monday, when everyone involved in the production, from composing to costumes, gathered for the customary ‘Meet and Greet’ – an opportunity to meet one another and hear director Michael Grandage’s introduction to the play, plus witness the unveiling of the model-box of the set.

Sitting next to Michael this morning is Neil and alongside them is Associate Director, Anna Girvan. Company Stage Manager Greg Shimmin sits at a table nearby with Assistant Stage Manager Louise Quartermain, while Deputy Stage Manager Lucy Bradford sits at a separate table operating the sound cues. Today they’re working on Scene Four, set during the Great Frost of 1606, in particular the exchange between Orlando and Sasha, played by Emma Corrin and Millicent Wong respectively. As the various members of the Creative Team and cast prepare for the morning’s work, Michael and Neil have an informal script meeting, discussing minor revisions to the text. 

Turning their attention to the actors, Neil begins by referring to the social and political background of the play, in particular the institution of marriage in the sixteenth century. They then read the scene, which begins with a long monologue from Orlando, with Michael reading all the stage-directions. Afterwards he congratulates Millie, who has the added challenge of speaking in several languages throughout the scene: ‘Well done on your Russian. Absolutely amazing!’ He turns to Neil and refers to some grammatical issues recently raised by a Russian speaker who’d read the script. Neil asks if the person in question is a Russian, or a Russian-speaking Ukrainian? ‘There are different registers and levels of familiarity,’ he explains. Michael reflects that, in all probability, ‘Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the audience won’t speak Russian and won’t know what Sasha’s saying’.

Having read through the scene once, Michael comments, ‘Something wonderful usually comes out of a first reading – it’s called instinct, and your instinct here was perfect’. He observes that, ‘Orlando is almost hypnotized in this scene’. He focuses on Millie: ‘What is Sasha thinking here?’ She reflects on the character’s age and its influence on her actions: ‘In my head, she’s quite young, probably early twenties.’ Michael wonders about her background: ‘Is your confidence only from your birthright?’ He asks the actors exploratory questions to open up discussion: ‘Here’s a question for you both… What do the circumstances of the action taking place on ice, during the Great Frost, mean for the scene?’ Emma thinks the encounter might not have occurred if not for the frost. Neil adds, ‘Can you imagine dancing on the River Thames at Greenwich by torchlight?’ He turns to Millie: ‘Sasha says, “We make scandal…” She knows she can make a scandal.’ 

Millie asks about her intentions at the end of the scene: ‘Is Sasha sincere?’ It is a measure of how closely Michael and Neil are working together at this early stage of rehearsal that Neil glances at him to check which of them might offer an answer. ‘By playing completely sincere,’ comments Michael, ‘it doesn’t diminish the intention of the scene.’ Neil adds: ‘I very deliberately kept in Orlando not knowing what would happen at the end of the scene.’ He suggests that Orlando’s fundamental problem here is a frozen heart, reflecting that he’s now in his early twenties and is no longer the 15-year-old boy from the start of the play.

Michael reflects on the openness of the scene, both in terms of the characters’ intentions and how it’s interpreted: ‘There’s time for things to land but never quite settle. The scene is constantly shifting in the way we present it to an audience.’ Neil clarifies what’s happening in the wider story of the play at this point with the chorus of Virginias bringing on the bed – ‘To watch very closely what might happen.’ Michael thanks him and turns again to the actors: ‘Any questions for us? Anything practical?’ Sasha is meant to be skating on the ice in this scene and Movement Director Ben Wright is currently exploring whether it’s easier for Millie to be on roller-skates or blades. 

Michael focuses on a specific line with Emma: ‘It’s a sense difference – I’m not talking about a stress. “No boy ever had a mouth like that.” That is another tonal nuance to talk about here. It’s a stream-of-consciousness for himself, but also happening for us the audience. It’s the 25-year-old Orlando talking to any other 25-year-olds in the audience, asking the question, “Has this ever happened to you?”’ Michael comments on his experience as an actor directly addressing the audience, for example during Shakespearean soliloquies: ‘It’s brilliant! Suddenly we come to the audience.’

Having read through the scene once and discussed it, Michael works with Emma and Millie to begin to stage it – to put the scene ‘on its feet’. He reassures the actors about expectations: ‘This is sketch week – we should find the language of it.’ Although the actors hold the scripts in their hands, even at this early stage of rehearsal they are both very familiar with their lines. Michael highlights the beginning of the scene to Emma – Orlando’s description of the Great Frost: ‘There is a gear change there with the description of the scene. You can help us here.’ He gives as an example the image of ‘an old woman, petrified’ beneath the ice – Orlando can help the audience to see it, to really picture it. ‘This is us, the audience, coming to you,’ says Michael.

He considers Sasha’s entrance. ‘The first entrance is a fleeting moment when Orlando catches sight of something.’ He’s keen to allow the actors time to consolidate what they’ve discovered at this stage: ‘Let’s just go back on that so you get one more chance to do it this week.’ He suggests Millie practise her skating – ‘We should do it once more…’ Beginning to draw the work on this scene to a close, Michael praises the actors: ‘Do you know what? That is a beautiful place to leave that this week.’ He leaves them with some thoughts for next time: ‘I’m just going to encourage you, when you’re finding the images, to take your time with it – enjoy it. It’s an incredible image: an old woman petrified in ice. It will find its rhythm.’

Michael suggests they run the scene once more to film it for Ben Wright (Movement Director) to enable him to decide which moment to focus on when he’s next in rehearsals. Associate Director Anna Girvan does this. There is a query about a small piece of staging in relation to the script and Neil gives Michael and the actors permission to do what they need – ‘The writer doesn’t care,’ he quips. Michael says to Emma and Millie: ‘You two have just got to have the confidence to play out this quite considerable scene before going into the banquet.’ 

The rest of the cast is instrumental in setting up the next part of the scene – the banquet. ‘What happens then,’ says Michael, ‘is a moment of “Virginia choreography”.’ He talks to Greg and the other members of Stage Management about what he wants – ‘Just so you know what’s happening here…’ While Michael confers with them, Neil talks to Emma about the text and Orlando’s character. He then briefly discusses some possible cuts to the script with Michael. Anna makes notes about what they need to focus on next in rehearsals, in response to Michael’s comment, ‘So, things I need to do…’ 

They turn their attention to the banquet taking place upstage, on the other side of a large table, while Orlando and Sasha sit talking quietly to each other nearest the audience. ‘There’ll be something to help you there,’ says Michael to Emma and Millie, ‘all the food will be on the table already.’ He wonders, ‘Is there a moment of connection that needs to be around a prop?’ He refers to Sasha’s request that Orlando pass the salt, asking Millie: ‘Why are you asking for salt?’ He’s mindful of not wanting the exchange between Orlando and Sasha to be lost in an attempt to realistically depict a banquet: ‘If the scene becomes about eating a meal it detracts from the scene itself.’ Millie agrees: ‘I had a thought similar to that. Can we try it in scene?’ Michael responds enthusiastically: ‘We love trying it in scene! We don’t want more talk.’ The actors play the scene again, Millie trying different ways to entice Emma. Afterwards Michael comments, ‘That’s good, that’s nice.’ He wonders, ‘What has Sasha decided about Orlando at this point?’ 

The rest of the cast will join the rehearsal shortly, prompting Michael to reflect: ‘The only thing I’m not sure about is what to do with the other diners at the banquet? We’ll need them to do some “Russian” acting when they come on. Alex Baranowski (Composer) could create some music to accompany it.’ He and Neil are mindful that it mustn’t upstage the scene between Orlando and Sasha. ‘It needs to turn right down there,’ says Neil. While he and Michael discuss this, Emma and Millie swap ideas too. Meanwhile, Stage Management assemble the large double-bed used in this scene and throughout the play, which has just arrived. Neil is looking at the script again. ‘Michael, I think I’ve been too prescriptive with my stage-directions there.’ He turns to Millie: ‘ “Seeing his dismay…” is too prescriptive – it tells you what to act. I’d like to change it.’ He also gives Emma a note about where Orlando might find the motivation to speak a specific line – in Sasha’s eyes.

Looking ahead to the next section of the scene, in which the multiple Virginias circulate around Orlando and Sasha, Michael asks Neil which of them speaks and when: ‘In your head, is that separate Virginias or a Greek chorus?’ Neil thinks each line should be delivered by an individual Virginia, rather than all of them speaking in unison. ‘I’ll get the Virginias to do a time-swipe at the end of the previous scene,’ suggests Michael. ‘That’s something for Ben Wright to do.’ He’s pleased with the progress Emma and Millie have made so far: ‘That’s a good sketch for me. For weeks two, three and four, we’ll need to make sure we’re selling those Russian details.’

There’s a short break, during which the other members of the cast arrive. While actors make hot drinks and eat snacks, waiting to start, Neil walks around the room, script and pen in hand, making minor adjustments to the text. Afterwards, he outlines the changes to Anna, who notes them down to ensure the rehearsal draft of the play is accurate and up-to-date. Stage Management confer over details and Michael and Neil have a further brief discussion about the scenes they’re rehearsing today. The break over, the full cast assemble, sitting on chairs in front of Michael. He wonders whether he’s distributed Virginia’s lines for this scene, noting that there are a couple of actors missing today – ‘We’re two Virginias down.’ He asks Anna to note this: ‘Remind me when we’re delegating lines.’ Michael then distributes lines to the Virginias, the actors noting this in their scripts. With Neil in rehearsals this week, there are opportunities to experiment with the text and explore. ‘Try all of you saying the line, “Deceiver”,’ suggests Michael. The cast are equally responsive, highlighting whether a particular Virginia line they’re given contradicts a later one within the scene.

Michael considers the transition from the Virginias’ entrance to their part in peopling the background of the banquet scene, counseling them to avoid upstaging the exchange between Orlando and Sasha with overt ‘Russian’ acting: ‘When we come on, we’ll do all the language of who we are, but when we sit down we’ll form a painting.’ Actor Lucy Briers, playing one of the Virginias, wonders if this is a unique moment within the play: ‘Is this the only time in the script when the Virginias put on an element of costume? A character?’ Michael suggests that this is possibly an example of the author collaborating in the telling of the tale – ‘Her story needs to come alive.’ 

They then read through the scene to hear the distribution of lines, Michael calling everyone to attention with his customary, ‘Here we go… Thank you!’ During the reading, he adds in the underscoring of a tolling bell. Afterwards, he reflects on what did and didn’t work: ‘Two tiny little observations to my ears… It wasn’t nice breaking up that line. I need to hear the whole scene a couple of times, with the staging, to know if it works.’ Neil wants to redistribute some lines and Michael agrees – ‘Yes, Mrs G is silent for too long.’ Neil is appreciative of the cast’s hard work: ‘Can I just say something? I get the shivers just hearing you say it in the thick of the story. You’ve brought so much to the table.’ Michael concurs: ‘You’re right because it’s not often a company has it so instinctively right so early on.’

They then turn their attention to practical matters, such as entrances and exits and the Virginias doubling-up as other characters. ‘I’m just going to flag that in six pages’ time I’m going to be a Naval Officer,’ says Lucy. This means she needs time to change costume. Michael turns to Neil: ‘Do you think I could bring Richard (Cant) back on to be a Coroner?’ It’s another example of their close collaboration that Neil replies, ‘I was just about to suggest that’. He then makes other suggestions for redistributing Virginia’s lines to give Michael greater flexibility within the scene. Neil also takes this opportunity to correct any typos in the script.

‘Let’s put it all together,’ suggests Michael and the cast get into position, gathering in the ‘wings’ of the room. There’s a real sense of camaraderie amongst the company with lots of energy and good humour as the actors talk and pass props to one another. ‘Here we go…’ says Michael to focus everyone, Company Stage Manager Greg Shimmin reinforcing this by calling out, ‘We’re back!’ The cast settle and run the scene. Occasionally, Michael might make a suggestion: ‘Virginias, that’s when you react to that… On these lines, you’re acting as a cinematic swipe.’ 

Afterwards, he’s pleased with the progress they’ve made: ‘Great. It’s a version of that. That’s a nice sketch for now.’ He encourages the Virginias to experiment more with some of the blocking in relation to the text: ‘You can actually be less logical about moving on a line.’ He gives some specific notes: ‘Take a step in as Mrs G goes off… It’s about all of you literally pulling focus… I wouldn’t mind having all of you saying, “Oh, yes” there.’ 

Michael then gives several actors individual notes: ‘That’s a bit of staging we need to work on – we can explore that with just you… I know there’s a version of that you can do for us as an aside.’ He plans to return to the scene later: ‘I’m going to choreograph that next week. Very, very good, though. Lots to do but that helped me enormously, and it showed you that you’ll be on stage throughout that scene.’ This brings the morning session to a close and the company break for lunch.