| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week One, Day Five

The first week’s rehearsal ends with an afternoon session with Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, played by Olly Alexander and Ruby Bentall respectively. There are fewer people here today than at the start of the week and consequently the rehearsal room feels more intimate. 

actors during theatre rehearsals
Ruby Bentall and Olly Alexander during Peter and Alice rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

The two actors sit on chairs close to Michael. Seated at a table next to him are Associate Director Timothy Koch and Deputy Stage Manager Clare Fisher. Michael begins by reflecting on the fictional Peter and Alice: ‘You are the title-characters of the play as well. You echo the relationship of the real-life Peter and Alice. In their grown-up selves joining up, these two join up.’

They work through all the scenes featuring Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, Michael asking: ‘Now what’s going on here?’ His questions range from how old the characters are, to clarifying details from the books by JM Barrie and Lewis Carroll – for example, ‘Does Alice in Wonderland ever suggest she likes “gallants”?’ in response to Peter Pan’s taunts that, “That’s the sort you like”.’

After the actors read each scene, Michael pauses to reflect and offer notes. ‘Just a couple of things I’d like you to look at technically there – articulating.’ He encourages the actors to ‘invest’ in a particular line: ‘Don’t make it declamatory, rhetorical – keep it alive.’ Later he comments that John Logan may remove some of the exclamation marks within their dialogue, meanwhile he tells them not to play them. He suggests different emphases and encourages the actors to ‘play around with them’.

Michael works through the script methodically, commenting: ‘At this stage it’s all about taking time.’ The actors respond to the notes, offering different readings of lines, to which Michael comments: ‘You need to do a version of that.’ In terms of the text’s appeal to the senses, its visual or ‘filmic’ quality, he says: ‘Get each individual image in every line very clear – treat us to an image all the time.’

Focusing on specific moments, such as Peter’s interjection, “How clever I am!” in the scene where the real-life Peter and Alice discuss the First World War, Michael asks: ‘Where does that line come from?’ Again meaning and interpretation are discussed, Michael observing that Peter’s statement, “Then I went mad” triggers something – Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland ‘confer’ over it. ‘The arc of the play is Alice Liddell Hargreaves refusing to open the door on her childhood,’ he suggests. ‘Peter has left his door open and now encourages her to do the same.’

Michael reflects upon the challenge of the tone Olly has to achieve when he officially reports the deaths of the real-life Alice’s sons, who were killed in action. He also questions who Ruby is meant to be in this scene, wondering whether she’s a ‘shadow’ for the real-life Alice? In his absence John has allowed Michael to move lines to assist, for example, the ‘contrivance of the exit of Lewis Carroll’. In this way Michael endeavours to keep the storytelling – the interaction between the two worlds, past and present – as clear as possible.

Reaching the final scene, he describes some of Alice in Wonderland’s lines as ‘mature’, the young girl now depicting the adult Wendy from Peter Pan. ‘You’re almost being a narrator there,’ he observes. ‘You’ll need to adopt a more mature tone, especially for the line, “What do you think growing up will be like?”’’

Michael’s keen to ensure that the real-life Peter and Alice remain a strong presence during the closing moments of the play, while their fictitious counterparts discuss getting old. ‘There’s some part of me that wants Peter and Alice invested in it,’ he says. ‘We’ll have to play with the tone. If we’ve done everything right until this point it’ll work.’

actors during theatre rehearsals
Ruby Bentall and Olly Alexander during Peter and Alice rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Bringing the rehearsal to a close, Michael concludes: ‘That’s not answered everything for the rest of the five weeks but it’s a start.’ Looking ahead, he comments: ‘One thing we have to get out of the play is the menace.’ Michael says that John refers to Peter Pan as a ‘demon’.