| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week Three, Day Two

In the third week of rehearsals the actors’ understudies are present, observing rehearsals until 4pm, then attending separate understudy rehearsals until 6.30pm. Voice Coach Penny Dyer is also in today, working with individual actors during the afternoon. She has one-to-one conversations with them, giving brief notes. Over lunch some actors sit quietly by themselves looking at their scripts, or read one of the many research books in the room.

This afternoon Michael’s returning to the first scene of the play, featuring Peter and Alice. ‘So this is a consolidation, an accumulation of all the work we’ve done so far,’ he explains. Ben and Judi run sections until Michael says: ‘Good, let’s stop there. They’re just a couple of things I want to pick up on.’ He’ll focus on details, such as the structure of a speech – the through-line of the thought behind it. Michael’s role, partly, is to observe and analyse. ‘Is there any…’ he might start a sentence, continuing: ‘I don’t think there is, but if I don’t ask the question it’ll never get asked.’

people talking during theatre rehearsals
Michael Grandage during Peter and Alice rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Michael focuses on the opening moment of the scene, saying to Ben: ‘Until she starts talking it certainly was a “pleasure” to meet her.’ He observes of one of Judi’s monologues: ‘It’s a phenomenally difficult, contracted speech.’ To which she replies: ‘It’s picking out the bones of it.’ It’s noted that Peter is preventing Alice from entering the bookshop.

They run another section, following which Michael says, ‘A couple of things…’ He asks Judi: ‘Where do you get, “In your element, Mr Davies” from? Secondly, “Everything associated with the Centenary…” connecting that with, “Momentarily, yes…”.’ He wonders to what extent the centenary even registers in Alice’s life? Focusing on Peter’s line, “But we all grow old!… That’s the story of our lives: the one immutable; the one inescapable”, Michael counsels Ben: ‘Make sure you don’t rush over “immutable” to get to “inescapable”, they’re two separate things.’

actors holding scripts in rehearsals
Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench during Peter and Alice rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

He considers inserting a pause before Alice’s line, “In your element, Mr Davies”, asking Judi: ‘Can you bear to leave that just a little longer?’ He suggests adding some noise from the guests in the shop, which would give Alice an opportunity to look at the books. ‘Would that help?’ asks Michael. He’s keen to fully explore the tension between the two characters: ‘We’re not really treating ourselves to the hell of being alone in a room together without much between you. In fact, there’s a lot between you but we don’t know that yet. Let’s not play that.’ He concentrates on immediate objectives, saying to Judi: ‘Your point of gravity is to get through that wretched door as soon as possible.’

Michael encourages Judi to be on her ‘front foot’ during Alice’s long speech, “With me, it has been a wholly happy connection…” rather than reflective. He suggests Peter finds her speech – her story – ‘inadequate’, adding his own, “Let me tell you the rest of the story…” Michael reflects on the tone of the dialogue inbetween: ‘The filling between the sandwich of these two speeches is very witty.’ From that moment on, he says, ‘The stakes have to go higher’.

actors during theatre rehearsals
Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw during Peter and Alice rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Ben observes that the scene, until this point, can’t simply be about setting up the contrast between past and present. ‘We need to be invaded by the memories rather than preparing the way for them. It’s better for Peter if I stay on the book and then the memories come crashing in.’ Of his last line of this section – “Who but me? Peter and Alice” – Michael comments: ‘It needs a little help there.’ His ear listens for details, small emphases or inflections on words: “Following hard on the smile of remembrance is the pain in the eyes.”

Michael encourages the actors to challenge each other more in this opening exchange, commenting to Ben: ‘You shouldn’t be able to get away with, “As a publisher I’ve an obligation to tell the truth”.’ Unusually he tries an exercise in which he asks Ben and Judi to sit in chairs facing one another. He encourages Judi to, ‘Really let him have it’. Both actors feel the exercise helps them unlock things in the text. ‘If you can find that moment,’ says Michael, ‘you somehow open up the next.’ He reflects on the excitement for onlookers of seeing two strangers going at each other. Of the exercise above, Michael encourages Ben and Judi to, ‘Remember that in the learning of it’.