| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week Two, Day Two

Returning to the rehearsal room a week later, I note that the actors are now ‘off-book’ having learnt most of their lines. They’re evidently freer to interact with each other, allowing everyone to work in more detail, including Michael who ensures the cast are accurate on their lines and pronunciation. He asks Will Attenborough, playing James Watson: ‘Do you think you should have a little more incredulity about, “Her place in history”?’ Discussing the options available, Michael concludes: ‘Make a bigger choice, keep it alive.’ 

actor listening
Behind the scenes on Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

The scene is run again, Michael calling everyone to order with his usual – ‘One more time… Thank you.’ Afterwards, he seems pleased with the shape of it. ‘Certainly this is working on all levels.’ Stephen Campbell-Moore, playing Maurice, wants to make sure he understands all of the science. It’s a supportive environment with colleagues taking the time to explain the details to each other. ‘This is the scene in which the “A” and the “B” forms are named,’ suggests Michael. It transpires that Anna has made further revisions to the script following her discussion with Professor Brian Sutton and these are clarified. 

actors interacting
Behind the scenes on Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

Michael observes that in this scene with Rosalind, Maurice is not being allowed a way in. ‘This is a playwright showing just the essential elements of a breakdown in relations between Maurice and Rosalind. They’ve obviously just had a big bust-up and the author allows the audience to assume this is where we’ve got to. It’s good writing because it means we don’t have to go back to explain anything.’

During short breaks between scenes, the actors run lines amongst themselves, Michael occasionally clarifying the meaning of individual words or phrases. ‘What you just said makes sense. It’s whether you can make it make sense to us.’ Often he’ll share a thought with the cast: ‘Question… Since you’re all finding grace notes, what colour can we add to this particular moment?’

They run a short scene in which Maurice pays a social visit to his old friend Francis, plus James, in Cambridge. Afterwards, Michael comments: ‘You did that entirely conversationally. It was relaxed in a very believable way. Hold onto that. Write it in your scripts or you’ll forget.’ He considers the ‘business’ of the scene – buying drinks in the pub – and wonders if there’s a better solution to Francis exiting and re-entering with glasses: ‘I know when we get into the theatre that’ll mean you going into the wings and we won’t like that.’

Michael also listens carefully to the nuances in Jim Watson’s language, in particular his probing of Maurice regarding Rosalind’s findings – ‘So you really think it’s a helix?’ He counsels caution to both actor and character: ‘Find another way to manoeuvre into that, without it being a mallet over the head.’ Will Attenborough does it again and Michael responds positively.

actor looking at scientific slide
Behind the scenes on Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

He focuses on Francis and James’ observation and unfavourable critique of Rosalind. ‘We need to see Watson and Crick dissecting her,’ suggests Michael. ‘The enjoyment of that… What’s the attitude there? Can you turn up the colours?’ He makes sure the dialogue is rooted in the moment – ‘Go off what you’re seeing.’ Michael likes to consolidate the work at the end of a session: ‘We’ll just do that scene one more time so it’s in your bodies physically.’

While focused on the characters’ motivations, he also monitors the actors’ technique: ‘We’re just running away with the sentence there… Slow it down a little.’ He strives to make sure the storytelling is clear, particularly in terms of what the audience need to see and hear, saying of certain lines: ‘It follows on the heels of the previous one, it’s in the air with it.’ 

Next they look at the scene in which Francis and James present their, ultimately inaccurate, model of the structure of DNA to Maurice, Rosalind and Ray. There’s some discussion about how the model itself will be represented and its position on stage. ‘Everything in the production is abstracted in some form and so I’d like to achieve it with light so characters can walk into, around it and through it,’ suggests Michael. He highlights the challenge of this particular part of the play: ‘This is a difficult scene because we’re cutting into the heart of it.’ For Francis and James, this is a critical moment – ‘There’s a lot at stake for both of you.’

early scientific model of structure of DNA
Behind the scenes on Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

The actors run the scene again. Michael responds – ‘It’s getting better all the time. The only thing I don’t believe…’ And he returns to the characters’ inspection of the model: ‘They’re so detailed, you need to look at it very closely.’ Nicole asks if they can see a photograph of Watson and Crick’s ‘bad’ model and Associate Director John Haidar finds one online, which everyone gathers round to look at before playing the scene again.

actors interacting
Behind the scenes on Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

Michael turns his attention back to Francis and James: ‘The overall thing here is that there’s two men in the room who are moderately nervous.’ He reminds Will and Ed to differentiate their responses to the others’ reaction – ‘Watson’s a different person to Crick and we must remember that. You’re not Watson and Crick like salt ‘n’ vinegar.’

Exploring the response of Maurice, Rosalind and Ray to the model, Michael comments: ‘If we were doing the less subtle version of this scene, you three from King’s who have come to Cambridge would just laugh at it. That would help the audience understand.’ It’s agreed they take a moment to explore that version, which turns out to transform the scene. Michael suggests they hold on to it and use it. Focusing on the gravity of Rosalind’s reaction, and her general lack of interest in anecdotes and gossip, he then comments: ‘She’s fascinating in that respect. She’s almost humourless. She just wants the facts.’ Having run through the scene again, he takes time to praise the actors’ skill in putting it on its feet: ‘That was a glorious piece of instinctive staging from all of you.’ 

Following a conversation with Anna, Ed discusses a possible revision to the text, substituting the word ‘arse’ or ‘pillock’ for ‘prat’ in Francis’ dismissal of Maurice – ‘Even at university, Wilkins could be a patronizing prat.’ Michael’s agreeable, counseling Ed to ‘let the actor know it’s a funny line, but don’t let the character go there’. In the following exchange between Francis and James about the race to discover the secret of DNA, Michael observes: ‘Crick suddenly gets a bit saintly – “I don’t want to win…” ’ He wonders how that ought to be played. With these smaller scenes, featuring just two characters, Michael encourages the actors to use the whole space: ‘On a big stage, the wider you go, the more powerful it is. The air between you is the most potent thing you have and it’s more exciting to watch.’     

He’s always careful to maintain a fidelity to the play’s setting, commenting with amusement to one actor: ‘That’s a very modern reading of “amazing”… You may just as well have said “amazeballs”! Can you give us a more 1950s’ version?’ This is the moment where Rosalind’s decisive photo, marking the turning point in all DNA research, is revealed. Michael observes: ‘The “Photograph 51” moment comes exactly halfway through our play.’ He wants to ensure it has the right quality, saying to the cast – ‘This moment has to be about tension not melodrama’.

Drawing the rehearsal to a close, Michael’s pleased with what they’ve achieved: ‘A good day. But it’s only a good day if you absorb what we’ve done, so that when we come back to it we can keep moving forward.’