| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week Three, Day Two

The third week of rehearsals introduces a new pace. Returning to scenes previously covered, Michael and the cast explore each in more detail. They continue by looking at another exchange of letters between Don and Rosalind. Michael’s keen to ‘lift’ all of the correspondence within the play so that it finds its true place. He questions a moment in Don’s speech – ‘I just love… I mean does the X-ray camera ever seem like it’s just an extension of your own eye…’: ‘Do the three dots after “I just love” mean you can’t go on? It’d be great to try that and see how your character tries to move on.’ 

Michael’s keen to define each moment. Moving on to the following scene, in which Rosalind confronts Maurice for apparently claiming her findings as his own, he asks Nicole: ‘Could you come tight in on Ray’s line, “The helix was… beautiful” with your, “Flushed with pride, are we?” ’ 

The cast will run a section and then go back on it. ‘Well done, let’s do it again,’ says Michael. ‘Let’s, as they say, “practice it”. It’s not wrong, it’s all in the right place.’ The atmosphere is concentrated, with actors questioning details while offering suggestions to help make a moment work – ‘Would you like it if I went upstage?’ Michael will consider the overall shape of the scene before adding his thoughts, prefacing his comments with, ‘I’d love it if…’ He’ll then make a suggestion to help define a specific moment. Here he asks Stephen to give his line, ‘I didn’t say it quite like that’ to Ray and not the audience. He also focuses on details in the text, making sure the lines are being delivered accurately – ‘X-ray diffraction’ not ‘diffractions’ – and that all pronunciations are English not American.

‘Very good, that’s the best yet,’ says Michael after another run through. ‘You were talking to each other.’ He focuses on the opening exchange between Don and Rosalind, asking Nicole: ‘Is there a moment you get hooked in the letter?’ She considers this: ‘I’m kind of listening the whole time, it’s cumulative.’ They do it again. At the end of the encounter between Rosalind and Maurice – her line, ‘Neither do I!’ – Michael says to Nicole: ‘I think that has to be a change of scene for you.’ He reminds the actors that such moments will be supported and enhanced by the other elements of production: ‘I can help you here. I can put in a moment, a transition – a light change – to help you breathe.’

Occasionally the Deputy Stage Manager, Sharon Hobden, who notes all of the blocking in her script, will remind the actors, if asked, of their positioning in previous rehearsals. Michael may also ask an actor about a choice they’ve made, such as a specific move: ‘Were you offering that to help time it? I think it’s better we get the rhythm right.’ The process is one of running and re-running a section in order to finesse it – ‘Let’s just do it and see what happens… That would work. Let’s do it again.’                       

The transition from this scene into the next, in which Rosalind shows Ray the increasing detail of her photographs, proves challenging. It’s set in the same place, the laboratory, an unspecified amount of time later and Nicole needs to get from Rosalind’s frustration and anger towards Maurice to her excitement over the images. Michael enlists the assistance of the other actors: ‘Stephen, you can help here with Maurice’s exit…’ 

He thinks the transition needs to be more marked – ‘There’s a much bigger beat there.’ Watching it again, Michael believes there’s a better version to be found. ‘It’s not so good at the end, it doesn’t quite rise to it. It deflates the anger – it releases the air and let’s the tension out. I missed the last three lines being a climax.’ He considers some earlier blocking: ‘I would like to re-instate your cross. It acts as a better swipe to the end of the scene.’ They rehearse it again. Michael is pleased with the results: ‘Yes, that works. It’s a real pressure cooker. I like that version, so unless you’re really desperate I don’t need to rehearse another one. Let me just perfect that.’

Working through the following exchange between Rosalind and Ray, in which they study the new photographs, there’s a decision to re-instate a cut line to help clarify the storytelling. Michael and the actors also discuss the science once more, to make sure everybody fully understands it. ‘We should just do that scene again,’ he says to Nicole and Joshua, ‘and know which lines you’re giving to each other.’ They run it again, following which Michael comments: ‘That was good, you were really on it, it really flowed.’ Of Ray, he observes: ‘Gosling partly is a comic device, which we, the audience, enjoy.’

actor head and shoulders portrait
Behind the scenes on Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

Turning his attention to Don’s speech at the end of the scene, which marks the transition into the next, Michael encourages Patrick Kennedy to embrace Don’s thought-process about the two DNA forms and how he expresses that – ‘They’d been looking at one on top of the other, like… well, a man and women making love…’: ‘Enjoy that, let Don appreciate it, but don’t let it become only an analogy.’  

The next scene depicts the conversation between Maurice, Francis and James in a pub in Cambridge, Maurice having visited them to get away from work in London and his strained relationship with Rosalind. ‘Can I ask a question?’ says Will Attenborough. ‘What has Maurice told us about her before coming?’ They discuss this before running the scene. Afterwards, Michael congratulates the actors: ‘You really know that very well and it’s starting to flow beautifully, just always avoid doing too much. It’s better when it’s simpler.’ Stephen wants to clarify the moment where Maurice ‘sees’ Rosalind while attempting to describe her to Francis and James. ‘Are you asking that we make sure the audience is clear she’s in your mind’s eye?’ says Michael. ‘Yes,’ replies Stephen and a note is made of this.

They then return to the scene in which Francis and James invite Maurice, Rosalind and Ray to Cambridge to see their DNA model. Recalling the earlier rehearsal, Michael comments: ‘This is the scene where we discovered that laughter is actually a big release.’ Thinking about the circumstances of it, he asks the actors: ‘Can we play that we’re just joining you at the beginning of the meeting.’ He also suggests that this scene presents a rare opportunity for Maurice and Rosalind to connect in their complete rejection of Francis and James’ flawed findings. He then asks Ed and Will: ‘Can you make sure your dejection happens in the moment? Don’t decide you’re dejected before you are. It’s their rejection of your model that makes you d ejected.’ He encourages Nicole to ‘really humiliate them with that line, “DNA absorbs at least ten times more water than that”‘.

Having run it again, Michael consults the cast on the developing scene – ‘Everyone OK with all that?’ – before releasing some of the actors early. He then works through several exchanges between Rosalind and Ray, including the moment he rushes in to show her Photograph 51 for the first time. To emphasise the excitement of the moment, Michael asks Joshua: ‘I wondered whether you’re breathless even?’

Focusing on Rosalind’s following speech, in which she relates the career advice of her father – ‘You must never be wrong. In once instance, you could lose all you’ve achieved…’ – Michael encourages Nicole to ground it in the moment of discovering the helix: ‘Relate that to the photo in that last line. You don’t need to look at it, just make that connection.’

Of Don’s next letter to Rosalind, which comes at the end of a particularly bitter exchange between her and Maurice, Michael comments to Patrick: ‘Remember, in the structure of the play, you’re a breath of completely different energy here.’ 

In addition to mining the text and the characters’ motivations, Michael remains consistently focused on stagecraft, commenting to actors: ‘A tiny technical thing, it would be nice if you could contrive to be downstage… Just make sure you’re front end on that line…’

Bringing the day’s rehearsal to a close, Michael praises the cast once more on their progress: ‘You’re starting to take ownership now. You seem to understand the territory with real confidence. Keep going.’