| Inside the Rehearsal Room

Week One

Education Associate Dominic Francis provides an insight into the cast and Creative Team’s rehearsal process for The Cripple of Inishmaan

Week One, Day One

Following the traditional ‘Meet and Greet’, which marks the beginning of all rehearsals in the Michael Grandage Company’s opening season, Michael addresses the cast and immediate Creative Team. He recalls being at the opening night of the original production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, in 1996 at the National Theatre. He thought then, as he does now, that it’s, ‘A Great play with a capital “g”!’

Next to Michael is the author, Martin McDonagh, who’ll be in rehearsals for the first week and then return at the end of the fifth. Michael explains that Martin hasn’t authorised a professional production of The Cripple of Inishmaan in the UK since the original. ‘That means the majority of our audience won’t have seen this play, so they’ll be coming to it as a new piece. That’s exactly how we’ll approach it – as a new play.’

He reflects that a lot has changed in society over the past seventeen years, including the culture of theatre itself. ‘We’re all living in a short-cut world now. A three-hour show was more common in 1996.’ Michael thinks this is partly an issue of changing styles and attitudes.

Martin doesn’t want to say too much about the play before rehearsals begin. ‘It offers an opportunity to create great characters with real depth,’ observes Michael. ‘The single greatest pleasure of being a director is sitting in a room with actors building a character.’ Between them, Michael and Martin address the issue of the play as comedy, Michael suggesting that humour can get in the way of the ‘underbelly’ of the drama. ‘No one in the play thinks they’re funny or a cartoon character,’ says Martin. ‘They’re real so it needs to be played truthfully.’ Michael adds, ‘We shouldn’t need to do much outside of a line to find the humour – it’s all verbal’.

The issue of the Irish, or more specifically Inishmaan, accent was raised and Martin reveals he wouldn’t particularly know what one sounds like. Ultimately, he says, they all have to sound like they come from the same place, which Michael describes as, ‘Bringing us into one world’. Michael highlights the reality of the current production: ‘We must be aware of performing it in London in 2013. Accents must be authentic but understandable.’ Voice Coach Penny Dyer adds, ‘Historical accuracy can lead to hysterical accuracy’. She has prepared information sheets and accompanying CDs to enable the cast to hear and learn the accent.

Summing up, Michael encourages the actors to, ‘Throw yourselves at it instinctively – do what you do’. And he reminds them that in rehearsals there’s no such thing as a stupid question: ‘Ask anything, assume nothing.’

Week One, Day Four

Today the cast are rehearsing scenes eight to nine, during which the islanders gather to watch the screening of The Man of Aran. They focus particularly upon the ending of Scene Eight, when Billy returns unannounced from America. Reference is made to a recent discussion in a production meeting about the use of blood bags in the fight between Billy and Bobby, the climax of the scene. Eventually these were decided against, the actors – Daniel Radcliffe and Padraic Delaney – compensating with strong physicality and loud vocal reactions instead. 

group watching during theatre rehearsals
The Cripple of Inishmaan rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

As always Michael monitors all blocking, advising the cast on their positioning on stage. ‘Help yourselves there, you two,’ he might say to a couple of actors, before adding: ‘It would have been better if I’d put you elsewhere.’ Repositioning Dan centre-stage, he comments, ‘This is such a strong position for you to take the audience in, and for them to take you in’. Getting the actors off stage at the end of a scene is less complicated – ‘We can just revolve you out,’ explains Michael.

Author Martin McDonagh is present throughout the first week of rehearsals and Michael takes this opportunity to clarify incidents and events within the play. For example, when Billy considers the life of a film star: ‘This moment in the script, it’s just a reflection on what might have been?’ Or: ‘When you originally wrote that, did you do it to help a director?’

Having finished work on Scene Eight, Stage Management set up for Scene Nine – the last of the play. This is time-consuming as the set for the shop incorporates several large items, including a counter and shelving. On stage it would simply revolve out, revealing another location, but in the rehearsal room it requires all of Stage Management, plus Associate Director Kate Budgen and any willing actors to move it. While this happens, Michael talks one-to-one with Dan, sharing notes on the previous scene.

theatre rehearsals in a rehearsal room
Daniel Radcliffe and Michael Grandage in rehearsals for The Cripple of Inishmaan. Photo: Marc Brenner

Work on Scene Nine begins with the actors sitting on chairs facing Michael. Either side of him are Martin, Kate and Deputy Stage Manager Rhiannon Harper. They read through the scene once, following which Michael asks: ‘Anything textually, Martin?’ He suggests cutting the line, ‘A big old hemp sack like one of them there, it was.’ With hindsight he thinks it’s, ‘Too much exposition’.

The scene starts with the Doctor bandaging Billy’s head, following his fight with Bobby. Based on later comments made by Helen – ‘You look a fecking fool in all that get-up, Cripple Billy’ – Michael realises that Billy is covered in a lot of bandages. The issue of the precise time at the start of the scene is raised. It’s agreed that there’s a ‘little distance’ between Bobby’s beating of Billy in Scene Eight and the start of Scene Nine.

actors during theatre rehearsals
The Cripple of Inishmaan rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Other questions asked of the scene include: How does the Doctor know Jim Finnegan’s daughter is a ‘slut’? Did he simply treat her or has he had a more particular experience? Martin doesn’t think so.

‘Do you want it to be that bleak at the end?’ Dan asks him. He argues for Billy being more hopeful after his kiss with Helen. Martin suggests, however, that this would be eclipsed by the Doctor’s unofficial confirmation of Billy’s TB earlier in the scene.

There’s a discussion about whether Billy overhears Kate and Eileen’s conversation regarding the true story of his parents’ death. The actors ask Martin to clarify events. ‘To the ear it sounds like it’s unresolved,’ observes Michael. ‘My feeling was that there must have been bodies,’ suggests Martin. Earlier in the scene Eileen appears to give Johnny permission to tell Billy the story, or rather a version of it – ‘Why?’ asks the cast. It’s suggested Eileen does so precisely because she can see Johnny is going to embellish the truth.

Next, Martin asks questions of the actors to clarify details. He focuses on Helen’s re-entrance at the end of the scene, following Billy’s suggestion that they go out walking together. ‘Just a question,’ he says, addressing actress Sarah Greene. ‘Why does she come back?’ This is considered for a moment, Michael commenting, ‘I got a whiff during that first reading that something appeals to her vanity’. Martin adds to this: ‘I’m going to throw it out there… She was probably interested earlier.’ This connects with Michael’s earlier thought: ‘He’s probably the only boy on the island who can read for a start.’ He encourages Sarah to explore the idea: ‘It’s ambiguous, that’s what’s nice about it. It gives you something to play with.’

actors during theatre rehearsals
The Cripple of Inishmaan rehearsals. Photo: Marc Brenner

Following this discussion, the actors stand up and start putting the scene ‘on its feet’. Michael encourages all of them to, ‘Remember, the scene itself needs to become the dialogue it is’. He looks at the blocking, wanting to find a way to get Dan out of the chair – where he’s seated being treated by the Doctor – to shake hands with Johnny. ‘There might be a moment much earlier when you can get up, Dan.’

Focusing on Billy’s reaction to Johnny’s story – ‘It was for me they killed themselves?’ – Michael says to Dan: ‘That’s a line you don’t need to do for him. It’s out of your discovery.’

At the end of the scene, Billy starts to fill a sack with tinned peas. As Dan is playing him with only one fully-functioning arm, the difficulty of fastening a sack single-handed becomes apparent. ‘We need to see Billy tying the cord,’ observes Michael, reflecting: ‘There’s a little scene by itself, the story being, “I’m doing something in order to be able to drown myself”.’

When Helen returns unexpectedly what should Billy do with the sack? Quickly take it off? Dan asks whether he removes it once Helen has gone, to show he’s made a decision – to live. There’s a brief discussion between Michael and Martin about whether Billy can keep the sack on him, possibly hiding it behind his back. ‘It’s raised a number of issues,’ says Michael. ‘Not least, how many tins of peas do you need to drown yourself?’ He says he’ll break the scene down into sections for the next rehearsal in order to avoid calling actors unnecessarily. ‘We’ll come back to it and work our way through it properly.’