Great Expectations: The beginning stages… blog from Assistant Director Martin Leonard
Meeting one another for the first time…
We begin day one with a meet and greet, attended by the entire cast and creative team, including Lucy Bailey (Director), Mike Britten (Designer), Emma Laxton (Sound Designer) as well as members of the Playhouse team, such as Suzi Cubbage (Head of Production) and Victoria Marzetti (Head of Wardrobe).
The first read-through
Following the meet and greet we all sit down for the first read through of the adaptation. This is important as it will be the first time the cast will hear the script in full and brought to life by the actors.
Revealing the set model box…
Next there is a showing of the model box, at which Lucy and Mike explain their concept for the production.
Great Expectations is a big story and even though Michael Eaton (Adaptor) has managed to condense it into a two and a half hour play, there are still 51 scenes. This would be cumbersome to represent in a naturalistic way as having scenery flying in and out constantly would hamper the pacing and flow of the performance. Therefore the design for the set is more expressionist: it invokes the shape of a Hulk, using dark splintered wood and a curved, raking stage, a top a marshy clay-like floor. The structure itself will revolve, the idea being that scenes flow efficiently into each other and seamlessly transport the audience from the marshes, to Satis House, and then to London. The model box is a perfectly to scale representation of the set in miniature and gives a great sense of the way the production will look and the atmosphere that it will create.
The world of Great Expectations: An actor’s research…
It’s vital to get a sense of the world inhabited by Pip, Miss Havisham and Magwitch. As a group we allocate research tasks between the actors – this involves an aspect of the character’s profession or something important or impactful in their lives.
For instance Anthony (Wopsle), looks into Georgian theatres, while Ian (Magwitch) looks at punishment. Doing research in this way is useful in allowing the actors to imagine more clearly the world of the play. It also helps us understand practical information; how much would a pound be worth in today’s money? How far is Rochester from London? Some of the research may also illuminate parts of the text and also provide more interesting choices for the actors in their portrayals of the characters. Shanaya (Estella) looked into how Finishing School could have affected her character’s physicality, by teaching her to stand and move in a certain way. This research is then kept and displayed on the walls of the rehearsal room.
Creating a character’s timeline…
The actors begin to construct their own timeline of events and form back stories for each character, using evidence from the script and their imaginations to fill in any gaps. We form a timeline of events, from each character’s birth, until we have pinpointed a date for every event in the play. We begin to go through the play reading each scene in greater detail. Stopping to ask questions of the text and clarify any confusions or discrepancies in our knowledge. This is particularly important with Dickens, as his narratives are usually tightly plotted, with characters often tied together in complicated knots that slowly get unravelled as the play progresses.
Working with the creative team…
The first week also includes initial sessions with the Movement Director, Fight Directors, Accent Coach and Composer.
Sarah Dowling, (Movement Director), helps create the physical language of the piece with Lucy. There is a ballroom dance sequence for the actors to learn a waltz, but Sarah’s job also entails helping build upon the narrative through creating detail in the movement. One scene we looked at was the transition from Kent through to London and the way in which the environment might change completely for Pip – he experiences ‘vulture-like’ street sellers and hawkers, who prey on new arrivals to the city. Together Lucy and Sarah looked at the way these people might behave, and developed the idea of a ‘shoal’, who as a group follow Pip and attempt to overwhelm him, picking at his clothes and attempting to hawk their wares upon him.
The world which Dickens creates is threatening and often violent and RC-Annie, the Fight directing duo, are on hand to help choreograph the action and ensure that the actors feel safe on stage.
We had a session with Helen Ashton, (Accent Coach), whose main task on this project is to locate the way that people in the play might sound and then work with the actors to ensure a consistent accent. Pip and his community inhabit the windy, muddy marshes of the Thames Estuary in Kent and so we wanted to reflect that in the way that they spoke. Therefore Helen located vocal examples of people from around the Medway and Chatham that were most similar to the way in which the 19th century people might have spoken. Initially to our ears it was a strange mix of a more familiar London accent and a rural drawl, but by looking at the specific rules of the language construction, the way vowels worked and how consonants sounded (keeping the ‘th’ sound as opposed to the London ‘f’ sound for example).
John Eascott (Composer) delivers a session to teach the actors some of the songs that pepper Michael’s script. These include folk tunes that were thought to have been sung at that time, which will be used during scenes and also expanded into more complex themes that will be heard throughout the piece.
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