Script Reading: Sea Wall by Simon Stephens

During a brilliantly informative lecture at the RSC’s Big Director’s Weekend last month, Rob Swain (Programme Director for Birkbeck’s MFA Directing course) advised us on the first reading of a script. Read it free of all pretences and without making notes, overthinking or planning, he said. He admitted the challenge in this; directors and creatives naturally want to start imagining the world of the play and how it would be conveyed. However, Swain’s point was that we ought to sit and read straight through, uninterrupted in order to receive the play for the first time as an audience will hear it for the first time. Never again, he warned, after that first reading, will you be able to hear it afresh. And first impressions do count in theatre. Very much so. For first impressions in theatre are often, also, last impressions. And when all the elements of an exceptional play come together, they have the potential to make lasting impressions too.

Simon Stephens

So, having marvelled at numerous Simon Stephens plays, I decided to pick up one I hadn’t yet read and to follow Swain’s directive. I knew that Sea Wall has been critically acclaimed for a recent revival (I don’t have the luxury of being able to get to half the things I’d love to see over in London) and I had recently read Lyn Gardner’s column on the value of short plays. This, I thought, would be the perfect play to trial the exercise.

So, I sat and read.

Swain’s follow up instruction was to reflect on my initial reaction to the reading: the potential first reaction that an audience would experience on receiving the same information.

*Spoiler alert* If you haven’t read the play, it’s 9 pages long and worth stopping and doing so now. (It’s available online via a very easy search).

The following details my responses while reading but recorded after completing the read. Details about the play may be referenced.

Response 1/ You can’t stop your mind from wandering. My mind, although attempting to focus solely on the story Alex was telling, slid into the age-old question over monologues. How long can you expect an audience to sit and listen to a monologue for? Especially a monologue where the playwright (“always honour the playwright’s intentions” said every drama teacher in the land) requests a bare stage and natural light. A monologue that’s well formed but where, let’s face it, not a lot happens.

Response 2/ Two thirds of the way in, the Director in me was itching to work with an actor to really explore the naturalistic dialogue that Stephens crafts so effortlessly, tripping into tangents, ebbing and flowing between topics, like the waves lapping the sand, and elaborating on randomly inconsequential details. However, I knew that this was the reaction of my inner directing-geek, hungry to chew on some gentle, unsuspecting prose. Whereas, my aforementioned wandering mind was well aware that the direction would need something special to keep the audience engaged. That is, unless the last three pages had something different on offer to, say, stir things up…

Then WHAM! Response 3/ Forget directing. Forget anything. How was I going to sleep tonight after reading that? How could I rest easy with an overactive imagination and my own daughter lying asleep in the next room? How could I possibly consider directing this when the thought of it happening makes me feel sick? Fills me with dread. Touches a nerve way too close to home. How could you advertise this production to an audience without giving away what happens? Because Swain was right. This. This is how the audience feel on first encounter and this is what the director is responsible for: the creation and preservation of this immediate, unexpected response. I really hope you stopped and read the play so you know what I’m talking about.

A lesson from my own drama teacher sprung to mind: you cannot play Juliet as a tragic heroine. Juliet is a young girl in love who does not know her fate. As an actress, you need to let her live in the moment, blissfully unaware of what’s to come.

This advice struck me for the poignancy of its severe opposition to Alex’s tale. Alex confronts the audience directly to tell them his story. The very raw story of what happened to him, three weeks before. There is no hiding from his fate. His fate is the beginning, middle, end and reason for the story. The important factor in his telling of the story is that, while he knows the outcome, the audience do not. Unless they are returning for a second time and, thus, filled with the dread of knowing what will happen and that nobody can stop it. And therein lies the importance of Swain’s first reading, in parallel to Alex’s discovery of the Sea Wall… Once you’ve seen it, once you know, you can’t un-imagine it or deny its existence. Your perspective is tainted.

So, now I’m ready for a re-read with all the things I now know in mind. It will change the way I receive every word. I’m not even sure if I can handle this.

What a gloriously brilliant, harrowingly difficult and clever, clever script.

I have since read this review of the revival, which sums up the stunning performance. Now to find that downloadable recording!

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Review: Miss Littlewood, RSC, Stratford

How apt that the culmination of the first day of the RSC’s Big Director’s weekend should end with a preview of Sam Kenyon and Erica Whyman’s Miss Littlewood. And what a treat it was.

Performed on the beautifully intimate thrust at the RSC’s The Other Place in Stratford Upon Avon, where a mock platform slides back and forth from behind the pros arch to become the meta-stage for Littlewood’s story. The evening tiptoes down the path behind theatrical pioneer, Joan Littlewood, dabbling in the highlights of her working and personal life and drawing on autobiographical material, with a suitable touch of bias that is not permitted to go unnoticed.

The set is not lavish but deceptive in its seeming simplicity and put to good use through the incredible number of transitions that Whyman has wrestled into refinement. Whyman’s direction is thorough and impressive. The cast are kept busy and are endlessly resourceful. Actor-musicianship and multi-rolling are showcased with a superb sense of tongue-in-cheek, not least by the talented supporting cast including Amanda Hadingue, who takes on a number of male and female cameos, while adding musical accompaniment on her violin. There is more than a touch of Brechtian influence and an honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style. Having said this, the attention to authenticity in the time-appropriate costumes was a real credit to the Wardrobe department and I can’t begin to imagine how many shoes were used in this production, not least by the delightful Emily Johnstone in her ever-changing roles.

An honest reflection of the theatrical economy that Littlewood employed in branding the revolutionary Theatre Workshop style.

Littlewood is played by seven actresses in total. Each superb in their own right and supported by a small but well-versed ensemble company. True to Kenyon’s script note, the seven Joans ‘should be diverse in a number of ways – age, ethnicity, appearance, accent -and no one should be concerned about doing an impersonation’. Each assumes the role through the gestic application of a hat (‘a costume. Or a weapon.’) and delivers their character as directed by the real Joan (played by Claire Burt with tenacity, scrutiny and a naughty twinkle in her eye) who presents her life as she wants to see it, even attempting to avoid the moments she wants to forget. Each Joan represented a different era and was charmingly replaced with the same careless attitude that the real Miss Littlewood adopted in recasting her plays at the last moment. Their harmonious co-existence was a lesson in depth of character as each actress presented so much more than just one of the multi-facets of Joan and served to remind us that Joan Littlewood was a representative of the people, an anybody, with a desire for theatre to be seen by and represent every man and woman.

Kenyon, no doubt, had a battle selecting what to keep and lose from Littlewood’s dense biography. While some audience members felt aspects were missing, the teacher in me was delighted to see this inspirational figure immortalised in a production that reflected her own working style. A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

A beautiful homage and a great resource to future generations of theatre makers.

Although dubbed ‘a new musical’, I fear that musical theatre fans would be disappointed. The songs are poignant but not moving and some of the individual singing voices are full of character but not finesse. This is not a criticism – style over substance fits the bill here and, like the era-influenced dance routines, the audience can enjoy the lightness of touch rather than an over-choreographed showcase. Littlewood was a fabled communist after all: ‘Profligacy is in bad taste’, offers Joan 2, flirting with language.

My heart sang with gratitude as I smiled my way through so much of this utterly fun production. A lesson about a director and, indeed, a meta-lesson in directing itself. Whether it will extend to enchant beyond those in the industry is the question. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but as Joan says to her first appointed actress ‘don’t like what you see? Do something better.’

Miss Littlewood runs until 4th August 2018 at The Other Place, RSC, Stratford.