Hello once again! Production week for Merit has arrived, and I’m typing this update from the back row of the Drum whilst director Jennie Darnell works with the production and stage management teams on tightening some of the sound and lighting cues at the end of the show. I always look forward to technical rehearsals as it’s when the various design elements are brought together and the creative team can begin to see how the actors’ performances will look in performance; with Merit, however, we’ve had the rare luxury of being able to use the set for a whole week already, ever since we arrived in Plymouth for a final week of rehearsals at TR2. This is the theatre’s Production and Learning Centre in Cattedown, and it’s always a delight rehearsing our own productions here, not least because having the workshop and wardrobe in the same building as the rehearsal spaces means its often possible to get used to sets and costume before moving to the theatre.
For Merit this has proven invaluable – designer Matthew Wright’s set has seven different levels to it, and getting access to it during week four of rehearsals meant we were able to find out how well the movement we had developed in a flat rehearsal room in London would work when the two performers were faced with multiple sets of stairs to navigate. We quickly discovered that the structure supported the actors’ performances in many ways, allowing them to physicalise the tensions and power struggles within the script, but that it demanded definite movements. There’s an epic quality to the set, with its shape somewhat resembling an amphitheatre, and this means that each movement requires a clear purpose and drive behind it; wandering doesn’t work. Much of the final week of rehearsals was therefore devoted to reworking the blocking for each scene in the light of the new knowledge we were gaining.
Another focus during week four of rehearsals was on identifying and refining the overall shape of the play. The work we’d done up to this point involved examining individual scenes in isolation; the challenge now became to stitch them together, ensuring they each had a distinct feel whilst combining to form a narratively-satisfying whole. Merit is a two-hander, with actors Rebecca Lacey and Lizzy Watts appearing in every scene together and going offstage only to quickly take off a jacket or put on a coat. With ten scenes in total, and time passing between each, both Jennie and playwright Alexandra Wood have spoken about the importance of each new scene having a distinct atmosphere from the last. We therefore worked with the actors on identifying their mindset at the start of each scene, and this information was passed on to Sound Designer, Adrienne Quartly, to help her construct the soundtrack which links them together.
Despite having had the time to familiarise ourselves with the set, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised to see how well it fits in the Drum. Whereas the height of it had seemed a little intimidating (to me, at least!) when it stood in the rehearsal room, the raked seating we are using in the Drum means the audience are variously looking up, down or across at the action, rooting it and creating a sense of both democracy and shifting perspectives which feels thematically apt. The lighting design from Jason Taylor is further vitalising the space – whilst the set is evocative rather than representational, the different lighting states help to indicate whether a scene takes place indoors or outdoors, and sound effects further assist the audience in deducing where we are at any time.
With technical rehearsals almost complete, the first dress rehearsal approaches, and after that – opening night!