Merit - The first week of rehearsals

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Hello! My name is Phil Bartlett and I’m Assistant Director at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, where I’m primarily involved with the theatre’s programme of new plays. Recently I’ve assisted on metatheatrical horror-show Grand Guignol and dark space triptych Another Place, and I’m now in rehearsals for Merit, a tense and highly-charged new piece from writer Alexandra Wood. Merit charts the intricacies of a frequently fraught relationship between a mother and daughter in Spain, and is set against the backdrop of the unemployment crisis which has affected the country since the financial crash in 2008. The play will be performed for the first time in The Drum on 29th January 2015, and in the run up to then I’ll be regularly updating this blog, which aims to provide an informal insight into the process of how the creative and production team for Merit turn Alex’s script into a piece of living, breathing theatre.

The not-quite-a-week between Christmas and New Year has in the past been a sleepy period for me; a time to stuff myself full with the last of the festive food and think up soon-to-be-broken resolutions. This year, however, I only managed a single turkey sandwich before having to head up to London for the start of rehearsals. Joining me that cold Monday morning were director Jennie Darnell, actors Rebecca Lacey and Lizzy Watts, the design and stage management teams plus some familiar faces from Plymouth, including Artistic Director Simon Stokes. Following cups of tea and introductions, Jennie initiated a read-through, which is a chance for everyone present to hear the actors speak their lines before they’ve spent any time working on them with the director. Rebecca and Lizzy gave remarkably fluid and clear readings of Alex’s script – no mean feat, considering the play is comprised of 10 conversations between a mother and daughter, so neither actor gets a break until the end of the play. A central task during rehearsals will be to discover the unique qualities of each scene – the circumstances and events which make it distinct and which can then be knitted together with the other nine scenes to create a narratively satisfying and emotionally truthful whole.

After the read-through designer Matthew Wright introduced those present to the model box – this is a scaled-down model of what the set will look like. I won’t give away too much now, but the proposed design excites me because it will enable us to play with different levels the characters might appear on in relation to each other – important for a play which throughout encourages the audience to reconsider their viewpoint. Matthew’s set also manages to effectively capture a sense of both ‘Old Spain’ and ‘New Spain’, with different design elements pointing towards the country’s fascinating past and complex present.

The afternoon was spent discussing research we’d found in advance of rehearsals which related to the themes of the play – one statistic which particularly jumped out was that in 2013 (when the play is set), youth unemployment in Spain stood at 56.4%, and as recently as last year a Spanish bank warned that it could take another decade for unemployment to improve back to pre-crash levels. Realising that more than half of young people are out of work makes talk of a ‘lost generation’ no longer seem hyperbolic, and reading the testimonials of educated young people from across Europe who have been unable to secure employment provided moving and useful context for the first scene of the play, in which the daughter, Sofia, has against expectations found a job.

Research discussed, we’ve now begun working through the play – taking a scene a day, we discuss its content and then the actors, guided by Jennie, start exploring it on their feet. Rather than looking for firm answers at this point, the focus is on finding possibilities – frequently Jennie will ask the actors to try playing the scene one way and after having attempted this and discussed the result will them ask them to try the opposite – for example, first playing a scene as though a key piece of information is false and then as though it is true. Merit is a play full of compelling ambiguities and doing this exploratory work allows us to consider the full spectrum of options before deciding which truths we wish to foreground or remove in performance. The two characters are aged 50 and 23, and it’s apparent already that one’s own age might colour how as an audience member one responds to the conflicts they find themselves engaged in – I’m much closer to the daughter Sofia’s age, and on initially reading the play found myself empathising far more strongly with her, perhaps because I share some of her attitudes and experiences. Through discussions in the rehearsal room, however, I’ve come to sympathise with the mother Patricia a lot more, and hope audience members will similarly find their sympathies and opinions challenged as they get drawn into the pair’s complex, nuanced pas de deux.

Book your tickets to see Merit in The Drum from Thursday 29th January to Saturday 14th January 2015!

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