Hi again! Week 2 of rehearsals for Merit is upon us, and we’ve moved from our original rehearsal room to a new space at Sadler’s Wells, the North London dance venue. Good rehearsal rooms are in high demand and so the move is simply because of which spaces were available when, but it’s actually really nice to begin the second week in a new venue – there’s a sense of moving forward, which matches the progress we’re making through the 10 scenes of the play. Sadler’s Wells is currently hosting Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands ballet, which of course visited the Theatre Royal Plymouth prior to arriving here – it’s lovely to spot familiar faces in the cafe and to learn from the packed houses and positive chatter that London audiences are enjoying the show as much as we did!
Backstage in the studio that is our headquarters for the next fortnight, we’ve continued with the work begun last week, taking a scene each day and getting to know it better through a mixture of in-depth discussion around a table and active exploration by the actors on their feet. Our Stage Management team have created a mark-up of the set on the floor of the rehearsal room with tape and chalk, but at this point Jennie is encouraging the actors to pay it only cursory attention; the focus is rather on exploring the objectives which drive the characters to behave as they do, and the circumstances and personality traits which colour the quality of their behaviour. In the previous blog entry I wrote about Jennie’s technique of asking the actors to try playing a section in a diverse number of (often contradictory) ways one after another, in order for us to have an empiric understanding of the various approaches we might draw from; this has continued, but as we progress through the scenes we are increasingly able to link the choices we make back to the knowledge gleaned about characters in earlier sessions. That said, we’re also alert to the danger of developing through-lines for the two characters which are too clear or pedestrian – Alex’s play is full of complexities and delicious ambiguities which should grip an audience and keep them guessing ‘til the end. The challenge for actors Lizzy and Rebecca is tread the fine line between keeping as many of these possible truths in play as possible whilst also making enough choices about what actually happens in the narrative off-stage so that the characters they present are believable and compelling.
Merit is set in Madrid, a city I’ve learnt a lot more about over the course of rehearsals, but it’s increasingly clear to me that the story we’re telling has real relevance to a British audience as well. Spain might have suffered more severely from the global financial crash than we did, but the play’s focus on the difficulty of finding employment during a recession and the characters’ anger towards the banks for not preventing this situation might have been lifted from any UK newspaper over the past few years. What’s so exciting about Alex’s writing, however, is that through placing the two characters in various dramatic situations it encourages you as an audience member to interrogate your own opinions about the economy and the role the banking sector plays. Again and again during rehearsals, I find myself siding vehemently with the daughter Sofia, for example, before a well-articulated argument from mother Patricia trips me up and causes me to reconsider the validity of the viewpoint I was supporting. That the script enables this to happen whilst also driving the story forward is one of the primary reasons I find Merit such an exciting play to work on.