Following the third week of rehearsals for The Whipping Man (which means it’s now less than two weeks until opening night!), my iPad’s now packed with a selection of violent videos. That’s not as bad as it sounds, though: they’re records of our first visit from the show’s fight director, and the fact that the videos make me flinch a little even now just shows how well the cast took to learning the incredibly precise and intricate sequences involved. What’s more – and unlike a lot of stage fighting – these moments look frighteningly real from every angle, which I know because I’ve spent this week flitting around the rehearsal room to watch the action from every possible position.
I wouldn’t normally be doing this in rehearsals for a show, but The Whipping Man is being staged in a thrust set-up (where the audience sit on three sides of the stage, rather than more traditional set-ups where the audience is only on one side). One of the brilliant things about thrust stages is how they intensify the sense of looking at something real – as though someone’s cut around a chunk of the world, picked it up and placed it in the middle of an audience. Being so surrounded means actors move through the space in totally different ways than they would otherwise and the audience is brought closer in to the action itself, creating a vivid sense of reality.
What I’ve really enjoyed, whilst ricocheting between different seats scattered around the rehearsal room, is the different perspectives I can get on each scene. Of course, no matter where you sit, you can always see all of the actors onstage (even if you can’t see someone’s face) and you can hear what everyone says – but, from one seat, you might be faced with someone’s expression of blinding rage whilst, from another, you might be confronted by someone’s else’s look of pitch-black fear.
Staging a show like this does throw up some challenges, though – the reason I’m constantly on the move is to keep an eye on sightlines, to make sure there are no scenes where any audience members might be left looking at a row of backs (there’s an extra challenge with The Whipping Man in particular as – for reasons I’ll leave a mystery for now – one of the characters doesn’t move for most of the play). The cast have to work harder to make sure they can be heard from every angle and any choreography or effects have to look convincing from a variety of angles.
But the challenges are worth it, especially when the form fits the play so well. It’s become more and more clear to me in rehearsals how perfect the match is: a stage that creates a sense of exposure and empty open space, and a play featuring a ruined house and three men whose lives feel like they’re only a dangerous few inches away from crumbling.