Today, www.eastmidlandstheatre.com had the privilege of a behind-the-scenes look at rehearsals for ‘Wonderland’, returning to Nottingham Playhouse from 8th February to 23rd February 2019, after it’s very successful run last year. The Beth Steel play, directed by Adam Penford, deals with the build up and impact of the 1984 miner’s strike through the political context and from a human perspective.
Bringing back a show in this way is not as straight forward as it might at first seem. Of the original cast, 3 have returned, whilst the other 7 are new. Adam Penford advises that whilst he didn’t set out to make major changes to the successful format of last year’s production, a new cast inevitably brings a different energy. Their own personalities and impressions of the play come to bear and they mould the characters in a different way. But Penford sees his primary task as honouring the writing of Beth Steel, which in itself carries all the warmth, grit and grim reality of the miners’ lives.
The rehearsal begins right at the start of Act 1, where the miners slowly emerge from the darkness, singing a traditional ballad, performing some stylised choreography. There are recognisable mining ‘actions’ combined with more expressive moves, so the whole has a feel of Tai Chi; a gathering of energy for the day ahead underground. This short introductory scene is broken back down into it’s different elements and the fine detail examined.
The cast discuss exactly which movement happens on which word: what angle their head should be at on a particular stroke. They run the scene again and again and it is sharper, crisper, with unity of movement and purpose. But Penford points out that as soon as that stylistic uniformity is broken, they need to quickly revert to their individual characters, enjoying a bit of banter before the shift. The song is also re-examined in detail. The rhythms, the pronunciation, the emphasis on the ‘doing’ words, all serve to bring the song to life, reinforce the memory and make the actors more confident. As they run it for the last time, it is clear how the notes and the attention to detail have brought another level of depth to the opening scene.
Next, they work on a scene with two young miners being inducted by the ‘Colonel’. There is much dark humour in this scene, but also a good deal of ‘business’ with props, so this again is broken down into constituent parts, so that it not only looks right, but the actor feels comfortable and natural in his movements. It is a collaborative process and one that feels very balanced, supportive and non-judgemental. It is fascinating to see how slight tweaks in the emphasis of individual words change the feel of the scene. Broad humour becomes suddenly dark when a line is delivered without a smile. These moments create the tension that keeps the audience alert but also makes the piece feel so ‘real’.
There are some real laugh-out-loud moments in a scene showing the camaraderie and banter of the men. The language is strong, the sexism stronger, but it gives a very real sense of the honesty of the men’s communication and their knowledge of each other. One minute, they can be joking around, the next, they may be saving each other’s lives from a pit collapse or a fire. There is already a strong feeling of comradeship in the cast, which can only serve to make the on-stage relationships more authentic.
In just this short time, getting a glimpse of a few scenes, it is obvious this is going to be a production of great quality. The history of the piece is told cleverly through cameos from key politicians and businessmen of the time. There is humour and humanity, and all this before the heart of the strike is even explored. The actors are focussed, their characters, lines, and accents in place. They know their marks and their actions. Penford’s role as Director is to take an overview, guide the piece to express the humanity and emotion in the writing, and also, examine and refine the fine details that make it sing. If the calibre of this rehearsal is achieved on stage, with full set, costumes, sound and lighting, it will be a very powerful story indeed.
Our sincere thanks to Nottingham Playhouse, Adam Penford and Cartwright Communications for this special opportunity.
Kathryn McAuley for East Midlands Theatre.
Wonderland rehearsal photos credit: Darren Bell.