Blood sweat and tears
August 4, 2014
It's the height of cruelty that slap bang in the middle of RSC Fight Week - a celebration of all things stage combat - we lose a member of the Swan Company to injury during a fight rehearsal for The White Devil.
Tom Padley - you can't get more care and dedication and sheer bloody loveliness in an actor. It draws a close company even closer together. And it reminds us all, once again, how careful we need to be - of ourselves, of each other.
It's a bleak wait outside the rehearsal room as the paramedics arrive with laughing gas. While we wait for news on Tom's injury, we mentally tot up the amount of violence and vileness The White Devil will bring to the Swan stage. An email has been issued from Producer Zoe Donegan to existing ticket holders, updating them on the show's content. Never has it been more prevalent that our job is to give the illusion of blood, guts and abuse, to put the audience through the wringer, whilst remaining unharmed, show after show.
I was lucky to be taught stage fighting at drama school by a number of expert fight directors. But Terry King was my first and in my opinion, his name says it all - he is The King.
Perhaps because your first introduction to such skills makes its mark but mostly because Terry King once encouraged me to do a backwards somersault off a table - something I'd never done before nor repeated since.
Read Terry King's interview for Fight Week
The reality of stage violence is a complicated series of misdirections and illusion to cheat the audience into believing they've seen the real thing. Take the stabbing of Ian Redford in Arden of Faversham.
Whilst the audience watch Keir Charles and Tony Jayawardena stick their knives in, Sharon Small sneaks two blood bags hidden in plain sight from a bowl of black grapes on the table. When she takes the knife, she positions the bags between her palm and the handle. To stab Ian, she must 'present' the weapon (raise the knife high and clear in the audience's eyesight), then twist her wrist so when the blade touches Ian's midriff, it is flat to his body and harmless. However, on impact, she has squeezed the blood bags and when her hands emerge, they are covered (as are much of the front row).
Sharon Small has made an audience member VOMIT with her stabbing talents. It's in the way she pulls the knife out apparently - downwards and with a horrible ragged effort.
The most important element of all this is the eye contact she has with him before the strike. Miss this and you risk taking your partner by surprise. It's the tacit 'Are you ok? Yes I'm ok!' between fighting actors.
I'm keeping a close eye on Joan Iyiola at the moment as I'm to understudy her as Zanche in The White Devil.
Zanche faces a fair amount of abuse in the play, abuse of course which I must learn.
I watch Liz Crowther repeatedly aim for Joan's face under the eye of Fight Director, Malcolm Ranson. Liz is fighting the natural instinct to miss the target by a mile. When it comes down to it, you don't really want to hit someone in the face. And on the Swan's thrust stage, the angle must be close. And let's not forget, both women are fighting in seriously high heels.
'You can tell by eye contact alone if a stage slap is going to work,' says Joan. 'Even before the set up, you just know if the rhythm is wrong between you.'
Of course, it's the performances that sell the violence in the end. Even if a slap looks way off, it can be acted so well by all involved that you buy it anyway. By the end of the session, Liz's hand is closer and Joan is now fighting the natural urge to duck.
'Your instinct when hurt is to bring it into the body,' she says. 'You want to protect yourself and make it internal. Great for radio but for theatre you need to do the opposite, create pain with the face and give everything out.'
And believe me, Joan Iyiola is mighty fine at that. There were some gut-wrenching moments in our first run of part two yesterday. And that was without the blood. I must be careful of what I reveal about The White Devil rehearsals (SPOILERS) but take it from me, that John Webster is a well dodgy bloke.
As we hurtle towards tech week for Devil, there are major adjustments in both The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham whilst Tom (left) is out of action.
Joe Bannister is on as Greene, Tom's major Arden role and Peter Bray is Lord Cheyney (Joe's Part). Joan is playing Peter's roles with Ken Nwosu stepping in as Joan in the final scene. The roles Tom was understudying also need to be covered.
We miss our friend badly. A company is cast in a number of ways with each member adding something unique - psychologically, physically, the energy they bring. When you lose them, it creates a very specific void. The Padley Gap as Jay Simpson calls it. But our new company member has arrived - Mark Holgate - who we embrace warmly, because he seems a great guy and because we know the truly enormous amount of work ahead of him.
Meanwhile, an order has gone out to a man called Glynn McKay for an industrial amount of his 'Pro-blood'. Apparently he mixes it in his garden to his own secret recipe.
If Webster was alive today, I know they'd be friends.
by Lizzie Hopley
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