We asked you - via Facebook and Twitter - to send us your questions about Morte d'Arthur for Justin Audibert, Assistant Director to Gregory Doran. Suzanne Worthington caught up with him backstage on 24 June 2010, using his computer to make 'understudy cards'...
Hi Justin, we've got some questions for you from our Facebook and Twitter followers. What are you up to today? Understudy work?
We've got to do understudy cards - in the old days, they used to be index cards, but now we do them on the computer and print them out. For example, if the actor who plays Arthur is off, it says this person will play Arthur's role, and then these people will cover his roles. In Morte d'Arthur there are around 70 characters - normally, in a Shakespeare, one person just covers one person's role and that's about it.
I'll give you the example of Arthur. If Sam playing Arthur is off, then James Howard is the understudy, so he plays Arthur. However, James Howard also plays the Lion Angel, which would be covered by Richard Katz, and he also plays Ector who would be covered by Pete Peverley, and he also plays Bernard, which would be covered by Forbes Masson, and he also plays Lionel whose lines would be taken over and given to another character Lavaine, played by Dyfan Dwyfor.
On top of that, it's not just the lines. If someone clips a bit of a tent in, or sings a song, or moves a chair, or does a bit of shadow-play or anything else, you have to find someone to allocate that to, to take that part, who's not already being used elsewhere. So I'm still doing that…
Crikey, good luck!
Liz Burton-King asked how you are getting your head around the understudy arrangements. Have you done understudy work before?
Yes, I've done two lots. Julius Caesar was similar in some ways, because that has over 40 named characters and only 20 performers. But this is another level, because it's so fragmented.
Twelfth Night was incredibly easy, one person just slotting in for another person.
So this [Morte] is the most difficult in terms of understudying. One of the good things about it though is that the company is on stage for much of the time so they often know what they're doing in their understudy roles.
What is the RSC's understudy policy?
Our shows tend to be on for a long time so if one person or possibly two people are off, then we are able to cover their roles within the company. In Morte d'Arthur, every single person - it doesn't matter who you're playing, even Sam Troughton who's playing Arthur - every single person's understudying someone else.
The idea is that we all chip in together so if anyone does go off, we can do it. So you know that we had Sam off, for example, very early on in the previews [the week or so of shows before Press Night].
A common reason for people being 'off' is injuries from stage-fighting. Another is people losing their voices. And if a show is on over winter, people may be ill. So the chances are, unless you're very fortunate, you'll have to have an understudy go on at some stage. Our policy is that from the first preview - and importantly if it's safe to do so - then the understudy should go on. Sam wasn't able to go on because he lost his voice and we couldn't do all of the second preview show because it wouldn't have been safe - the fights hadn't properly been learned by the understudies yet. If it's not safe, we can't do it.
So you'd have to have not do the fights?
Yes. Instead, we just did Part 3, where we didn't have many fights.
Dan Hutton on Twitter asks: How are understudy rehearsals different from main rehearsals? For a start, they happen later, don't they?
Yes, they happen later, once the show is up and running. On a different kind of show, you might get to do some when you're in the main rehearsal period. This company were performing other shows in the evenings so there was no time for that. Ideally, you want to do them as you go along - for Julius Caesar and Twelfth Night I was able to do that!
And it's you that directs them not the director? It's a particular role of the Assistant Director?
That's right. So in a normal show, you'd be doing them in the evenings or on Saturdays. That's not an option for this show. I've got just a week and a half to do it all! Thankfully, the actors have been very responsible - they've known that was going to be the circumstances and they've got down to leaning their lines because that's the one bit I can't do for them! Our Voice team help out with that too.
Let's talk about the fighting. We have two questions from our followers. One is: Why do so few swords clash during the fighting? And the other is: Why did you choose to choreograph the fight scenes in such an unusual way?
Basically we tried to construct a journey with the fights because we thought it would be quite dull if they were all naturalistic. The Malory book, the Morte d'Arthur, goes from a kind of fantastical world to a much more realistic world as it goes along. So that's what we've tried to do with the fights: a journey with the fights and the sound and music that accompanies them. It starts off quite abstracted and removed, and then gradually you end up with the Gawain-Launcelot fight, which is a real fight with two swords each. The only noise you hear is the clang-clang of the swords.
So the music changes too?
The music does change too, yes. There's a colour palette for each of the three parts of the play, which again reflects in the music.
The first part of the story is all about Arthur becoming the king, and the colours are reds and yellows. Then we go into the middle part, the knights' adventures, and the colours suddenly become vivid and bright, and you get UV at the end of it. Similarly with the sound - the music takes that journey as well.
In the third part, you're going into a more naturalistic phase, we're paring everything back, and that's what happens with the fights.
Brilliant. Some questions now about putting the show on. We had a couple of people comment on how long the show is. So the questions are: Why is there a long break between Acts One and Two when this could just be a scene change? And also: It's such a long play - how did you deal with that?
Partly the reason we had the pause in there is because it is in three parts. We wanted to give the audience a chance to reflect on that first part before going into the second part. Parts One and Two are different in quite a big way. Originally we were going to have two intervals, but that would have made it a really long evening!
So we thought of this idea of a pause rather than another interval.
When you're previewing and it's super-long, how do you pick up the pace?
When you do the last run-through in the rehearsal room, it goes like that [snaps fingers] - it's flying! All the action's brilliant; everyone's picking up their cues; it's all alive. Then the minute you put the actors in a costume (I'm not blaming them, I'd do it myself), they've got armour that clanks; quick changes everywhere; lights to find; sound cues to respond to – and suddenly they forget what the acting's all about! [Laughter]
It's true! Suddenly you've got a huge range of things you've got to deal with. For a while, it just takes time to claw back that familiarity, they get back to the play itself and the acting. That's partly why we need previews! Then there are technical things -some things just won't work, or some bits need cutting, or there are bits where the energy drags or anything else…
So any changes could be about audience response as well?
Yes, but also a feeling that you get of 'this isn't right' or whatever. Of course, this is a subjective thing…
It's an instinct?
Yes, thats it.
Linda Gillard asks: How are you dealing with the Spamalot/Holy Grail factor? Can you get an audience to take this story seriously?
[Laughter] I think that's a question more for the audience than it is for me, isn't it?!
It's been a massive elephant in the room all through the rehearsals.
The story's been so glamorised - Hollywoodised - so what we've tried to do is tell Malory's story the way he told it. Which can only be a version of Malory's story, because it's so big and therefore we had to choose. It's very difficult.
We do get plenty of laughs in the play, there are bits where it's funny - intentionally funny! That's why the character of Gareth is so strong in our story, because he provides light relief and entertainment, but without anyone referencing to a Monty Python world. It's a tricky one. I think it's a question the audience have to answer rather than us!
Ophelia on Twitter asked: 'How difficult has it been working with texts so different from Shakespeare?'
Great question and it's been really difficult. The actors find it really difficult to learn because it doesn't have the structure of Shakespeare. It's quite dense prose.
Mike Poulton's kept very true to Malory's style - which is good and really interesting but it does make it difficult to learn and remember.
Interestingly it's not how big your part or your passage is that defines it. For example, Dyfan Dwyfor - he won't mind my saying this - he's found his character, Lavaine so difficult to learn. He hasn't had the same kind of problems with Lamorak or Percival. But he's found the lines of Lavaine really difficult to learn. It's all in prose. Not having the metre does make it tricky.
That's interesting because he's also learned plenty of other roles including Romeo as an understudy!
Which character has been the most challenging in terms of direction? For instance, our Facebookers and Tweeters asked if there were there any pre-conceived ideas about the characters.
I think it's very difficult for Guenever, I would say. That would be the biggest challenge. Kirsty's worked really hard at it.
I think it's a difficult role, because in the way the story's been told since Victorian times, she's just married the wrong man and she's in love with this other guy. In our production she's quite a self-obsessed character and that's from the original text. In the Malory, people hate her much more than they do in ours though - she has defenders in our version - in the Malory she comes out really badly! That's very difficult to play against, and I think Kirsty's done very well at that. Interestingly some reviewers loved that we're playing against the stereotype and playing Malory's version. Some of them asked, 'Why isn't there more of a romance?' but that's not the way Malory tells the story. We've gone for that!
The 'real' version, very good!
One final question. Matthew Wernham on Facebook says: 'What's your favourite legend or myth other than King Arthur?'
I suppose the first mythical stories that mean something to me - because my dad really liked them and told me about them - were the Odyssey and the Iliad.
The Odyssey when I was a kid, and then as I grew up the Iliad.
I'd love to be with the RSC staging the Odyssey somehow! It's very similar to Morte in its episodic nature.
Do you feel especially drawn to it because of your connection to it as a child?
I think so. There's something about that, isn't there? When you knew something as a child. Definitely. But again, in the same way that this has so many myriad adventures and myriad characters, the episodic nature of The Odyssey is the same kind of thing -just really exciting. There is a version of the Arthurian legends called Y Marinogion, which is a Welsh version which is interesting as well. I'd like to have more time to study those!
So could it be said that you quite like getting your teeth into complex literature..?
Storytelling like this is really interesting, yes! Long epic-y adventure!
This is something the Morte d'Arthur has taught me: the less literal you are when you're trying to stage these epic stories, the better and more effective. The more you use human bodies and props and let the audience imagine, the better it works.
That makes sense - you're not making a film.
Absolutely. People have to come away thinking: 'that was a piece of theatre'.
Thank you very much! Good luck with the understudying!
This is a transcription of Suzanne Worthington talking to Justin Audibert at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on 24 June 2010 © RSC
Photo of Justin Audibert © Justin Audibert