Movement in Morte d'Arthur

Morte d'Arthur (2010) James Traherne, Peter Peverley and David Rubin in rehearsal © RSCFiona Handscomb caught up with our Head of Movement, Struan Leslie, eight weeks into rehearsals for Morte d'Arthur...

Life never stands still for our Movement team. An epic play like Morte d'Arthur, with its jousts, dances, battles, seductions, flying angels and spinning wizards is more than enough to keep the cast on their toes - and Head of Movement Struan Leslie is on hand to help them stay there.

'There's a lot going on,' confirms Struan. 'As well as the daily physical preparation for the actors to build up their strength and flexibility, we're working with them to develop their familiarity with various props or costumes. There's mechanical horses, bear suits, armour, stilt-walking, stick wielding and skirt-twirling all to get to grips with in this show.'

For the past few weeks, Struan and Movement Practitioner Anna Morrissey themselves have been on their own merry dance; weaving in and out of the expertise of others in the rehearsal room. Collaboration is the name of the game, particularly for an elaborate show like Morte d'Arthur. Struan says:

'As a movement director you spend most of your time collaborating. With Morte d'Arthur, we've worked with Automation on the flying and aerial work, we've been an extra pair of eyes for Terry King, the Fight Director, or for Steve Tiplady with the shadow-play, and working with composer Adrian Lee's beautiful score. And of course Greg Doran the director has the final say in the rehearsal room for anything that happens.'

A key partnership has been with the cast. 'We involve the actors in the process of making the work so they have more of a connection with it. Most of the actors in Morte d'Arthur are playing more than one part, so they need to be able to move between characters easily. Quite a common technique for that is to use animals as a basis for character. For example, with David Carr as King Leodegrance, we studied lizards as we wanted to give the impression of quickness and energy. We worked with Jonjo O'Neill on Launcelot being like a bird of prey; a creature with a calmness and depth to it, but also ferocity.'

'It's a useful shorthand for actors, particularly when switching roles. It's a lot easier to think 'lizard' than to think about abstract physical techniques. I've really enjoyed collaborating with David Rubin on the deer hunt where the deer's front legs double as drumsticks. David's a good percussionist so we could make full use of that vocabulary he already has.'

So how does the Movement team go about literally getting a script on its feet (or stilts, arms and hooves as the case may be)?

'Firstly I'd look at the characters within the play,' explains Struan. 'Who are they? How old are they? What are their relationships to each other? You can start to build up a physical picture from there. We read the text and ask the right questions to the director. Is there any status or etiquette here? Is there a hierarchy? What period are we in? From the beginning we knew which period Morte d'Arthur would be in so I was able to listen to music from that period, or look at pictures of the portrayal of bodies by artists of the period. I went to the British Library to have a look at some engravings and paintings from medieval history - obviously there's no exact replication of dances from that period, but you can get an idea of shape and style.'

With all the research and preparation in the world there's still enough unpredictability in the rehearsal room keep things lively:

'I've literally thrown away hours of choreography for this show. Things change all the time. For example, the musical arrangement for the wedding dance wasn't finalised until quite late - after I'd sorted out the steps. Suddenly there was an extra eight bars of music to choreograph to! Sometimes you just have to think on your feet.' But then, this being the Movement team, that shouldn't be too much trouble.

Written by Fiona Handscomb © RSC
Photo shows James Traherne (on the horse) with Peter Peverley and David Rubin in rehearsal for the RSC's production of Morte d'Arthur in 2010 © RSC

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