As I sit here in my dressing room, snow belting down outside, attempting to write thoughts from my excitable and scrambled brain, the question of how to describe my first ten weeks working with the RSC seems almost unanswerable. In short: it has changed my life. 

Now for a bit of background. I am a singer. Or, I suppose, was a singer - now perhaps a ‘singer-actor’ or ‘singer movement-specialist’ (I don’t have any lines as such) - though perhaps ‘specialist’ is a little overstating my movement in the show!

Before being cast in Malfi, I had never been in a play - in fact, I had only ever been to the theatre four times! As a counter-tenor (a bloke who sings pretty high), my work to this point has been choral music and opera. 

My routine normally includes either a recital or a church service. The juxtaposition between my usual experience in the world of singing to being in this production is massive. 

From the outset, it was pretty clear Malfi was going to be a bit different. As I lay down on the plastic mat (presumably bought from Serial Killers R Us!) in the rehearsal rooms in Clapham, fake blood being poured mercilessly into my eyes by an unyielding Mr Richard Hurst (Grisolan), my mind was cast back to just a week before, when I'd been singing at a church for evensong and settling into a bit of Bach.

I found myself faced on that first day with a binary decision. In a room full of immensely talented actors, an impressive director and a movement specialist, I was being asked to invent physical material for the first time in my life (as well as to find inventive new ways to pour blood over my partner and have it poured over me…). What was initially being sought was a ‘gesture of masculinity’. Begin internal conversation:

Anxiety voice (loudly): ‘You can’t possibly do this, you’ll look like an idiot… You’re not exactly the most manly of men. You sing like a girl. I mean… Why are you even here? You’re clearly in the wrong place.’

Better judgement: ‘Well… the only way to look more of an idiot is to not commit…’

The result: some kind of ninja type action. It’s fair to say that at the start of the process I wasn’t that connected to my physicality. That, amongst many other things, has changed. 

A close-up of a man's face stained with stage blood
Francis after the blood rehearsal.

I wouldn’t go back. Not that I dislike Bach (he’s the don), or even church, but nothing quite beats the raw emotion, expression and artistic freedom I have experienced over the past weeks. There is nothing polite about Malfi - it’s in your face, raw, and completely human. Further to this, the overt expression I have been exposed to since starting Malfi has helped push me to a new level in my singing. I take more risks and feel a wider range of emotion. 

The yoga sessions, movement calls, vocal therapy, and observation of great actors through the rehearsal process have all contributed to a complete change in my relationship with my body. I have begun to understand the relationship between the mental and the physical. In fact, they aren’t actually separate in my mind: the mental and physical are so interlinked as to be the same. This has had a huge impact on my life, and my voice. Whereas previously I had been a little ‘buttoned-up’, sometimes over-analysing how I was performing (both in life and on stage), now I am able to experience and enjoy performance. That spine-tingling feeling of really being present and communicating through performance - it’s the best thing I have ever experienced.

Since starting Malfi, those moments have been almost constant. The talent of the people around me is at least partly the reason. The moment of the Duchess’ death consists of a Gregorian traditional song being sung by soloist and chorus underscoring a brutal strangling. Joan Iyiola’s Duchess is astonishing - the presence and commitment are so incredibly moving - all I have to do is tap in and out comes the voice. 

I feel outrageously lucky to be involved in this project - from Orlando Gough's wonderful score down to the long-suffering stage-management team (I lose things constantly). A few things about this process have really surprised me. We didn’t look at the text for over a week. That first week in the rehearsal room consisted almost entirely of building a physical landscape for the play - inventing movement material as an entire cast that individually expressed the themes explored in the text. A highlight was the exercise where we were split into groups and had to devise different interpretations of Christmas carols from ‘turbo-masculine’, to ‘ultra-feminine’, to ‘tomboy’. The results were brilliant, and hilarious. My favourite was the rendition of Ding Dong Merrily on High by the Tomboys, absolutely nailed by Amanda Hadingue. At one point she stepped out of the ensemble, giving it the rude double-V and screaming ‘MERRILY ON HIGH’. She then seemed to come to herself, realise what she was doing might have been a little OTT, and stepped self-consciously back into the group. Smashed it. 

When we did eventually come to look at the script, it was a group process. Everyone had a voice and an opinion, and each was heard and discussed when presented. While this sometimes led to interesting and very long conversations (at one point everyone was quite confused for about an hour about which way a crab was moving), it has meant that everyone is totally connected to the text because we each hold a stake in it. 

The result of this whole process is that, as I sit here now (the sun having melted the snow outside), we have a dynamic play that is raring to go. Anyway, got to dash - time to get into costume for the last technical rehearsal before the run starts in two days. Expect an impolite, abrasive, human experience. Oh, and mind you don’t get any blood in your eyes... 

Francis Gush

Francis Gush

Francis Gush is an English countertenor and graduate of the Royal College of Music under the tutelage of Lawrence Zazzo, Dinah Harris, and Caroline Dowdle. Francis has recently become a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, having been cast as the solo singer in a production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford.

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