‘Escaping isolation’ - bringing the Bard into the open air

Whisper #166

After waiting 16 months to bring The Comedy of Errors to life, Assistant Director Hal Chambers has to isolate for the final rehearsals.

Ping!

Who said life isn’t full of dramatic twists and turns… 

Having been pinged by the NHS Covid-19 App I have spent the last few days in isolation, away from my beloved theatre family. Whilst they work in our exciting new outdoor theatre, I watch on from a live stream at home. It all feels very 2021. What strange times we still live in.  

The last few weeks in rehearsals have been invigorating. Many of our original team were together making the show in March 2020 when the theatres were shut down because of Covid first rearing its ugly head. On our return to rehearsals in mid-May 2021, we welcomed eight new cast members. They brought a bright new energy with them and made us see some of the roles in a different light. 

The mood was triumphant; just being in a theatre rehearsing was a miracle of sorts. On top of that, the RSC were building a brand new outdoor theatre in record time. There was a slightly giddy feeling about the whole thing. Our rehearsal space was the Royal Shakespeare Theatre itself. Our breakout room? The Swan. Rehearsing a play at the RSC has never been like this before, that is for sure. 

Blurry black and white photo showing actors on the Garden Theatre stage
Hal's live rehearsal feed is the closest he gets to the stage in isolation
Photo by Hal Chambers © The artist Browse and license our images

In the early weeks of rehearsals, we dived back into this wonderful play with renewed vigour and a few safety measures. We dissected the text in detail, all of us reading the play together in a giant, socially-distanced circle on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage. We were tested for Covid twice a week. We wore masks at all times, only taking them off to speak or act. We wiped down our chairs with anti-bacterial wipes at the end of each day. All of these things were put in place to keep us safe and soon enough they became second nature. And so we were able to focus on the play and Shakespeare’s wonderful words. 

To sharpen the actors' minds and voices, our director, Phillip Breen, led us on an exploration of Shakespeare’s Sonnets twice a week. Actors stepped up and performed a sonnet each and together we tried to understand what demands these little poetic ‘flashes of lightning’ placed on an actor. Each sonnet has its own set of unique challenges. They teach us a lot about trusting the sounds of the words and letting the iambic rhythm affect us. These sessions were a kind of Shakespearean bootcamp and were a tremendous tee up into tackling the juicy language in The Comedy of Errors

actors on the chequered stage in front of an audience in the Garden Theatre during daylight
The Comedy of Errors in the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre
Photo by Pete Le May © RSC Browse and license our images

Soon we were putting the play on its feet. Comedy is a meticulous business to put together. The timing of certain moments and delivery of punchlines needs patience from all involved. We are trying to find a psychological truth to the characters through lines and to play against the kind of slapstick melodrama that productions of The Comedy of Errors can sometimes embrace. 

The jigsaw puzzle slowly came together. We readied ourselves to take the work outside. 

Preparing a brand new show for a brand new theatre during a global pandemic was never going to be straightforward, right?! Through the technical and dress rehearsals we are learning a lot about the show and how it exists in this exciting new space. The Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre is surrounded by trees. The sound of water and swans from the Avon feel thrillingly close. The canopy above us is the blue sky. The sun beats down and the actors are encouraged to slap on lots of sun cream and drink plenty of water. The RSC is outside in Stratford - a unique and historic moment in its long history. 

And now we wait for our audiences to finally return. Through the week of previews we will learn a lot about the production and carefully adapt the show accordingly. Because of the outdoor setting, the play has an even closer relationship with its audience. The actors can look into the whites of the audience’s eyes. There is no hiding places on stage, we need to perform with honesty, openness and bravery. 

The next few days will be a genuinely life-affirming experience for us and our audience. And for me personally I can’t wait to finish my isolation period and start living life for real, rather than through the confinement of the computer screen. I look forward to seeing you all IRL (in real life) very, very soon! 

Welcome back. 

Hal Chambers

Hal Chambers is the Assistant Director on The Comedy of Errors. He is a director, puppet director and education facilitator based in south London. He has recently directed work for Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, York Theatre Royal, Eastern Angles, Polka Theatre, RADA and Shakespeare’s Globe Education. He is super excited about working with the RSC for the first time!

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