It’s incredible that we've already performed our first preview at the Lowry Theatre in Manchester's Salford Quays. A few weeks ago we were just beginning rehearsals and meeting each other for the first time! Some old friends returned to the show but mainly it is a brand new cast coming together to put on one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays.
In that sense, there have obviously been moments fraught with anxiety, but overall we managed to fit an extraordinary amount of work into a very short space of time. The new members of the cast had meetings with Director Simon Godwin over December, which helped pave the way for the work that we were to do in rehearsals. Some members of the original company have also moved into new roles, roles that they may have understudied in the previous production, and this has provided them with a whole new perspective on the play they thought they knew so well.
We started rehearsals in much the same way we did two years ago, with games and laughter to help us bond and get to know each other. There is always that sense of fear that needs to be dispelled on the first few days of rehearsal, and laughing helps greatly with that. Even though we had so little time, Simon sat us down for three days of ever-important table work. I think that's essential as it gives us all a chance to start grappling with Shakespeare himself. We read a line each and then go back to paraphrase the words into modern English so that we can understand what images and meanings come up for us and possibly a modern audience. It really helps anchor the entire cast in one story. Without this step, there may be 18 different people in 18 different stories.
Another fascinating exercise that we do during table work is to structure our thoughts in four categories: historical facts and historical questions against present facts and present questions. Once we have completed a scene, we ask questions about the distant past that the scene points us to, before stating historical facts that we have found out from the scene. We then ask present questions about the scene, about anything that may be in place 24 hours before the scene happens. Finally, present facts are stated that directly relate to what is happening in the scene. We never ask questions or make statements about what is 'in scene' as that is up to the actors to decide, especially when it comes to emotional arcs or relationships.
Once that work is done and we are all on the same page, then it’s time to get up on our feet and start working. Because this is a touring show of the Hamlet we did in Stratford in 2016, we had a basic framework to work from. Having never done a tour, it’s so interesting to see how we have adapted the show to fit a new cast. A new set, too, has been designed on the theme of what we had before. Elements of the set are new and some elements the same. We now have tall windows along the top of the cyclorama wall, which we never had before, but the wall is detailed in uneven wood panels exactly like we had in Stratford.
In the rehearsal room, a lot of new work has come to the fore because of the changes in cast. Even though we have had such a short time in rehearsals, Simon was completely open and accommodating to new ideas. Work that we liked from before was sometimes discussed but mainly new impulses and solutions were welcomed. This is definitely the play we did two years ago, but the accommodation of new thoughts and tightening of old ways of doing things has meant that so much feels fresh and original.
We have already had a taste of what touring is and what it means to be “on the road”: travelling to Hackney in London and searching for digs for the rehearsal period, trying to catch those bargain properties in each of the tour cities, learning both sets of lines, realising that you forgot to book your train to Manchester and that you're going to miss the cheaper advance options if you don't start booking for the other tour venues right now — you really have to be on it! Mostly everything is sorted so that I can just focus on the shows. Touring does bring a nomadic feel to your existence and that’s exciting. I am looking forward to seeing cities in the UK that I have not had the chance to visit and that's what makes touring special.
We've now opened in the Lowry after a full tech week and four previews. It went really well and we're all looking forward to the rest of this experience.