I was laughing hysterically, elbowing Ian Redford who was sitting to my right. 'Magic really DOES exist!' I squealed loudly in his face.
We, The Alchemist cast were having a workshop with the brilliant magician, Peter Clifford (who works closely with Derren Brown) and he had the vast majority of us duped, like putty in his hands. Around me cynical minds were stunned into involuntary gasps, dropped jaws and childlike wonder. He really made us believe he was reading minds and auras, summoning up the day of the week that we were born, correctly deciphering the playing cards in our hands, our star sign or our favourite football team just by looking into our eyes or making us walk across the room.
I was gutted when he revealed some (not all) of the tricks of his trade. Ben Johnson's play is a pox-ridden, pustulating tale of criminals, prostitutes and con-artists who use and abuse the gullible, greedy, desperate and dim to survive in a London swarming with the plague. Peter kindly imparted some of his knowledge so that the actors playing the 'con-Ners' could better manipulate the actors playing the 'con-Nees' (and the audience) into the state of true awe that we, as a cast, found ourselves in.
It felt like there was a lot of magic happening in the rehearsal room this week. The first time I read The Alchemist I had no idea what was going on. I had to read each scene with the Wikipedia plot summary alongside it. I read it again when I got cast as a 'Neighbour' and understudying the lead female of 'Doll Common' and I still didn't get it all if I'm honest. We read it out loud on the first day of rehearsals and the lead actors brought it alive. It was a Jacobethan farce, which made me laugh and it was very funny. But the language still tripped me up a bit.
We spent a week and a half round the table 'uniting' [pronounced: unit-ing] the whole play in order to fully work out who was doing what to whom and why. 'Uniting' essentially means that each scene is divided into sections, which are determined by something changing for every character involved at that moment in the scene. Polly Findlay, our director, told us that she has done this for almost every play she has directed and that The Alchemist has been 'hands down' the hardest one to ‘unit’.
Next we did something that I initially thought was completely bonkers but the effect was utterly transformative. We did a run of the play from beginning to end with no blocking, just actors going on instinct, telling the story. I got it all. The uniting and homework that had been done in the last two weeks meant that I went from first reading the play in November and being pretty convinced it was always going to go a little bit over my head, to now falling about with laughter as I watched, loved and understood every minute.
That's an actor's (and director's) magical power. To make plays from 400 years ago make complete sense, be gripping and funny and look as if the things being done and said on stage are being invented, from the air, in that moment.
It looks like we'll also have the help of a great card trick or two, puffs of smoke and some wizardry-pokery.
It could be a really good 'un.