We were four days into Julius Caesar rehearsals, when I whispered in a hushed and excitable tone to a colleague beside me: “We’re working for the RSC!” My colleague replied, “Yes we are…” completing his response with a mocking and puzzled look. Nothing particularly amazing had just happened. It's not like we'd just been shown the excellent model of the stage; that had happened the week before. We hadn't just worked on a big exciting dance number either – that was to come in week three. Instead, our director Angus Jackson had simply made a query about the design process. But that was the moment the enormity of the Rome Season dawned on me - and those moments of awe, excitement, overwhelming pride and yes, sheer fear, came thick and fast in the weeks to come.
As I write this, we are entering week four of rehearsals. Still fuzzy brained from the excesses of the festive season, I checked the call sheet in the morning and, like an idiot, still managed to go into work when I didn’t need to. Choosing to ignore the enticing call of my warm bed, I'm finally sitting down to write this blog. But so much has happened it's going to have to be a whistle-stop tour, I’m afraid. No one likes a waffler after all, am I right or am I right?
The weak rhetorical question above provides the tenuous basis for week one of Julius Caesar rehearsals. Naturally, there was plenty of text work done: talking about character, meaning, intention etc. But, rhetoric as a device to influence the play seemed to take centre stage. Two fantastically charismatic speakers came in: Sam Leith, literary editor of The Spectator, and Benet Brandreth, writer of The Spy of Venice: A William Shakespeare Novel. Between them, they educated us on rhetoric's ability “to move, to educate, and delight” the masses. In the play, we see how dangerous it can be. How clever men use it to their own ends to enforce mob rule. The politically charged language of 2016, and the rhetoric of these iconic Roman leaders is extremely palpable.
Week two marked a move away from Julius Caesar and towards Antony & Cleopatra. With a new play, new cast members, and a new director it suddenly felt like day one again. One of the interesting effects of working in this repertory style is how duplicitous it feels. Suddenly having to focus on a whole new play felt a little like cheating; and if you’re about to cheat on the muscular, testosterone fuelled Julius Caesar, the beguiling and sexual world of Antony & Cleopatra makes the perfect partner in crime.
I’ve had several revelations since work started on Antony & Cleopatra. Notably, how funny it is! There was also the performance of our two leads which, even in these very early stages, was a pleasure to watch.
Week two was broken up with a field trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. In fact, it probably wins the award for the coolest Monday of 2016. We had our first music call with the composer for Antony & Cleopatra, Laura Mvula. Having someone you listen to on the radio trying to gauge your singing range first thing on a Monday morning was unnerving to say the least. Still, it was very, very cool.
Rehearsals in London that last week before Christmas were split between both plays, with a mixture of more text work and tentative staging for one of the bigger crowd scenes. But really, week three belonged to one man: James (Jim) Shapiro. Our director Angus Jackson referred to him as “God in the room” when it comes to Shakespeare. James is the Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He’s written several books on Shakespeare, been lauded with praise from the press, and won several awards for his biographies. Oh. And he’s hilarious. It’s almost like he swallowed 50 encyclopedias on Shakespeare, digested them, cut out the dryness, and made them instantly accessible. Almost like 'Siri' with a Brooklyn accent. His easy manner, coupled with his incredible humbleness, quickly made him a firm favourite with cast members from both plays.
As I write this, I am sat staring at the mountain of Shakespeare related books and DVDs I got as presents over Christmas (thanks sis!). When I think of that one moment that sticks out over the last month, there really was only one – the day we went to Stratford. To some extent, it was a reconnaissance day. We were going to get measurements taken for costumes and see the cottages where we’d be living next year. As I got off the coach I had nearly missed (that’s another story), the first thing I was struck by was how unbelievably scenic everything was in the winter sun.
We were given our RSC identity cards. There it was. In black, white and red: “RSC. Waleed Elgadi. The Roman Season Company”. Little heart swell! Later on that day we were scheduled a voice session on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage. As I stepped on to the stage where so many iconic actors have stood before me, I can’t help but think to myself: “Well done Waleed. You’ve come a long way.”