By George Mann
Every time I read it; every time we get it on its feet: I notice something new. Pink Mist, by Owen Sheers, is an extraordinary play. It’s so layered, so full with meaning and emotion. It is written in verse, a dramatic poem that is graceful, yet explosive. So working with Director, John Retallack, on what is to be my first production as Associate Director here at Bristol Old Vic, is quite a humbling task to say the least.
John has charged me with finding the physical language and embodiment of the play on stage. Essentially, I’m trying to figure out how to create a visual poetic style, as it were, that supports Sheers’ poem, and brings it alive without ever illustrating what is so beautifully written. How does the body seamlessly become one with the text? How can a chorus of six actors deliver this important message to Bristol? Because for those that don’t know, Pink Mist is very much a play for Bristol, it’s set in this unique city, told by six different Bristolian characters, all affected by war. As I said, a humbling task…
So on Monday, inspired by ideas of choral work – in particular Greek Chorus – I began by leading the company through a number of exercises aimed at exploring the physical and spatial possibilities of six actors on a stage. I started by preparing the bodies of the actors for the stage using the seven levels of tension; this exercise comes from Lecoq’s pedagogy (I trained at the Lecoq school in Paris) but over the last nine years at Theatre Ad Infinitum with co-director Nir Paldi, we’ve inevitably put our own swing on it. The idea is that the play, (its themes, characters and situations that we put on stage) is extraordinary – so the actor needs to physically step up to this extra-ordinary level with her/his body. Once each actor has the seven levels in their body, it becomes a common physical language we can all refer to – for example, if someone’s level of tension is too low I can then say – you’re in 3, you need to be in 5!
We then looked at how six people can move together on a stage. Our space is 5x5m, (I don’t want to reveal too much now, but just to say that Emma Cains‘ design is very exciting and I can’t wait to see it in the Theatre!) and we are working in a minimalist way with only a chair, a bench, and our bodies. What has become apparent throughout our workshops discovering the play back in April and this week is that the art of suggestion seems to work very well for this piece. In the same way the poem with only a few lines can suggest an entire space, with images, feelings, and characters all at once in the readers mind, the most exciting discoveries we’ve made physically work because they also suggest a multitude of things for the audience to imagine and engage with too. What I’m hoping we’ll end up with is a feast for the eyes, imagination and senses – a visceral theatrical experience in which the text and physical language work seamlessly.
In chorus work, because we have six people on stage in our case, every time the ensemble move together – that movement is amplified. I quickly learned that less is more, but also, when there’s a need for impact – and in Pink Mist, there are some distinctive moments that warrant an emotional punch – it’s exciting to see just how powerful the chorus work can be.
We have three weeks to realise the play, and a week to tech, preview and open for press night. So there’s no time to waste! By Monday afternoon we had dived headfirst into staging the first act. I had my action plan prepared, but I also like to work with the creativity the actors bring to the mix – and we’re blessed to have a superb cast so there was no shortage of ideas, improvised material and generous amounts of energy. Some moments take time to create and we’ve discovered that there will be some very detailed and precise movement work to accomplish for the play. Other moments have quite literally come to life in unexpectedly fast ways, and there have been some challenges that were difficult to solve. But the creative process is always a problem solving rollercoaster – and this is only the beginning!
After two days of hard work we were all delighted to have a first draft of act one ready to show to the production team, and staff here at Bristol Old Vic. And on the Wednesday we ran act one and got some great reactions and feedback. John identified strong moments in what we have found so far, and moments that require more development – something he’s going to work on in the coming days. We all saw Emma’s final theatre, set and costume design – hence my excitement, above! And I’m happy to say that it feels as if we’re on the right track.
But the most moving and poignant moments of the week were meeting two ex-army servicemen, Ken and Swifty, who have in their own ways suffered the trauma of war and lived to tell the tale. They came to the theatre to meet us and tell us their stories. They were so open and generous, so bloody funny and full of humour, their stories had us all laughing and crying – we could have listened for hours – literally. So a huge thank you goes out to the two of them for taking the time, and for what it’s worth, a civvies salute too.
As for what’s to come in the weeks ahead: it’s certainly not going to be easy. But I think I can safely say we all feel excited, inspired and driven to do the best job we can do.
I literally can’t wait to get back in the rehearsal room.