Plymouth

Simon Gregor perhaps in supplication to Lyn Gardner

Simon Gregor perhaps in supplication to Lyn Gardner

I came down to Plymouth on Sunday. On Monday we were in TR2 the extraordinary theatre-making complex that the Theatre Royal got built seven years ago. It has aircraft-hanger-size rooms for costume, props, set painting and rehearsal. The Germans probably have a word for this: Eine Teatermaschine. A morning of working sections and notes; the afternoon a run. The rehearsal room is vast, high high ceilings, and a run of windows at chest height around the walls, looking out on reclaimed land and rubble. The run? Hard to say. It hung together, felt a bit long, very disjointed. I made a few notes, decided not to give them. I think a couple of scenes have got baggy and out of shape, but really only two. The cast are in good spirits though and the play still remains surprising and fitfully funny. What’s curious about this moment is the way that all your confidence evaporates. Or rather, the confidence you are required, as a writer, to have in the script, and I am very confident about that, is replaced with a new wonder about actual audiences. Will they like this production? Will they tune into it? Will they get it?

On Tuesday and Wednesday we were in the theatre. The technical rehearsal (where the lights, sound, props movements, costume changes and other stuff are painstakingly agreed and fixed) is notoriously boring, frustrating for everyone except the designers and the director. Actually, even for them too. But it’s also something I find very moving, especially in a beautifully kitted-out theatre like the Drum. It’s the sight of everyone - someone up a ladder, another person typing into a laptop, actors walking on in new costumes, the director in intense discussion with the sound designer - all engaged in their separate activities but all focused on a common goal. That is, you hope so.

The technical rehearsal was very slow; it was scheduled for a day and a half but ended up knocking the dress rehearsal to the Thursday. The main problem is the beginning which is enormously elaborate to set up and difficult to strike. Then there’s a complicated short montage scene with half a dozen little set ups. But mostly the issue has been style; how to light a show like this, with its stark playfulness with theatrical representation. Some of the designers’ ideas were just too statement-y. The play strives to avoid editorialising (in a way that even I find uncomfortable in places) and the production needs to do the same. I’m pleased to see that the scene titles are being projected onto the set; less happy that through font, size and placement, the titles seem to be commenting on themselves and the action. Fortunately, Simon’s all over this and they calm down.

The lighting similarly started commentating on the action. Not just a prostitute’s room but a seedy room. Colour starts telling us what to think. Again, Simon reins this back, makes everything starker - and crisper, cleaner - and the scenes seem to me, at least, to be funnier. The sound delights me; there’s a curious Russian piece by Cafe Sputnik which starts as a slavic lament and then reveals itself as a piece of contemporary electronica; it bridges the prologue and first scene beautifully. Then there’s a sleazy bit of dance music by Fedde Le Grand and Ida Corr called ‘Let Me Think About It’ which graces the lapdancing scene. Elsewhere there are some lovely little stings of music, sound, disruptions that keep the thing tugging forward.

Never having been through this kind of tech before, I’m struck by how flexible the system is. Not everything is ready before it begins; costume appears in pieces through the day. Chekhov himself emerges slowly; first the beard which Simon’s been growing, then the suit, then the pince-nez, and then a very impressive wig which manages to complete an extraordinary transformation. Chekhov is before us in all his iconic glory. Lights are changing through scenes, things are provisional, altered, transformed, debated over and locked off. Often I think it’s here that directors come into their own and the sense of them keeping a whole show in one head is most

Simon’s broader transformation is the other story of the week. Chekhov in this play is a tricky part. He has very little to say but is on stage almost all the time. His journey is sketched in through hints and indications and the actor is obliged to dig for it and find ways to bring it out through tiny moments. Simon’s always been good - he’s an eccentric, wiry, edgy character, prone to burst into a curious voice, stray fragment of obscene language, even a funny walk - but here, this week, his Chekhov has been striding forward: he’s an innocent abroad, saddened by the world, perplexed at times, devastated at others. Does he understand what he’s seeing? Sometimes it seems not, but then cumulatively he carried a weight of moral despair. Simon’s found a character for him that is part-M. Hulot, part-Peter Sellars in Being There. Simon Stokes is fond of describing him as a Wandering Jew, an exile and a moral force.

And then first night. The two hours or so before first night are probably the loneliest I’ve felt in years. Not just because I don’t have Lilla here in Plymouth with me, though that is difficult, but also because a lot rests on my shoulders but it’s not a burden to share. Of course, we all made this show together, but, more than anything I’ve done before, there’s a focus of attention on the play and therefore the writer. The cast have each other and the adrenalin of performance; Simon’s in his own theatre and has experience and an apparatus around him. I took myself off and ate tapas at the theatre next door. Then, half an hour or so before the show, I turn up at the theatre. Some familiar faces, David Prescott, Simon of course, Louise Schumann. A large, young audience, which seems to me a good thing and we go in.

The cast are nervous. They’ve had a nervy, though sound, dress rehearsal only a couple of hours before. A couple of them had disastrous line-failures that I’ve never seen. The first scene, which plays entirely in Russian and German, feels agonizingly long. It isn’t, but one realises that when you have the witty idea to start by alienating the audience, that means you’re going to start by alienating the audience. I remember the same thing in Static. I wanted to disrupt the play early on, give a brutal experience of loss and grief, in all its unpleasantness; short, broken scenes, incomplete fragments of dialogue, loud aggressive music (Sonic Youth’s ‘Tunic’). And as I watched it in the Tron, I thought, holy crap, this is unpleasant.

With this play, however, it’s worth it because there’s an immediate pay-off that releases tension and forces a laugh into the show. And it goes pretty smoothly from then on. The audience warm immensely to both Chekhov and Nicola. Nicola is our guide and hands over smoothly to Chekhov who then becomes our horrified Virgil through the Inferno of modern life. Some lines continue to elude their speakers, but the show goes very well indeed. One scene - the scene, I might say, that only four days ago Simon was toying with cutting - gets a round of applause (a young guy behind me, as the lights went down at the end of it, breathed ‘brilliant’...). The older audience adore Clare Willis, the hapless Police Community Support Officer, and identify the absurdity immediately. The younger audience respond readily to things like Chekhov on Twitter; their laugh at ‘OMFG! I heart Justin Bieber’ was the loudest of the night. Surprisingly perhaps, Marcia, the R&B star, got a muted response (though the ‘why you have shit in fridge’ doesn’t seem to fail). Sustained applause at the end.

I felt exhausted. While I can’t say I feel nervous exactly, the tension builds through the day and at each moment I’m flicking ahead to things to come, possible pitfalls, risky moments, but also solid gold laughs that I think will comfort the audience and me. So when the whole thing is over, I just feel like falling asleep in my seat. At the Drum of course you have to walk out with the audience; the risk of hearing some caustic remark is high. Luckily all I heard was ‘Ohmygod that was SO brilliant, but I don’t have a clue what it was about’, which I’ll settle for.

We all repair to the pub and talk contentedly, frantically, the nervous energy pouring out of us. I feel guarded somehow, probably because I’m loving this production so much and I’m concerned, like Bob in the play, about getting intense. In truth, even though we’ve only had half a week of performances, I’m already feeling that desperate sadness that comes from a show ending. Actors are, maybe, used to it, the promiscuity of the theatre, each period of intensity dropped and another picked up. I noticed that a member of the cast already has another show lined up after this one closes and I felt a moment of intense affronted jealousy. It’s emotionally exhausting.

And now we wait to see what audiences do and how the critics respond.