Act Two, Scene One. All aboard!

Art versus Life.
After a whirlwind few days, a somewhat wobbly dress rehearsal and more technical tweaking, we boldly hurtled towards opening night. It's been a tense time and all praise goes to our director/producer Alastair, the technical team and indeed the cast for their hard work and dedication in making it happen. As Alastair writes in the programme notes, Art really does reflect Life and just as Our Country's Good shines a light on the social significance of theatre and importance of fighting for the arts, few watching the show will realise the financial struggles Alastair faced in getting this show on the road. The state of our Arts funding in the the UK right now is at a depressing low and my heartfelt admiration goes out to Original Theatre Company who, as yet without any state subsidy whatsoever, continue to strive tirelessly to create diverse, engaging and challenging theatre for everyone across the country and beyond.

Opening Night.
I'm pleased to say the show opened to a packed house at The Haymarket this week and we're already receiving fantastic feedback from the audiences so far. It's been satisfying to perform to a diverse crowd in Basingstoke that has included young students as well as the more usual older crowd who tend to be drawn to the theatre. And, who thank god for us, keep theatre in the regions alive. The response on opening night was wonderfully vocal reminding us that despite the grit and despair, this play is really rather funny too and has some gorgeous moments of light relief. Comedy can come from the bleakest situations and as a company so seriously engrossed in creating a truthful production you can quickly forget about the funny bits that we all laughed at on the first day. Our audiences certainly gave us a welcome reminder about the wonderful gallows humour that Timberlake gives us in this play.

There's a long standing tradition in the theatre of actors giving each other good luck cards or small momento's on the first night - a chance to reach out in acknowledgement of each other's hard work and make an occasion of communally taking the plunge together. I'd like to share with you my first night gift from Emma Gregory (the actress playing Liz Morden) - a scroll containing the following quote from English writer and free-thinking philosopher William Hazlitt: 
In Defence of Actors.

Actors have been accused, as a profession, of being extravagant and dissipated. While they are said to be so as a piece of common cant, they are likely to continue so. With respect to the extravagance of actors, as a traditional character, it is not to be wondered at. They live from hand to mouth: they plunge from want into luxury; they have no means of making money breed, and all professions that do not live by turning money into money, or have not a certainty of accumulating it in the end by parsimony, spend it. Uncertain of the future, they make sure of the present moment. This is not unwise. Chilled with poverty, steeped in contempt, they sometimes pass into the sunshine of fortune, and are lifted to the very pinnacle of public favour; yet even there cannot calculate on the continuance of success; but are, "like the giddy sailor on the mast, ready with every blast to topple down into the fatal bowels of the deep!"  With respect to the habit of convivial indulgence, an actor, to be a good one, must have a great spirit of enjoyment in himself, strong impulses, strong passions, and a strong sense of pleasure: for it is his business to imitate the passions, and to communicate pleasure to others. A man of genius is not a machine. The neglected actor may be excused if he drinks oblivion of his disappointments; the successful one if he quaffs the applause of the world, and enjoys the friendship of those who are the friends of the favourites of fortune, in draughts of nectar. There is no path so steep as that of fame: no labour so hard as the pursuit of excellence. If there is any tendency to dissipation beyond this in the profession of a player, it is owing to the prejudices entertained against them, to that cant of criticism, which slurs over their characters, while living, with a half-witted jest. Players are not only so respectful as a profession as they might be, because their profession is not respected as it ought to be.

William Hazlitt 1778-1830

Something About Mary. Off to pastures new...
I'm really looking forward to our next stop, The Rose Theatre in Kingston. I know a few actors who have performed there and I think it's going to be rather a unique space to work in. It's a new, purpose built theatre only opening in 2008 and the auditorium is based on the original Elizabethan Rose Theatre on the Southbank of London. There's even a 'pit' where the audience can chose to get up close to the action by siting on cushions right at the foot of the stage. It's going to be real joy to have such close interaction. A warts and all performance. No hiding! Erected in 1587, the original Bankside Rose Theatre eventually fell out of use and by 1606 was abandoned. Shame. I'm sure Sideway would have loved it.

Finally, in this rather brief post (I hope you'll forgive me, it's been a hell of a week!) I'd like to leave you with some more images of the production with thanks to our fantastic photographer Jack Ladenburg. I hope this whets the appetite. 

Come along if you can. And if you can't make Kingston, check out the other TOUR DATES hereWe'd love your support. 

It's still early days and in each show I feel like we grow in confidence and become a tighter ensemble working together to tell a timeless story of humanity. A story based on an incredible part of our history. 

Sheun Shote as The Aborigine

Inside the Officers' Mess

Jenny Ogilvie and Phil Whitchurch: Harry and Duckling Go Rowing

Stay tuned next week where I'll be beginning a new feature of interviews with the cast! 

Emily x

Act One, Scene Four: Treading the boards and avoiding the gallows.

Sailing in at The Haymarket.
Here we go! The arrival at the theatre for our final rehearsals and 'tech' week. I'm told the building that houses the Haymarket dates back to the 1860's but the recently renovated theatre inside is a modern proscenium arch theatre with a horseshoe auditorium that feels spacious but nicely intimate when standing on stage. 
I feel the change of scene this week is good for us. Moving out of the rehearsal room in London and just being in a theatre building makes it seem all the more real - by next Wednesday we'll be on the Haymarket stage entering a whole new phase; learning about how the play the works in front of an audience. I can't wait. It's easy at this point in rehearsals to become insular and over critical of oneself and elements of the production that once seemed straightforward seem difficult. The first night date looms overhead, omnipresent, and it feels like suddenly every second counts. As the stress creeps in I've occasionally found myself 'end- gaming', rushing through to achieve an end result of what I think a scene needs to be rather than keeping relaxed and playing and being open to new discoveries. 

I was having a chat about the scene, "Brenham and Wisehammer Exchange Words" with John (aka Aden Gillett who plays Wisehammer). We were talking about the timing within the scene, and I was asking something a bit technical about whether it's better for him if I start speaking a certain line when he's downstage of me rather than upstage, and rather wisely he suggested that we just keep changing it up as he can get bored rather quickly once anything is set in stone. It's a good point. It's going to be a long tour, and as much as it's important to have a clear map in your head of your character's journey and a strong base in the overall decisions made with the director, a show will become stale and deaden if the sense of 'play' is lost. So i'll be aiming to keep myself and others on their toes!

Captain Birdseye and his Fish Fingers

The section of the play John and I were discussing is one of my favourite of Mary's in the first act. It's a gentle and poignant scene where we see two convicts making a real connection, not through the very physical convict currency of sex or violence but though an appreciation words. The lucidity and ambivalence of the English language aptly fits Wisehammer and Mary's attempts to communicate the complexity and uncertainty of their feelings and experiences. In the scene Wisehammer is working but wants to engage with Mary, whilst Mary is desperately trying to finish copying out the play before nightfall. We decided to play with a silence at the beginning of the scene, a chance to see two people busy in their own worlds, comfortable in each others company, and certainly in Mary's case indifferent to the presence of the other. It might be nice to establish this initial silence at the beginning so that when Mary finally does engage with Wisehammer we see that he has really earned it.  
Stepping Up.
On Wednesday the set was fully up and ready for us to take our first tentative steps on stage. Alastair guided us through a walk around set where we are  shown the various exits and entrances. We walked through the journey underneath the stage that we will need to make (occasionally at speed!) to get from stage left to stage right. We were also made aware of any practicalities or pitfalls of the set (ie - there's a step there, or be aware of walking face first into that branch etc...)
We were also allocated our dressing rooms, and Rachel Donovan (Dabby) and I are settling in nicely as roomies in our new part time home. The morning was dedicated to more costume fittings with Ed and hair and make up calls with Jo. It won't be a glamorous show for us ladies - it's all about tattoos, grubby feet and greasy hair rather than hairspray and lippie!

After an afternoon of 'Push and Pull' rehearsal (practising our scene changes and making notes on our individual crate and prop moving responsibilities), Friday and Saturday was allocated to the Tech.

Phil, Gareth and Jenny create Harry's row boat 
'Arry was good to his oars

Some love 'em, some hate 'em. The technical rehearsal is the period where you become mole-like, burrowing yourself away in a dark theatre for about 48 hours or more. We go through the play at a snail's pace, continuously stopping and starting while sound and lights are plotted around you. Costumes are tweaked, props are tested, scene changes are dissected and every technical aspect (other than the performance) is distilled to a point which will enable the first dress rehearsal to run as smoothly as possible. I'm one of the sad few who enjoys the tech. It's the first chance that you get to be in costume and on the set and because the focus in not on the acting, and you go back and repeat sections over and over, you can really use the time to solidify lines, play about with the text a bit and get used to the environment and the acoustics of the space without the pressure of needing to perform.

Something about Mary.

The final scene titled Backstage, where we see the convicts getting ready for their performance of The Recruiting Officer, presents to us a very different Mary. The shrinking and shameful young convict woman has become an assertive leading lady; she boldly gives the temperamental Arscott notes on his performance, gives a gift to a fellow actress, and takes centre stage for the curtain call. She also defiantly stands up to Dabby when she realises her plan to escape could jeopardise the play and subsequently Ralph's position. At this point, as far as Mary is concerned, her 'love contract' with Ralph and new position within the colony has been sealed. With the performance about to start  I feel that Mary, bedecked as the beautiful and rich Silvia, is really getting into character - in an intimate moment with Ralph, she tells him of a dream where she sees herself with "a necklace of pearls and three children". 
Is the role giving Mary idea's above her station? Perhaps not. In "Letters to George" Max Stafford-Clark describes the potency and sexual excitement of seeing women on stage for the first time, and how the theatre had enabled some leading ladies to climb into the social stratosphere. It's said that George Farquhar had an affair with Anne Oldfield the actress who played 'Silvia' in the first production of the Recruiting Officer. "Nell Gwynne, a comedienne rated highly by Samuel Pepys, climbed the highest social pinnacle - into the kings' bed - while Lavinia Fenton, the first Polly Peachum, became Duchess of Bolton". Climbing out of poverty in Georgian England whether through criminal or legal means was practically impossible so this kind of social mobility was an incredible feat. It's quite likely that Mary would have heard about these famous actresses, and so perhaps the vision of herself as a be-jewelled gentlewoman and devoted wife and mother really does seem in that moment excitingly tangible.  

 Anne Oldfield was acknowledged as one of the best actresses of her time.
"Engaging Oldfield, who, with grace and ease, Could join the arts to ruin and to please." Alexander Pope

And it's not just Mary whose ambitions have been tapped through the play. Sideway now aspires to set up his own theatre company (something the real-life Robert Sideway did achieve). And Wisehammer, the once ignored and alienated Jew, now aspires to become a famous writer. Timberlake however doesn't let us off quite so easily. There's a sting in the tail when Ralph declares their first born should be named after his wife and the crashing reality of Mary as the convict mistress is bravely swallowed.

And so we head into show week with the usual excitement, aphrension and anticipation. I can't wait to share it....

Emily x

Act One, Scene Three: A Play for Now

Manning Up.
Our final week in Hackney has been a haze of coughs, sniffs and wheezes. I've been trying to fight off a persistent and rather pathetic cold, striving to clear the fug in my head enough to see Mary and the Rev. J in a sharper focus. As we continued to work through the play, I've been making discoveries about both my characters. Trying to find a physical and vocal quality for the Reverend is a nice parallel I have with Mary. She talks about the difficulties of trying to play a man, Jack Wilful in the Recruiting Officer, perfecting the walk and way you men 'hold your head'. The difference being of course that Silvia is a woman pretending to be a man, whereas in Our Country's Good, I'm actually supposed to be the Reverend Richard Johnson....
Or am I?
It's something we've been discussing a lot in rehearsals - how naturalistic do we go with women playing male officers? It's not a film, there's no time for elaborate changes between scenes where the women don prosthetic features, false beards and jock straps. And even if we did - do we really expect the audience to believe we're men?! In my head the Reverend is a 40 something, jowly fellow, slightly ruddy faced from a love of dark red wine and time outside tending to his vegetable patch in the hot Australian sun. But no matter how well I act, I'll never look like the image in my head. It seems that the way to go would be to embrace the 'theatricality' so passionately expressed in the play, by not hiding the fact that we are actors playing a multitude of characters. The design supports this, and there's been talk of the women donning military jackets over their dresses in full view of the audience - nothing hidden. Women playing men, playing women playing men. Just as in Shakespeare's day, it would be have been the norm to see men playing women playing men. Geddit?!

Mark Rylance, one of my favourite actors, as Olivia in Twelfth Night
I only get to play the Reverend for one scene, so it's a tricky task trying to feel like I'm creating a real and well-rounded person. 
There's not a huge amount of information given about him in the play. I don't think an impression of Tom Hollander will suffice! What I'm given are his limited views about theatre (something he doesn't seem to have much first hand experience of), his disapproval of 'co-habitation' and sex outside of marriage, (interestingly a disapproval which applies equally to convicts and officers alike) and the importance he places on teaching morals and encouraging holy matrimony. We also know he is married and one of the few men permitted to have brought his wife with him. During the debate his opinion waivers, and I've been struggling to find his status with the other officers. There's something interesting about the dutiful, perhaps in some cases even grudging respect paid to a religious figure: the man Collins refers to as 'our moral guide'. And I feel as well as his own motives for making sure this convict play does more good than harm, there's also a sense of social politics at play. Does he decide to go along with the idea of putting on a play because he has been convinced, or because the man whose idea it is just happens to be the Governor in Chief of New South Wales? What's in it for the Reverend if he stays on side with Phillip? 
Perhaps rather than focusing on what gender I'm playing, I simply need to find what the Reverend wants and play his objectives to the full - then can I really start getting to grips with who this man is.

Why Our Country's Good? Why Now?
"It doesn't matter when the play is set, it's better if it's set in the past. It's clearer." Wisehammer Act 2, Sc.7

Our Country's Good was written in 1988. The Tories were in power, it was the height of Thatcher's Britain, and Max Stafford Clark describes in Letters to George how theatrical subsidy had taken a huge battering and the gap between rich and poor seemed to be larger than ever. (Ring any bells?)
However Timberlake decided to set her play in the late 18th century and I think Wisehammer has a good point.

I went to see the new play The Riots at the Tricycle Theatre recently, which couldn't be anymore 'current' if it tried. It's verbatim theatre so everything spoken in the play is a direct quote from real people: from MP's, to angry shop workers, to young looters. It's 100% a play for right now. It was a deeply moving, affecting and rousing piece - many people in the audience around me vocalised their response to what was being said, not something that's standard in usual polite British theatre. The subject of the play was something I and many of the other Londoners watching had been personally affected by. There was something so deeply personal and raw about watching the piece that my heart pounded throughout and my response was emotional and heated - so much so that I couldn't see any hope, I was despondent and unable to be quite so objective about the issues being raised.

Yet with Our Country's Good, because it's set in the past, it's not any less powerful or moving but it seems to bring our current day issues into a sharper focus. Some of the social views the play raises on crime and punishment and how to deal with the 'criminal classes' seem eerily familiar when considering the recent riots and how the perpetrators have been spoken about and dealt with.

The more I read and re-read Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore (also published in the late 1980s), the more this becomes glaringly apparent...

Fear of gangs:
"Days after the disturbances in August, David Cameron said gangs were "at the heart" of the trouble and announced he was calling in the US "supercop" Bill Bratton to advise on tackling gangs. Only three weeks ago Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, claimed that gang members had played a "significant part" in the unrest.
But the Home Office found that only one in eight (13 per cent) of those arrested were gang members, rising to 19 per cent in London, but well below that in other parts of the country. It added: "Most [police] forces perceived that where gang members were involved, they did not play a pivotal role." [The Independent]

"The perception of organised crime would not go away and in time it became more frightening to property owners. A single criminal could be singly met. The householder, armed with blunderbuss and paired horse pistols...could drive him away. But a collective of thugs and thieves, a united 'criminal class' working together in gangs - that was quite another matter. It was largely a fantastical notion, exaggerated by deep rooted territorial instincts. Gangs certainly existed in Georgian England but they were only responsible for a fraction of the deeds that the law defined as criminal... The failure of language - the tyranny of moral generalisation over social inspection - fed the ruling class's belief that it was endangered from below." [Hughes]

In Georgian times, punishment for crimes against property and theft were severe due to the the fear of 'the mob'. The vast majority of convicts (431 out of 733 transported in the first fleet of the convicts transported for 7 years or more were for crimes of minor theft.

- Elizabeth Beckford, 70, got 7 years transportation for stealing 12lbs of Gloucester cheese.
- Elizabeth Powley, 22 and unemployed, was to be hanged for raiding a kitchen in Norfolk for a few shillings' worth of raisins, flour and bacon, but was reprieved and sent to Australia for life.
- James Grace, 11, was shipped off for taking 10 yards of ribbon and a pair of silk stockings. [Hughes]

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We cannot have people being frightened in their beds, frightened in their own homes for their public safety.

"That is why these kind of exemplary sentences are necessary. I think people would be rightly alarmed if that incitement to riot got off with just a slap on the wrist."

- Nicolas Robinson, 23, of Borough, south-east London, was jailed for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of water from Lidl supermarket.
- Mother-of-two Ursula Nevin, from Manchester, was jailed for five months for receiving a pair of shorts given to her after they had been looted from a city centre store.

"A Criminal Class"
"The justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has blamed the riots ... on a 'broken penal system' that has failed to rehabilitate a group of hardcore offenders he describes as the "criminal classes". Clarke said the civil unrest had laid bare an urgent need for penal reform to stop re-offending among 'a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism'..." [Guardian]

Belief in a criminal class was self-fulfilling...mainly because it made rehabilitation so difficult. Once off the edge it was not easy to find another respectable job. From 1800 onward literature [...] sought to describe the causes of crime; poverty, lack of work, dislocation, vile housing, addiction, the death of hope. But the official enquiries [...] tended to hold the view that its class nature mattered more than its causes. [Hughes]

Riot police in Tottenham

Gordon Riots. Painting by Seymor Lucas.

Something About Mary:
On a lighter note, one of the the highlights of the week was finding the real buzz and excitement Mary experiences in the scene 'The Meaning of Plays'. It is one of the last Recruiting Officer rehearsal scenes we see towards the end of the play. It's been liberating to find that at this point, Mary's objective with the rehearsals are becoming less about getting it right, impressing Ralph and being a good student, and more about letting go and enjoying herself with Ralph. It's fun to feel the sense of release that acting gives Mary; the confidence and forthrightness she can unashamedly exploit being 'Jack Wilful'; and the licence it gives her to flirt her socks off with Ralph, under the protective coat of playing Silvia. Silvia's lines echo Mary's feelings and concerns about falling in love with Ralph so potently. Art really is beginning to reflect life. I'm relishing the way Mary can use Farqhuar's lines to express her true feelings. If it wasn't for her role in the play, perhaps she'd never be able to articulate herself so well.

Goodbye Hackney, Hello Basingstoke.
Sunny Bethnal Green

And so- after a heartening run of act one, and getting to see everyone else's (fantastic) work - it was time to bid farewell to our Bethnal Green home. We trundled off, cross country, to pastures new - The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke for our final week of rehearsals and (dare I say it?) imminent opening night....
Better dose up on those vitamins. Pass the sprouts.

Emily x
Graffiti on the wall at our rehearsal studios


Before my next blog, I thought it'd be useful to post our cast and tour details here.

Get booking! We'd love to see you... 

Emily x

Our Country's Good (2012)
By Timberlake Wertenbaker

Creative Team

Directed by Alastair Whatley
Assisted by Craig Gilbert
Set Design by Victoria Spearing
Costume Design by Ed Holland
Casting by Kay Magson

Governor Philip / Wisehammer: Aden Gillett
Ralph Clarke: Chris Harper
Mary Brenham / Reverend Johnson: Emily Bowker
Capt. Collins / Sideway: Jack Lord
Dabby / Lieutenant Faddy / Meg: Rachel Donovan
Harry Brewer / Arscott / Capt. Campbell: Phillip Whitchurch
Major Ross / Ketch: Adam Best
Aborigine / Caeser / Johnston: Seun Shote
Duckling / Capt. Tench: Jenny Ogilvie
Liz Morden / Lieutenant Dawes: Emma Gregory

Tour Dates

25th-28th January
Basingstoke, The Haymarket Theatre

01256 844244

30th January-4th February
Kingston, The Rose

020 8546 6983

6th Feb-7th Feb
Reading, The Hexagon

0118 960 6060

9th-11th Feb
Berwick Upon-Tweed, The Maltings

012899 330999

21st-25th Feb
Jersey, The Opera House

01534 511 115

28th Feb-1st March
Newbury, The Corn Exchange

01635 522733

2nd-3rd March
Peterborough, The Key Theatre

01753 207239

6th -10th March
Harrogate, Harrogate Theatre

01423 502116

12th-14th March
Chipping Norton, The Theatre

01608 624350

19th March
Buxton, Opera House

0845 1272190

20th -24th March
Mold, Theatre Clywd

01352 755114

26th March-31st March
Greenwich, Theatre

020 8858 7755

17th-21st April
Eastbourne, Devonshire Park Theatre

01323 412000

23rd-24th April
Bracknell, South Hill Park Arts Centre

01344 484123

25th-26th April
Finchley, Arts Depot

020 8369 5454

Although taken years later, this early photograph of Botany Bay (c.1869) gives a flavour of what the first fleeters set eyes on...

Act One, Scene Two: First steps into Botany Bay

Week Two.
We return from the Christmas break rested, full bellied and rosy cheeked (nothing like playing a half starved 18th century convict to kick start the new year detox). Following our initial groundwork we're ready to take our first plunge into getting the script 'up on it's feet'. This is the first exciting leap into the unknown - a chance to pour some of our discoveries from the last week into a more physical exploration.

Alastair explained that we would be working through the scenes of the play chronologically, and although the basic outline of the set was marked up in the rehearsal space, we were to stay very free and easy with any movement and not bog ourselves down with blocking at this stage. It should be more a chance to play with ideas, start making some decisions but certainly not setting anything in stone just yet. I always find there are so many things to consider when first standing up with the script; where your character has just come from, what's happened just prior to the scene, what your character wants, and what you are actively trying to do to others in the scene. It's nice to have the freedom to explore these things fully without immediately worrying about whether it's better to come on from stage left,  whether you might be masking somebody or up-staging yourself!
The stage design drawn up by Victoria is a very free and open as an acting space - it's a versatile set which upon first glance looks like the inside of a hold of a ship but the movable crates, ropes and cloth can be placed in a various ways and used abstractly to create different area's on land as well.

The art-work in our rehearsal room always gets us off to a cheerful start.

Time-lines and titles.
Each scene in Our Country's good has a title. Some of which are useful pin-points ie. The First Rehearsal. Other titles Timberlake gives us are more Brechtian: The Women Learn their Lines, or more poetic and abstract: The Loneliness of Men. But one thing she does not give us is a specific time line. We know the play starts in "the hold of a convict ship bound for Australia, 1787". We know that in the second scene when the ship arrives it is "January 20th 1788". How much time passes between each scene from then on is not explicitly described. We are only told through Ralph's exasperation in the second act that "we have been rehearsing [The Recruiting Officer] for 5 months!" so it's up to the company to decide what time frame makes sense to us.
So before we start rehearsing each scene, we discuss how much time we think may have passed since the last scene; whether it's the following evening, a few days or even months later. It's important that we all have an idea of what's happened 'in-between' and how our relationships with each other have changed or developed.

The Voyage Out.
Approaching the above named scene, the very first scene in the play, has been tricky. Mary, Wisehammer and Arscott all speak about their experience on the ship, but it doesn't appear that they're having a conversation with each other, it's more a mediation on love, sex and hunger. But how do we approach this? No-one actually just speaks out loud to themselves for the sake of it, particularly in such a lyrical poetic manner. Who are they speaking to? What prompts them to speak? Is it the flogging of Sideway they've just witnessed, or something else? We discuss the idea that Wisehammer is perhaps composing aloud. He loves words after all -  maybe this is his outlet for dealing with the horror he sees around him. And who is Mary talking to? I feel like although she would be surrounded by people she is somehow alone. Perhaps she's is praying, a confession, trying to explain herself to God. There's certainly still a lot of un-picking to do to work out how this evocative opening can be staged to fulfil it's full impact.

There's a wealth of books floating around the green room now, and as more of the cast read Max Stafford-Clark's rehearsal notes on the original Royal Court production (see his books Taking Stock and Letters to George) we're beginning to wonder if the printed version we are using was 100% proof or whether there were trimmings and additions that smooth over the bumps and explain the gaps. After all the play was not written in the traditional way, but rather devised from scratch with Max, Timberlake and a company of actors over a long series of workshops. Numerous drafts and redrafts were made and it seems that what was finally performed is unlikely to be what was exactly published. The publishers deadlines meant the printed version had already been made, despite re-writes continuing right into the first preview performance. 

Something about Mary.
This week I wrote a character biography for Mary. It's something I always do for any character I'm playing and is made up from facts gleaned from the script and any gaps are filled by my own imagination and knowledge of the period. In the case of Mary, it's a real case of filling the gaps as we are told very little about her past life in the play. And there is very little factual information about the real Mary Brenham too (despite having Ralph's child, he never mentioned her in his diaries supposedly for fear that his wife would one day read them.) 

The real Ralph Clark and his wife, Betsey Alicia.

In Keneally's novel The Playmaker (which OCG is loosely based on but not a book which we by any means are using as the final word in character decisions) there is a brief description of Mary's childhood and upbringing. This has also informed my biog for Mary, although there were still lots of gaps to fill. This kind of exercise gives me a (possibly false!) sense of security that I know who this girl is in my mind, I know where she comes from, her family background and any major events that have happened to her up to the point at which we meet her in the play. I find it very useful to imagine what circumstances led Mary to this point her life (ie. being arrested and sentenced to transportation). I won't go into the details of my made up history for Mary - it's not something the audience watching would know about, and certainly not something I'd expect them to telepathically understand from my acting - it's really just useful tool for me.

I've been thinking a lot about a particular characteristic of Mary's. Compared to many of the other convicts she seems abnormally quiet. Through much of the first half of the play Mary very rarely speaks. In fact, one of the first times we hear her, the stage direction suggests she speaks "inaudibly". Until Mary finds her voice through acting, Dabby does most of the speaking for her and later in the play Wisehammer suggests hat she is shy. When she does speak, it's often in short, precise sentences. She's not one to procrastinate or elaborate.  

But my job is not to simply label her as quiet or shy and try to act that, but to understand why she holds back or finds it difficult to speak. And more interestingly, I've been thinking perhaps Mary wasn't always like this. It's the horrendous experience on board, being pimped out to the sailor on ship, the abuse she has suffered that has caused her to retreat into her shell. It makes her journey far more exciting to me. The idea that Mary doesn't just find her voice and her confidence through performing and through Ralph, but that she allows herself to find her old self again. So when we see Mary at the end of the play, excited and opinionated about her part as Silva,  able to speak up to Dabby, or bold enough to suggest that she should take centre stage for the convicts curtain call, perhaps we are seeing the real Mary. The one that until now, had been left behind in England.

Emily x

Hogarth's paintings are so evocative of the period.
This one is called Gin Lane (1750)

For more information on tour dates and booking for Our Country's Good, please go to Original Theatre Company

Act One, Scene One: The First Rehearsals

I’m Emily, the actress playing Mary Brenham and Rev Johnson in Original Theatre Company's latest production - Our Country’s Good. When our director and producer Alastair asked me if I would take on the task of writing the company’s blog I was thrilled and flattered. I’d really enjoyed reading Rhys King’s Michael Simkins-esque no-holds barred blog for the company’s last tour. But what could I offer?

And what form should my blog take? After a little deliberation, I decided that rather than a daily diary or a life on tour memoir, 'Something About Mary' will be more a week by week insight into our process of rehearsals (and my personal discoveries within them) as well as a sneak peak into the joys and challenges of being on the road. No doubt with some blood, sweat and tears along the way. My readers, if I get any, I hope will be far reaching and varied but my aim is to make this blog particularly useful for drama students, teachers, or aspiring performers who may be studying the play or perhaps want to discover what a professional rehearsal process can be like.  
One actor’s experience: from page to stage. Something I would have enjoyed reading myself back in the days when the idea of acting for living seemed mysterious and out of reach.

But this is also for you, our audience. Without your support we would all be living on baked beans and reciting Shakespeare to ourselves in front of the mirror.

I arrived on cold drizzly Monday morning at our rehearsal studios in London’s old east end with a sense of trepidation and excitement. And that's despite the fact I’ve been acting professionally for nearly 7 years now and day one is always reliably and comfortingly formulaic. First, a meet and greet of cast and crew, obligatory tea and biscuits and the 3 degrees of separation chats (Oh, so you know Sally Scratchett?  Yes I worked with her husband in 1972 in a contemporary dance piece touring the welsh valleys – small world!). This is usually followed by a welcome introductory speech by the director and perhaps other members of the team discussing the design, followed by the rather nerve-wracking first company read-through of the play. 

But that’s about the only formula you can bet on, as every director (and actor for that matter) will have a different process for ‘how to rehearse’. Some directors will sit the company around a table for a number of days exploring the text, others will get straight down to ‘blocking’ (finding a shape for the movement of the actors around the set that tells the story best). Some will begin with character work, throwing you head first into improvisations which explore on-stage relationships, or perhaps delve into the imaginary life of the character outside of the play. I’m pleased to say that our first week was both a creative and thought-provoking melting pot  - a mixture of detailed analysis of the text, practical and imaginative ensemble improvisations and even a research and presentation project which gave us all chance to share knowledge of the social and historical context of the play.

Here’s a low down of our first week:

A focus on the text.
Following our first read through, we spent the next 3 days on a Facts and Questions exercise. This is a lengthy but valuable exploration of the play where the company sit around and read the play aloud, line by line and as a group call out any Facts that arise (e.g. Ralph keeps a diary) followed by any Questions that may arise from that fact (eg. How long has he kept a diary, how often does he write in it? Why does he keep it?  Is it therapeutic? Does he imagine anyone else will read it or does he use it to reveal his deepest secrets? What materials does he use to write it? Where is it kept? etc). We don’t attempt in any way to answer these questions at this stage, but rather write them down with a view to exploring them further in rehearsals or privately.

Song Time.
On Thursday afternoon we had a visit from the wonderfully talented folk singer/musician Tim Van Eyken who, after a short vocal warm up, lead us through two songs specially selected and adapted for our production: the beautifully poignant ‘Australia’ and the rousing sea shanty (about gonorrhea): ‘Fire Down Below’. It’s fun to get the company together for a good sing-song (even though at first the idea of singing in front of others always brings me out in a cold sweat). But importantly, these songs gave me a real taste of the ensemble power of this play – the sound of a lone voice singing a call followed by a blast of collective singers firing back a hearty response would lift any flagging spirit. You can have a listen to some of Tim’s work here:

Nearly every actor in OCG plays both convict and officer and Alastair lead us through two separate improvisations to get our creative juices flowing for each of our characters.
For the purpose of the officers’ impro, Alastair gave each of us an individual brief on a modern day version of our character. My character in the play is in fact not an officer but rather the colony’s appointed Reverend, who is concerned about Ralph putting on a production of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ because the content of the play seems to lack moral fibre.  For the purpose of our impro, I was to play the local Dean of the Cathedral at Bury St Edmunds. The scenario: we were all attending the Bury town council meeting to discuss the merits/difficulties of the latest council proposal -  to spend £20,000 on staging The Recruiting Officer with a group of amateur actors and local young offenders. My stance was to encourage the idea, but strongly suggest a production of Noah’s Ark: The Musical would be far more suitable!
I certainly relished my chance to put my tuppence worth in at the meeting, I enjoyed the status my role as the Dean gave me within the group, and the power and confidence it gave me to speak and be heard. I felt soon enough we were all debating our conflicting viewpoints with a real appetite and in some cases heated ferocity. In the mirrored scene in the play, Wertenbaker’s stage directions describe the officers debating with the ‘passion for discourse and thought of eighteenth century men”. I certainly felt we were discovering the passion for debating, whether the motive was to air a strongly fixed opinion or simply to enjoy playing devils’ advocate. But what did she mean exactly by ‘the thought of eighteenth century men?’ Maybe that would be further explored in our history research at the end of the week.

The second impro was to be a modern mirror of the convicts’ first rehearsal. This time my brief was to play a contemporary teenage version of Mary: a 17 year old first-time offender who had been arrested for being in possession of stolen goods for the boy she loves. She was shy and nervous about being brought in to rehearse this play. She was from a good private school and had been brought up well by loving parents prior to her arrest. She was not used to the bolshy and aggressive behavior of some of her fellow classmates in the Bury St Edmunds Young offenders drama group.

And so we played at being led through our first rehearsal by the long suffering amateur director and project leader Ralph (pronounced Rafe, of course). I found this was a really useful exercise for me in discovering Mary’s relationship with the other criminals she now shared her life with. I became acutely aware of the importance of self preservation - to survive in this environment I needed to know my allegiances. My protectors became Dabby (brash enough to scare off any threats made in my direction) and Wisehammer (keeping a quiet watchful and fatherly eye over me). As Rafe’s attention to me and his praise of my performance increased I found myself becoming physically and vocally more confident amongst my peers, yet still aware that I mustn’t relish it too much for fear of others becoming jealous and aggressive. I was also beginning to find physicality for Mary through her objective to look after herself.

Close your eyes and imagine a day in the life of a convict.

The project presentation.
Our Country’s Good is set in 1788 and spans a dauntingly vast array of historical, geographical, political and social issues. I was reassured by Alastair’s suggestion that we each research and prepare a presentation on one of the key issues to share with the rest group at the end of the week.

The topics included:
English and World Events, Transportation and the Crossing, Criminality in Georgian England, The Aborigines, Sex and Prostitution, The Navy, The Military, Georgian Theatre, The process of Flogging and Hanging, The role of Religion, and The Daily Life of a Convict…
It was a fascinating morning of factual insight as well as practical exploration (Jack’s exercise on how to perform like Garrick and Rachel’s real display of convict food rations were memorable highlights). You can of course always do this kind of research on your own: my personal preparation involved reading books such as The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally and The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes (both of which I highly recommend). But I feel there’s a huge advantage to this kind of communal sharing with the rest of the company. You begin to feel like you have a shared knowledge of the world that your characters all inhabit.

And it certainly got me excited for the task ahead of us.

Daily rations: Oats, bread and salted beef (demonstrated here by packets of Peperami).

But a little something called ‘Christmas’ was about to break us up for the week. Moving from the convict rations of bread and gristly beef to an abundance of festive indulgence, off we merrily trot. be continued in 2012.

Emily x