Playland Rehearsal Blog- Week 2

Photo: George Hallett. This file is licensed under Creative Commons.

Eugene de Kock at TRC headquarters, 1997 Photo by: George Hallett. This file is licensed under Creative Commons.

Uncanny recent events

It was announced this week that Eugene de Kock, a former death squad commander under the apartheid regime, would be released after serving 20 years in prison. Under the Truth and Reconciliation commission (which offered amnesty to confessors of crimes during the apartheid era, provided they claimed to be politically motivated), he admitted to 100 counts of murder, torture and fraud during the 80s and 90s, mainly towards black members of the ANC. A mix of responses to the news from relatives of his victims; some vehemently opposed to his release, others defending and praising what they believe to be his genuine remorse. Bizarre smiling photo of him posing in orange prison uniform, with his arms around the family members of one of his victims.

For a play written just before the commission, Playland anticipates it uncannily. Central to the play are the themes of confession, the terms of forgiveness, and whether a person or a nation with that many crimes behind them, can ever truly be redeemed. The TRC offered a vast platform for confession and the incredible human gesture of mass forgiveness. Yet the amount of crimes that have gone unpunished as a result is still dizzying to think about. In this respect, I am very interested to see how audiences respond to our character Gideon le Roux. Through the course of the play he confesses to mass murder as a soldier and condones the rape of African women. Nevertheless, the play follows the contours of his character and self-discovery closely. Will audiences be able to afford him understanding or compassion? Or will the mere mention of those crimes consign him automatically to the villain box? Good that our actor, Ben Cutler, has a lot of humanity about him. Hopefully this will make it harder for audiences to make quick judgements.

On to a cheerier subject:IMG_20150202_151546

Lights! Our lighting designer, Azusa Ono, makes me laugh. She wants to put lights in everything. No object on stage is safe. I am surprised she has not yet proposed adding lights to the actors’ costumes. “Maybe the character Martinus could wear one of those underground torch helmets” I say jokingly, but she looks back at me nodding with utter seriousness. I have worked with her several times before – she lit the Hitchcock play we took to New York last year, and lights were a major star of that show. I know she will do a great job, even if I limit her ambitions.

A publicity photo shoot at a local farm

Playland- Ben Cutler & David Carr. Please credit Pamela Raith Photography (11)

We are all freezing to death. Trying to make a pig farm in Nottingham look like the South African Karoo desert takes some work. I am delighted to discover a beautiful mound of red earth, and I force the poor actors to pose on it. The image potentially transports us out of freezing Nottingham, though we have to be careful to avoid patches of snow from the frame. It begins to feel like we are shooting some sort of RnB album cover from the early nineties; a chiselled looking white and black man staring moodily into the camera. Above us a flock of sparrows fly in a group formation. Our play begins and ends with a description of African pigeons doing something similar. I point out this exciting coincidence to everybody but by the time they look up the sky is empty. So the sparrows didn’t make the cut.

Music and sound

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Sound designer Adam McCready

As a music obsessive, the exact quality of sound is always crucial for me. I spend ages listening to many variations of a low percussive pulse, provided by our brilliant and patient sound designer Adam McCready. Then suddenly a sound appears, and its texture and tone captures the entire mood of the show for me. Hard to pin down why, but it’s a sound I could play at any moment in the play and it would slot into the action, just like another actor. However, my deep love of sound forces me to be sparing with it. Few things uglier on stage than sonically over-emphasising.

I start each rehearsal with a kind of Robert Bresson blanket rule to not use any additional music. Using mood or emotions that belong to music feels like a big cheat on stage. However, as soon as I set myself this rule it’s broken. I don’t like to use music to try to situate the world of the play, or let the audience know what kind of evening I hope they are having. Yet sometimes a piece of music captures something I need that is outside of what I can achieve onstage. I have to be careful with using tracks by musicians I love. For our production of The Boss of it All last year at Soho I included excerpts from great Norwegian pop band Kaada, but I haven’t been able to listen to them since. Their sound is now forever connected to that show and that time.

I am using John Zorn’s extremely minimal string composition, Kol Nidre, at a very precise moment in the production. The sound of it makes me feel something different about the action of the play. The piece is based on a prayer/recitation which is given on the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and atonement is ultimately what we are looking at in this play. There are obvious resonances between the world of apartheid and that of Jewish persecution, but I don’t plan to make them too explicit in our production. However, the current commemorations for 70 years since the holocaust have infused my thinking about this play and the world around it. The music is so powerful, I will likely play it on its own in darkness, not supporting any action or dialogue.

Things are becoming clearer

   The elements in the production are feeling like the right ones. However, I know too well that shows always surprise you. They can turn on you at any moment, often waiting till a paying audience is in front of them. I resist drawing any longer term conclusions from the optimism I might be feeling at the moment.

Artistic Director, Jack McNamara

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Playland Rehearsal Blog- Week One

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I discovered Playland in a second hand bookshop in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Considering myself a Fugard fan, I was embarrassed and excited to find a play of his I hadn’t come across. A first read and I knew it was something I wanted to direct.  It seemed to distil all his major themes into one essential conflict between a white and black South African; taking place outside a rickety travelling amusement park in a vast rural expanse of South Africa.

Back to school

We begin rehearsals, with our first read-through held at a local school, Nottingham Academy, in the company of a number of invited staff and students. This links to a parallel project where students will write a response piece to Playland over the coming weeks, as our own production takes shape. I am aware that this is a larger audience than actors are generally used to for a first day so I try and eliminate any expectations of a performance in my introductory chat.

The students were engaged with the play, listening attentively (with the exception of the one next to me who throughout it sat in that wonderful collapsed position reserved for classroom boredom – head practically between his knees.) But everyone seemed to share clear, concise responses afterwards. Even the collapsed boy raised his head at the end to pitch in useful thoughts. I generally dislike the first day read-through, but this felt worthwhile. It was a chance to receive instinctive responses to the play and to judge how these themes resonated with a school-age generation in Nottingham today.

Rehearsals begin

A lot of conversations about prejudice before work starts each day; personal experiences, anecdotes, other examples. None of these talks are planned but given the subject matter they arise inevitably. It is an interesting subject, looked at abstractly. Are there general things that lie at the root of all types of prejudice? Fear? Control? Self-image? We discuss the insecurity of the racist.  In our play the white character Gideon Le Roux at times treats the black character Martinus as an intellectual equal or superior, and moments later addresses him as ‘boy.’

Fugard writes this play very emotionally, very on the sleeve. None of that British buried thought or emotion here. Feelings are expressed explosively, openly, honestly. The challenge is then to find a tone that avoids sentimentality but maintains the energy he has created. We don’t want to dampen it by plastering our own subtleties over it, but also need to use the language in such a way that it feels lived in, not too written.

Playland- Ben Cutler & David Carr. Please credit Pamela Raith Photography (15)

With just two actors onstage, almost everything comes down to a constant balance. Nothing to hide behind. Monologues can be tricky when there is another person present, as you lose the option to simply strike a relationship between speaker and audience. The set, a fenced background and raised concrete island in the centre, thrusts the actors into a kind of isolation from one another. A hard space to make warm. This is all deliberate and it suits our lonely theme, but it demands a lot of precise management. Inevitable moments where actors feel constricted, blocked by the intrusions of the space.

Such great joy in found objects

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Our aim has been to use real/ found materials whenever possible in this show. Currently: 3 Heras fences from a construction site, an oil drum found at a pig farm and a few stacks of wooden crates. The beautiful resonance of the fences when you hit them couldn’t be artificially constructed. I am having to use a lot of discipline not to over use them musically in the show. In fact I may give in. Could possibly conceive of a sequence in which Martinus taps at the fences arhythmically to show his boredom – possibly also harking back to his (pre-action) time spent in prison.

 

 

Reading Fugard’s early diaries

I am excited to spot a few entries that I believe were the genesis of this play, even 30 years before it was written. The first is his mention of an African man that he spots at a protest rally in 1962:

“A big powerfully built man, 40-50, wearing a balaclava cap, squatting on the ground.  Never looked at the speakers. Hard to say that he even ‘listened to’ or heard the speeches. Almost as if he really only wanted the sound of those voices; drew his comfort simply from being there. A solid, patient, disturbing image.”

He then describes in 1966 going to an actual amusement park called Playland, in which he spotted:

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“An African in faded blue overalls. His behaviour manner, slightly odd – chewing a match and muttering darkly to himself. His eyes- abstracted intensity.”

I end the week with a sad realisation that I may have a small part to perform in this play myself. After doing several trials of all of us recording the voice over for the unseen ‘Boss Barney’, the actors vote my joke recording as their favourite. Partly because as a non-actor I fail to give the voice any colour, depth or inflection, which they feel suits the callousness of this character.  I will keep it in for now, but all I hear when it comes on is an awful over-familiar, unrefined drawl.

Artistic Director, Jack McNamara