Requiem for Twelfth Night

It’s now over two weeks since the last night of Twelfth Night, the post-show blues have started to wear off and ‘normal’ life is slowly seeping back in. I can actually get through a whole day without wistfully pining after my castmates, and my thought pattern is finally shaking off the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s that were in danger of popping out every now and then. Several key lines are still there however, especially my first scene, and my mind feels the need to revisit them at random moments in the day; queuing for my morning coffee at Greggs – What country, friends, is this?, logging in to my emails – This is Illyria, lady, heating my soup in the microwave – And what should I do in Illyria? I don’t know love, do whatever you like, just get out of my bloody head!

Chris and I in rehearsal as Sebastian and Viola, with me cracking up as usual!

But Viola is still there, rooted firmly within, and so she shall remain – a little part of every character stays lodged there, even when the play has come and gone and you’re onto the next one. I find her comforting; she reminds me of a wonderful week of living another life. Of the rehearsals before that, the instant coffee, not quite up to standard but enriched by the company, of the camaraderie and the exploration and fun.

Me as Viola in the dress rehearsal, performing the ring speech (monologue)

After the nerves of the first night, excitement took over, and Viola came out to play. The newspaper reviews were really positive, so everyone was on a high. Not to say the run wasn’t without its difficulties however… On the second night, with my mum, little sister, and several workmates in the audience, I lost my voice. I’d been feeling a bit croaky all day and then after the willow cabin speech, my arch nemesis, my voice cracked. As Olivia (Jess) said her next lines I fought back a choking cough, and realised with mild panic that I was about to have a choking fit, the kind only remedied by downing liquid and focusing all your concentration on forcing your diaphragm back into a normal rhythm. As Jess turned away, I noticed the glass on the little table behind her still had some juice in it. My mind racing, I sauntered over to it in character and downed it cheekily, trying to pretend Viola was doing it to purposely annoy Olivia. Jess accordingly reacted in shock (she later said it was half Olivia, half Jess) and I went in for my next line. What came out of my mouth was a weedy and strained whisper – just listening to it was painful – and I realised a quick swig of juice wasn’t going to sort it out. Only a few lines from my exit, I decided to end the scene early, and made to head offstage. But it felt too much of a tragedy to miss out those key final lines and the tension they created, so I headed back to Jess to deliver the final blow… and had to bail after only one more line. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get anything louder than a hoarse scratching whisper, so I turned for the second time to make my exit. As soon as I was in the wings I ran backstage to get some water, and one of our directors, Paula, handed me a packet of throat sweets. I was working my way through one when I realised I was due back on, so I ran round to the other side of the stage, got a tissue ready in my hand, and as I strode back on stage I slipped the sweet into the tissue and then into my pocket in one sweep. This scene was my big monologue. Thankfully, my voice was back, though I played it as safe as possible throughout the speech, and breathed a sigh of relief when the scene was over and I could get off the stage.

Although obviously at the time I was horrified it was happening, looking back I’m glad it did. It proved that I can think on my feet and not let something like that throw me on stage. I dealt with it the best way I could and all the while I was working out what to do in my head, externally I stayed in character and none of the panic I was feeling inside was visible.

Cracking up

Jess and I rehearsing Viola and Olivia scene, and me trying not to crack up!

 

Olivia falls for Cesario

Jess and I as Viola and Olivia in the dress rehearsal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve learnt a great deal from playing Viola, about getting into character and sustaining it throughout, about the subtleties and the little details that make your interpretation unique, about learning lines until they’re absorbed in your system. I’ve given a performance that I feel I can be proud of, but know there is still so much to learn, so much to improve on. I’ve discovered the importance of nurturing and developing your voice, the importance of correctly-placed breathing, and the importance of looking after yourself physically as well as mentally. After a week of practicing wonky posture to look and move like my twin, my back was killing me! So this has been a true learning experience for me. And though I look back fondly on every part I do with the SSA, this one will always hold a particular special memory for me, as my first major speaking part. Hopefully one of many.

Twelfth Night – The First Night

So the first night of Twelfth Night is done. Having felt surprisingly calm up to this point, I then awoke yesterday and went on a mad cleaning spree of the house, sweeping, vacuuming, polishing and washing up (my least favourite of the chores) – anything to keep busy and stave off the nerves! My mum and little sister were coming down to stay so the cleaning was definitely needed, but I’m not sure I’d have been quite so productive in the same amount of time if I hadn’t had the adrenaline to keep me going. Whenever I took a few minutes to sit down either with a cup of coffee or my lunch the nerves began to creep back, stealthily at first then full-on and frantic, so that I jumped up and ran to grab a duster and get back to it. By the time I headed off to the theatre I was babbling away (a sign of nerves), but when we reached the theatre I fell silent (a sign of extreme nerves), and got into costume in mute panic. As the house lights went down and the stage lights went up, waiting in the wings I felt the panic suddenly give way to a burst of excitement, fizzing through my entire body.

The performance went really well for a first night – people can often be thrown by the sudden presence of an audience after weeks of rehearsal rooms, but the energy was high and everyone gave it their best. Personally, I felt my performance in the first few scenes was rather flat, and after each I trudged backstage to forlornly stuff my face with Quality Street and make exasperated noises, but by my third or fourth scene I had warmed up, and the rest of the performance, though not my best, was at least satisfactory. During one or two scenes I really felt on the ball, and the last scene finally made Viola come fully alive, so I left the stage on a high, but with some definite areas to work on for the next show. Now I’ve just got to get it right on the mark for tonight’s show. I need to ground myself more on the stage, bring more of Viola’s presence to the performance, and hopefully it will be a show to remember!

Two halves of an apple cleft in two

Throughout the rehearsals for Twelfth Night I’ve been exploring the various relationships Viola has with other key characters. One of the most important of these is of course that with her twin brother Sebastian. It’s a difficult relationship to explore and even more difficult to portray, given that they only appear together on stage once during the whole play. Sebastian talks about Viola to Antonio at one point and openly grieves for the sister he presumes is drowned, but as Viola spends almost all of the play disguised as Cesario, a young man serving Count Orsino, she cannot be so open with her emotions or her past. Yet the supposed loss of a twin, her best friend, someone she has spent her whole life with, must be like a gaping hole inside. I don’t have a twin so can only imagine how that must feel, but I do have a little sister, and the thought of losing her steals the very breath from my lungs. That sudden absence of someone so important, so pivotal to your existence, must shock you to the core. Then, once the numbness has passed, the searing pain must tear across your heart, wounding your soul with such an intensity of sorrow, that for Viola to keep these emotions hidden as she lives her days as Cesario, she must truly have such strength within her. This therefore tells me as much about Viola herself as it does about her relationship with her brother.

Building up this relationship, it has helped that Chris, the actor playing Sebastian, and I have several character traits in common – we’re not the best time-keepers, we both dress a bit 90’s (sorry Chris!), we’re generally good-natured (my pre-caffeine state at 8am on a workday doesn’t count), and we’re very excitable (basically we’re two big kids). However, before the auditions we had never met, so we’ve had to try to develop that bond on stage in just under two months, through rehearsals and the odd evening down the pub. Thankfully we get on brilliantly – I’m sure trying to make it work with someone I couldn’t stand the sight of would have been a far greater challenge! I’ve been so keen to work on that onstage relationship between the two of them because of the lack of affection I’ve seen between Viola and Sebastian in productions I’ve seen in the past. Because, as far as Viola’s action in the play is concerned, he doesn’t make an appearance until the end, some versions have almost treated him as an afterthought, a spare part to tack on with a happy ending. A notable exception of this is the 1996 Trevor Nunn film version with Imogen Stubbs as Viola and Steven Mackintosh as Sebastian, where the pain she displays at the start when thinking her brother is dead is heart-wrenching. I’ve tried not to think too much about that version though, as I love it so much, I’d hate to risk ending up with my Viola being a copy!

I think the important thing to do is to keep that loss of her brother and stifling sorrow as an undercurrent throughout the whole play, not being evident but always being there (easier said than done!). Then when the two are reunited in the final scene (would this class as a spoiler alert?!), it needs to be a big moment, a big deal for them. That may seem obvious, but I have seen it brushed over before with barely a thought as to the actual gravity of this reunion for them both. With this in mind, in rehearsals Chris and I have been working on focusing the intensity of that emotion in the final scene. That reaching out to each other, two lost souls coming back together again, is a strong image in my mind; tentative at first, then as the truth is confirmed, sheer joy flooding over them. Might there even be a tear? I think there should! But we will have to wait til the dress run now to see whether my tear ducts agree!

Viola

We are now well into rehearsals for Twelfth Night with the SSA (Southsea Shakespeare Actors), and I am finally starting to sense Viola. This being my first major speaking part, I think up til now I have just been trying to take it all on board – the lines, the many rehearsals, the lines, the backstory, the lines, the responsibility of actually having to carry a scene here and there rather than flit on, say your two lines, and march proudly off. As I’ve settled more into the rehearsal process however, I have now started to detect a new voice, coming in just here for a moment, just there for another. At first I was too busy focusing on what I was actually trying to say on those lines to give it much thought, give her much thought, but now I’m starting not only to sense her but to actually feel her. Sometimes she’s peeking over my shoulder at the script, as I sit there on my bed desperately trying to learn lines, other times, and these are of course the most magical, she’s there with me, inside, waiting to take the reins, to have her moment – sometimes patiently, sometimes not so much.

Of course, she’s a part of me, not just some independent being roaming the corridors of my day-to-day life. Let’s call her an offshoot – she is born of my life, my blood, my being, but as each rehearsal comes and goes she becomes a little more independent, she starts to develop her own way of walking, her own way of talking. Her voice gets a little louder. Now, unlike an actual offshoot, she will never exist independently from me, not unless she is captured on film to survive beyond my little window of time here. But I like to think of her as apart from me, all the same. It means when she comes to me, when it is her who is speaking, and her that is laughing and loving, crying and rejoicing, for that little time I’m not me, and I am free.