A Delicate Balance Assistant Director’s rehearsal diary: Weeks One & Two

BY Almeida Theatre   April 14, 2011

Assistant Director James Yeatman has been working alongside Director James Macdonald in A Delicate Balance rehearsals for just over two weeks now.  Here he talks about the excitement of working with such a stellar company and how the play is shaping up so far. He even includes a recipe for the perfect martini, something the characters in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance have more than a penchant for… 

Week One

It’s the first morning of rehearsals and we’re all sitting around a group of tables bunched in the centre of the Almeida’s rehearsal room on Upper Street. When I say ‘we’, that’s the director James Macdonald, designer Laura Hopkins, the cast, Deputy Stage Manager (DSM in theatre jargon) Erin Murphy, and myself. We’ve got six weeks to rehearse A Delicate Balance, which despite winning the Pulitzer Prize when it was first produced in 1966, isn’t performed very often in this country.

We kick off the morning by reading the play. It’s remarkable how revelatory these first readings can be. Albee’s play is quite dense on the page, it fizzes with ideas and the characters are incredibly erudite, and as such it can be quite difficult to ‘get’ just by reading it yourself in a book. As soon as the cast get down to reading it however, you can really start to hear what the play’s all about. Albee is fantastic at nailing family arguments, where angry words suddenly bubble to the surface out of seemingly placid conversation, and it’s only in hearing it that we begin to get a sense of that. As well as the verbal fireworks, though, there’s a very moving sense of loss that runs through the piece, in counterpoint to the rows, an elegiac sense of time past, wasted opportunities and stagnated lives.

 Obviously the cast are fantastic, and don’t really need any introduction. Even in the reading you can already see them easing into their parts, looking at each other over the tops of their scripts. While listening I think what a privilege it is to be involved in this. Great play, great cast, great director, the whole lot. We should be on to a winner.

In the afternoon James and Laura show us the model box, to give us a clear idea of the world they have imagined for the play. All the action takes place in the comfortable library of a rich family who live in upstate New York. Albee based the play on his parents’ generation, and in rehearsals for the original production took the cast to his old family home and to meet his mother, who was in many ways the basis for Agnes, the matriarch of the piece. While we are keeping the 1960s setting, and referencing classic American house design, James and Laura were clear that they didn’t want to go for the hyper-detail of something like ‘Mad Men’, but have instead opted to create a comfortable room, wood-panelled and classic. 

After the first day we settle down into a routine for the rest of the week. Working through the play scene at a time, stopping whenever a character leaves or a new one enters the space (‘French scenes’, as James calls them), we start to unpick the text in greater detail. Going through the play with a fine tooth comb, we start to piece together the world these characters occupy. It is very much the American WASP world of privilege – of going to the club at the weekends, playing golf, cocktails before dinner (the type of world described in the wonderful short stories of John Cheever). We augment this with little bits of research on the time, but by and large, in keeping with the desire not to make this too much of a period piece, the work is not particularly research-heavy. The real meat and drink of the play is in the characters and their relationships, and as we work we also get a much clearer picture of the back story and the habits of each of the protagonists. Being able to work with such experienced actors here is a real joy. As I said it’s a privilege to watch them work. As we inch through the piece you can see each actor hoovering up the information that pertains to their character, placing it in order in their heads, using it to intuit how their character will respond at any given point in the play. Occasionally they drop into little improvisations, clarifying little moments.

These discussions are all lead by James with a delicate touch. He encourages a thoughtful, focussed atmosphere, but it is always very relaxed. In fact he talks quite rarely, guiding the discussion gently with a question here and there about a confusing bit of dialogue in a scene, or asking what a particular line might mean. By and large though he leaves the talking to the actors – it is for them to discover the play, not for him to tell us what it’s about (he won’t be performing it after all), but whenever anyone has a question for him he is always ready with the answer. Working this way, we reach the end of the first week having covered the whole play and with quite a clear framework of the action and the world it lives in. We’re all ready for next week when we put the show up on its feet.

Imelda Staunton (Claire) and Lucy Cohu (Julia). Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Week Two

So the rehearsal room has all been marked up with the dimensions of the set by stage management. We’ve either got the real pieces of furniture that we’ll be using in the show or approximations of what they’re going to be. Erin Murphy, the DSM, is our point of contact with stage management in the rehearsal room, and she’s keeps an eagle eye throughout rehearsals, making sure that all props are in their right place, recording all the blocking, prompting the actors, and also taking notes of any other unforseen things that might be needed in rehearsal. Tim decides, for example, that his character, Tobias, will need glasses to read the papers, and by the afternoon a pair is found.

Just as reading the play gave us a whole new insight at the beginning of last week, so putting it on its feet gives us an even more precise and detailed understanding of the play. The piece examines a family who are to some degree all at war with one another, stuck in their particular roles (alcoholic, steady matriarch, ineffectual father, spoilt daughter) and unable to change. Once we start putting the show on its feet, the minutiae of these relationships become even clearer. So much of the play is about territory, about who is in control. The library becomes a battleground between the characters, and you can only understand this clearly by seeing it. At the moment the actors are still largely script in hand, although you can tell that everyone is getting there with their lines, and we work through the play very slowly. James once again quietly leads, making suggestions, but also very open to the actors developing their own solutions. The aim is not to produce a stunning performance at the first try (otherwise we wouldn’t need such a long time to rehearse), but more to give a physical shape to each scene, discover who needs to be where at any given moment to make the arguments work best.

As we work, the brilliance and complexity of the play becomes ever clearer. Every line is so finely calibrated and needs to be precisely delivered. The characters think and speak quickly, always using their words, even if they are talking about something apparently unrelated, to land a blow on an opponent. The language is so precise, and the wording so vital, that everyone realises that there is no room for fudging any of the delivery. As in Pinter (he and Albee were contemporaries and friends), every pause and every silence is deliberate (and ‘pauses’ and ‘silences’ mean very different things – a ‘pause’ is a deliberate break in speech, owned by a particular character, while a ‘silence’ is something that falls naturally, where no-one has something to say). The whole play is beautifully orchestrated and flows like a piece of music.

While we work laying down the skeleton of each scene, our voice coach, Penny Dyer comes in to work with the actors. The WASP upstate New York accent is a very particular type of upper-class American, pretty much the closest an American accent ever gets to English, and Penny has a fantastic ear for picking out the particular vowel sounds and ways of talking peculiar to that group (if you ever find yourself in a country club in Westchester and want a Cognac, you pronounce it ‘cone-yak’).  With Penny, and the work that stage management are doing sourcing our props and furniture, and the weekly production meeting where we find out about how the building of the set is getting on, as well as the steady work we are doing in the rehearsal room, there is a wonderful feeling of a large machine slowly taking shape, of people working across London to make the show happen.

By the end of the week we have roughly blocked the whole the show and it feels like another layer of foundations have been laid. Next week we’ll be going back over the scenes, with all the actors off-book, and developing them even more, with more nuance and precision. But for now it feels like the end of a good week and we celebrate Friday evening with Martinis. This is strictly in the spirit of research, as the characters drink quite a terrifying amount throughout the play, and in act two Tobias makes a round of Martinis, so what choice did we have but to try them for ourselves. Everyone talks about how terrifyingly strong they are but quietly drinks them anyway, and we leave the rehearsal room on Friday (me with a slight wobble on my bicycle) in the sunshine, feeling that another good week’s work has been done.

How to make the perfect Martini, from David Embury’s 1950s classic, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks:

1 part Lillet Vermouth
7 parts imported English Gin (anything lower than 5 to one is criminal apparently, and the Gin must be English. House of Lords is the best.)
Stir well in a bar glass or martini pitcher (if you shake it the Martini will go cloudy) with large cubes of ice and pour into chilled cocktail glasses. Twist lemon peel over the top.
It should be served with an olive.
If you can get olives stuffed with any kind of nuts, they make the perfect accompaniment to the Martini.

Book tickets for A Delicate Balance