Assistant Director’s Rehearsal Diary – Week 5/6

BY Almeida Theatre   March 10, 2011

So we have finally come to the last instalment of Gbemisola Ikumelo’s rehearsal diary for The Knot of the Heart. This week the cast underwent their first full run through on Peter McKintosh’s set.

It’s been a very active couple of weeks both in the rehearsal room and out! As for  me, I’ve had my laptop implode on me (wiping away what should have been last’s week’s entry!) and contracted a mysterious bug  that had me shivering,  nauseous  and had Michael ordering me home almost as soon as I had walked into the rehearsal room. But now that both my laptop and I are feeling better (well I type this entry hoping for the best) I will attempt to regale all with tales from the final two weeks of rehearsing The Knot of the Heart.

“It’s amazing how often we as human  beings say the exact opposite of what we want”

Lisa Dillon says this at around 11:00am  on our first day back in the rehearsal room  after the weekend and my first thought is, how ridiculously astute for a Monday morning. But by midday as we are rehearsing scene 6, I come to see how much truth there is in this, especially for Lucy. She is on a hospital bed having her hand sewed up expertly by Kieran who plays Brian aka “Mr Nurse”.  It’s so clear that Lucy has become aware of hitting rock bottom at this point. She is alone and she needs help and so the first thing she does, naturally is to push away the one person  who has come to give it to her.  Lucy shrouds her wants in defensiveness and it is in this that she becomes even more vulnerable because it is so clear that she needs help but even still attempts to say “I’m fine, I don’t need any help”. I love David’s writing of this scene and even more so when I take hold of Lisa’s earlier note on the human condition.  It is absolutely someone trying to call out for help but too proud or embarrassed or weak to do so. But then there is a moment when the situation becomes so apparent to Lucy that even her own pride deteriorates. And in this not caring about the mask anymore, it’s here I think we see the first glimmer of Lucy’s strength.

David spends a big bulk of the week in the rehearsal room, which is great as he provides an objective voice for us all. Even though it’s his play and one would think he was closer to it than anybody, he sees these scenes with a fresh set of eyes. Michael works so specifically and in detail with each scene and so David’s focus on the overall arc of the play allows for another layer to be added to the production. After watching some of the scenes he gives notes to Michael about things that he’d like to see developed further. I am interested to see that David’s notes are few and particularly focused on certain physical moments that he had written into the stage directions. Moments that he wanted to be more pointed, such as a glass being snatched out of a hand or a floor being cleaned , or  a cigarette being lit. It was actually interesting to see the writer and director of this play working effectively together whilst speaking their own respective languages. David would describe in detail to Michael, the importance of why this moment needed Margot for instance to clean the floor with gusto. He would describe what he felt it meant for her journey at the time and what it meant for the journey of the play and the relationship between her and her daughter.  Mike would then take a moment,  inhale, translate it into actor speak and within minutes the moment had been transformed!

As the end of the week approaches the actors are itching by now to do a run of the entire play. A few weeks ago and I would have been very nervous about the fact that we hadn’t  but Michael’s sense of calm always puts me at ease. It always seems as though everything is happening exactly as it should be and even if it wasn’t I am sure he’d convince us all that it was!

So it’s Friday and the cast are all more than ready for a stagger through but on arrival we are told that Lisa Dillon has been injured whilst performing in another show. It means that she will need rest and the run has to be cancelled. Michael cuts the rehearsal short and an early weekend ensues. Injuries are awful things for actors on a show as their body is limited and it’s completely out of their hands. And even when everybody around you is supportive and you know all you can do is just rest and let the body heal itself, there is always this inevitable sense of guilt that one feels. There is the frustration that things have had to stop because of you and I am sure this is no different for Lisa.

By the following week, Lisa is still not 100% but is determined to do the stagger through. It is now that I really appreciate the in-depth work that Michael has done with this play. Even with an actress in pain and a few days off, this stagger through is wonderful.  In fact there were moments when Lisa being in pain probably worked for her and other characters aswell. A point I see this especially is when Lucy pretty much collapses into the arms of “Mr Nurse” confessing finally that she needs help, and there is the sense of her being so completely fragile, literally like she might break at any moment.  I imagine the actor in Kieran is treating Lisa with kid gloves as not to hurt her but there is something about it that works. During this run I am utterly convinced by the play. I am totally invested in Lucy and her journey and more so that, I’m attached.

The run is followed by notes and there are many from Michael, myself  and David but  Michael is sensitive and skilled at how to deliver  our notes to an actor so they not only receive it well but so they are still finding something new right until closing night I should imagine. I’ve always found Note sessions oddly funny. Because actors need to actualise notes, it’s not just something that will go in a notebook and be done with, they will actually have to apply this physically- and so even in that moment that they are receiving it, you see them almost literally feeding their character the note. So eyes suddenly enlarge and they are whispering that line with the intention the director has given as they write in the notebook or on the script. But it’s all done so quietly and so internally that its barely noticeable- until it’s noticeable that is! Then you can’t see anything else.  Sometimes I can look around a rehearsal room during a notes session and just see a room full of actors all nodding, frowning and muttering to themselves.


The rest of the week flies by. Lisa seems to be in less and less pain by the day (or at the very least she’s gotten better at being in pain) and the stagger-throughs are turning into runs and the runs are looking smoother and tidier.  Michael watches these runs remarkably still and I wonder where all the director energy goes as he relinquishes all to the actors and then I see the little ball of blue tac in his hand being relentlessly squeezed and it’s comforting.

The runs are now open to some of the Almeida staff and the power of the play can be heard in those pin drop silent moments, or it can be seen  in the general manager wiping  her eyes as she hurries out of the room. The play moves people. It engages people and it’s easy to forget it’s power  on an emotional level when you’re so familiar with it. By the end of the final run I am somewhat shocked that we’ve made it this far. It all seems to have just become. Nothing mind-blowing about any one day, just a series of small undetectable miracles that have produced a powerhouse of a play.

The final day in the rehearsal room and Michael stalls for time by talking about the next week of technical rehearsal as Stage Management are preparing the treats of expensive cakes and champagne to present to the company. And then, just like that, it’s over.

Soon I am with Ruth pulling down research images off the wall and making room for the next  cast that are due  in to rehearse. The room is larger, emptier. A blank canvas ready for something new to fill it and I’m glad.

In the Theatre: A Preview

I walk into the Theatre and think I’m almost breathless. I have no idea how unbelievably powerful Peter McKintosh’s set is. It was always very attractive on the model box and I loved the spare feel it had, but  I had not realised just how beautiful it was until confronted with the life size version. I see how powerful the reflective quality of the windows are  and of the huge amount of Ivy draped across the brick wall at the back . It absolutely screams urban garden in Islington and under the worker lights it looks like a real life courtyard .

The energy in the Theatre I guess is a loud calm. There is noise everywhere. Hammers, drills, boisterous laughter from the technical crew all jovially teasing one another but the calmness comes from the efficiency of it all. We are about to start the first technical rehearsal in 30minutes and I know without a shadow of a doubt that everything will be just so by then. Backstage the actors are still and transformed in their costumes and through the tannoy I can hear blasts of composer Dan Jones haunting music for the play. The music is melodic and beautiful  but there is a stirring of something darker underneath. As if something huge is about to happen. That’s how I feel right now. The stirring of something about to happen…

By Gbemisola Ikumelo

Tickets for the world premiere of The Knot of the Heart are now onsale so be sure to book a ticket online or by calling 020 7359 4404.