Chris and I had to consume substantial calories to replenish those we'd lost shivering in the January chill of the office. We toasted more fruitcake, boiled more tea and took the opportunity to debate whether Constance should accept the job as an understudy at the National Theatre or hold out for something more prestigious.
I said she needed to eat. Chris said she had to maintain standards. I said standards don’t do you much good if you’re unconscious in the gutter, dying of starvation. Chris said Constance would develop humility and compassion taking on this subsidiary role. I said compassion didn’t do you much good if you were unconscious in a gutter. Chris said Constance would make excellent contacts that could lead to further work at the NT. I wanted to say contacts couldn’t do you much good if you were lying in a gutter until I realised that Chris had actually been arguing for my point and, as you can hear, doing a better job.
Warmer - on the inside at least - and fed, we returned to the diary. The hand was neat and even, breaking into enthusiastic capitals at regular intervals.
3rd June 2010
First rehearsal of Nora. There are eight of us. Five actors, three understudies BUT! There has been an exciting development. ALL of us are in the production, ALL of us are going to be creating this story together. I will be on stage every night.
The thrill and the deliciousness of this fact has restored every loss. I’m the most grateful understudy in the world.
It’s a great script. This is Ingmar Bergman’s version of Ibsen and he cuts to the chase. Nintey-five minutes. No interval which theatres don’t like, of course, as it limits the drinking considerably. Audience and actors love it.
The actress playing Nora is extreeeeeeeeeeeeemely young. Beautiful and damn good. I think she’s been on the telly.
Her old friend is Mrs Linde ‘childless and a widow’. In another world this is, obviously, the part I should be playing but I don’t invite this thought. I will have some role, as yet undecided, and it pays beautifully, compared with the FRINGE and I’ve woken up happy every day for a week.
It is glorious to be back on the South Bank. I am my usual socially retarded self and have only grunted ‘hello’ at the tea table. Someone saw TYPECAST! and congratulated me, which was very sweet.
Still just listening and learning my lines, watching the director with the actors. He is a large man with unconvincing facial hair – very grey and floppy, his hair and him, generally – with spectacles. He seems very nice, he isn’t a torturer anyway. I’ve been with torturers – directors who shout at actors, who ignore actors. Some directors humiliate actors, calling them names in front of the rest of the cast. Hell.
Derek listens to the actors, but almost too much. I don’t mean actors shouldn’t be listened to but they seem to sway him. He won’t raise high the blood-red flag which they will follow to their death.
Lots of talking.
I forgot what a bloody good story this is. I love Nora. She’s brave and wild and hard as nails and no one knows. She perjures herself to borrow money to cure her terminally ill husband and has been paying off this illegal loan for years. And then she’s blackmailed by this dodgy lawyer and she’s afraid if her husband finds out he’ll do himself harm trying to protect her reputation.
But does he? Ha! He finds out and accuses her of ruining him and says she is an unfit mother and their marriage is over. Except they’ll keep living together. What a treat.
But then, and this is where Ibsen is a genius, the blackmailer relents. And Mr Nora is hugely relieved and loves Mrs Nora even more because she is so helpless and dependent and he enjoys forgiving her.
And she says ‘Sod this for a game of soldiers’ and leaves.
I wept in the first run through today.
I thought how lovely Malcolm was that he would never do something like this.
He did chuck me over for another woman he met in a pub, of course. But let’s face it – he never called me ‘his little squirrel’. I think that is a divorceable offence.
(I’ve invited him to the show. It’s a small part but he’ll have to walk past the bust of Laurence Olivier in the foyer to see me and that’s got to be good.)
13rd June 2010
We’ve been told that tomorrow Derek and the designer, Lane, are going to share what the understudies will do onstage. I have hopes for a sort of tableau-vivant, where I wear a very satisfying hoop skirt (this is 1879 after all) and droop my head in an attitude of female oppression while the two other understudies (both very handsome men btw) lift me up by the waist. And then put me down. And spin me.
All right. It’s turning into GREASE. But I’m excited to hear what they have in store.
We’ve got the set in rehearsal now, which is useful. Five high-backed chairs arranged in a semi-circle. All the actors are on stage all the time, in these chairs, like judges - watching Nora squirm or dance or beg, unless they are in a scene with her.
It’s very effective and sinister. Simple, which I like.
Derek and Lane are whispering amongst themselves and not letting ‘as cast’ see designs. It’s like Christmas! After lunch our costumes are revealed.
I don’t know if my descriptive powers can do justice to what just happened in this rehearsal room. But I’m fucking well going to try.
Afternoon. Light streams into the airy and comfortable space that has been taped out and is sporting five high-backed chairs. Cast and crew assemble around the director’s table as finally the costumes and roles for the understudies are revealed.
Derek: What I have wanted to convey, and have been speaking with Lane about how to realise, is the societal force imposing on Nora. She is a victim and we have the actors on stage, all the time as this kind of malevolent force, watching, waiting to see what she is going to do. In this vice, she’s in a vice.
The director speaks with earnest conviction, occasionally looking to the principal members of the company. Who nod.
Derek: Now Lane and I have been in consultation for days, how best to make use of the non-speaking roles and I wanted to physicalize the plight of Nora, somehow. So – Lane – hold up the sketches – and we’ll show you.
Lane, a well-built man with no hair, holds up a large sketch. The company leans forward.
Derek: What Lane has captured is the anonymity of, well, evil, really – if you like. Dark, constant. Faceless.
I lean further forward, straining my eyes. I make out what seems to be an exalted sort of jumpsuit of the kind worn by fencing enthusiasts, complete with hood and face shield. I assume this to be an undergarment and the shield – well. It cannot possibly be a shield. I wait for further sketches.
Derek: We have quite literally created a faceless force, imposing on Nora. We haven’t decided if the actors will black up – that is the first option – or if we’ll use what Lane has drawn. That’s a balaclava, isn’t it, Lane?
A gasp gurgles in my larynx. It isn't credible that someone under 87 and not a member of the BNP has used the expression 'black up'. I remain upright and I focus, with effort.
Lane: Yes, yes. Exactly. The three non-speaking actors would wear these identical body suits, black lycra and these identical hoods – you look a bit like the Baader Meinhoff gang! - and black boots. You should not be able to tell who is who.
Derek: In the wings you’ll have to wear reflective tape!
Lane: Keep stage management from treading on you!
Derek: And the idea is, and I’m thrilled with this, that in between scenes the Forces of Fate, as we are calling you, will move the set. Around Nora.
Silence descends, only broken with a courteous ‘Ahhh…?’ from Nora and a ‘Goodness’ from her husband. They are, obviously, struggling to imagine how they will possibly maintain a semblance of dignity as tables and props rise, seemingly of their own will, up and off stage.
Derek: If you three as-cast do a good job, no one will know you are there.
Lane: I think it’s inspired. And is certainly more comfortable than a corset, Constance.
The two handsome understudies and I cannot look at each other. The shame we would see reflected in our eyes is too much to bear.
We are on stage at the National Theatre.
Dressed as ninjas. Moving furniture. In the dark.
I am taking a contract out on John Wood.
(As the meeting finishes I receive a text from my ex-husband. 'We've booked tickets. The whole family's coming! Can't wait to show you off. xxMal.')