Sunday evening: the first day of rehearsal for Richard III, and I am excited to see the actors at work. They have just come off of putting up Much Ado about Nothing in two days, so are understandably tired, but all show up ready for the first read-through of Shakespeare’s most popular history play. After seeing Ben Curns and Miriam Donald duke it out as a hilarious and well-matched Benedick and Beatrice, I am a little uncertain for what lies ahead in Richard III. Can Benedick really be malicious enough to be the “bottled spider?” I'm uncertain going into rehearsals, but less than five minutes in, I need no more convincing. I am thoroughly scared by Ben hurling insults across the table, and I find it amazing how everyone just slips right into character even while at the table reading lines. No costumes, no stage, no set: just twelve actors sitting around a table, yet the characters and plot come alive.
The company has a jovial rapport with one another. When Sarah Fallon (playing Margaret) finishes her list of curses against Richard, Ben playfully responds, “Lady Disdain, art thou still living?” -- a throw-back to his line in Much Ado aimed at Beatrice. I can tell that many of them have worked together for years. They need little explanation and speak in a form of cliff notes with each other. As each person reads his/her part, the company is making sure that the cues are accurate (and not repeated -- as was the case a few times). On a few different occasions, an actor stops to clarify to whom the line is directed, or which actor is playing that part as there are a lot of roles. There are over 52 speaking parts in this play and only 12 actors, so even with doubling, some roles are getting axed. By the end of the play, Richard does that to most of the characters anyway, so it is of no consequential loss! They have already done paraphrasing and scansion before the read-through and most of the actors are off-book: a surprising feat considering they just began Much Ado a few days ago as well.
As the read-through progresses, I notice that many actors choose to substitute words that they feel work better in the scene. The substitutions are still, however, Shakespeare's words. The play exists in the 1623 First Folio and in six earlier Quarto versions, so the actors are able to replace particular words and phrases from another edition if they feel that those lines work better. Sometimes the flow and rhythm of the line is improved with a different word. Other times, the word substitution changes the meaning of the line (ever so) slightly.
After the read-through is done, the actors discuss some pronunciation points, making a collective decision for all of the proper nouns and removing references to those characters that have been cut. Ben, who also cut the script for this production, has taken on a leadership role (a good idea for the actor playing the Machiavellian?) and has outlined the historical background of each of these characters on a chart on the wall, creating a (crazy) family tree of sorts. Even though Shakespeare plays pretty fast and loose with these histories, sometimes it is helpful for actors to know what Shakespeare’s audience was aware of when watching the play. Over the next two weeks of rehearsal, I will be interested to see how the Buckingham-Richard relationship develops, because Rene and Ben already have quite a history acting together and this relationship can make or break the play. I’m also excited to see Sarah as Margaret, because if the read-through is any indication, she has a lot of vengeance to voice!