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Exclusive: David Farr on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Long Ensemble

Published 9 December 2010

As the Royal Shakespeare Company moves into the Roundhouse for a 10-week London season, Associate Director David Farr shares his thoughts on the historic company’s innovative long ensemble.

Rehearsals in British theatre are often like love affairs. A group of actors and a director, many of whom have never met before, gather in a room away from the real world and for an intense period of time, often only a matter of weeks, go into a world where they experience intense emotions, secrecies and shared trusts that they would never share in real life. This giddy, joyous experience is what I think actors and directors most crave, most love in theatre, what they don’t get in film, nor in TV, not anywhere.

This strangely airborne quality, the intensity of being swept off into a world of fiction, becoming someone else, quickly, intensely, without barriers, simply because there is not time for barriers; the act of immersing oneself totally in a fictional character, disappearing into it, and into other people’s characters too, loving one fiction, hating another, wanting to kill a king, make love to a woman, all in a fast dizzying swirl of collective imagination; this is what theatre is about. Because British theatre is under-funded and still basically done on the hoof, we do it quicker and more skilfully than anyone else.

This is the usual affair of theatre: four, maybe five weeks’ rehearsal and then the run, often also a few weeks, at most a few months. Intense and total, often because we know it is short-lived and bound to die. A very British affair. Intoxicating and soon to be over.

This, then, is the attraction of the short passion. But for the last two years, and still going, a group of 44 actors and several directors have been living a very different kind of relationship. At the RSC the long ensemble has been steadily building a body of work – some of which is now two years old – and still has a year more to go.

How different an experience this has been. This group of actors have lived in each others’ pockets for three years, knowing all that time that they are 100% contracted to the RSC, to the work and to each other. I will have directed three of the pieces by the end of the ensemble and I am struck by the different quality of each process.

The first, The Winter’s Tale, was most similar to the usual atmosphere. The actors had only just met, the thrill was fresh, attraction was in the air, discovery was probably the most present quality. But even in the first rehearsals, the different quality of time was already felt. Twelve week rehearsals, not five. This is not pure wanton luxury, by the way; the actors were actually rehearsing two major Shakespeares in that time, so it equates to a six-week rehearsal period, which is not remarkable. But the very fact that the process lasts 12 weeks of time changes everything. Somehow it’s long enough to really discover what your fellow actors are like, to have to go a bit deeper, to have to discover what one really loves and what one doesn’t. The pace is subtly but crucially different. There is down-time, time for reflection, time to look inwards. Perhaps even more significantly each actor knows that everyone in that room is here for three years. The affair becomes the beginning of a proper relationship; we have to get on, we have to really find out who we are.

The second production, King Lear, was the tricky mid-period piece. Tiredness was an issue. People had lost the freshness of the first thrill, but were not yet in the mellow satisfaction of the achieved relationship. There was tetchiness, some frustration for people with less good parts. Had they really committed to this? But also a terrific determination to make the piece work, to give what one could to create what we were all here for; to create deep ensemble work. Gone was the allure of the new, and replacing it was a harder and more mature quality.

Now as we enter the final part of the journey, creating the three pieces of new work that will play at Hampstead theatre in 2011, whilst reworking the Shakespeares for London, the new RST in Stratford and then New York, I sense a new emotion entering the arena. There is in my rehearsal room – I’m creating a new play with the wonderful theatre company Filter and seven members of the RSC long ensemble – a real simplicity of communication, an honesty that combines generosity and straight talking. It’s a quality I’m very much enjoying: relaxed honesty.

Time is the theme of the long ensemble. In both The Winter’s Tale and King Lear we are dealing with characters who have enormous and devastating history: years of jealousy, frustration, rage, love and hatred. The Winter’s Tale deals with 16 years’ worth of grief. Lear creates a historic landscape of familial horror upon which the fateful question “who doth love us most” is asked. It strikes me that the long ensemble allows the depth of that history, of that time, to creep more solidly into existence. In a four or five-week rehearsal process it simply isn’t possible to go back in time, to look at every moment of pain, loss, separation and death that has created such complex characters as exist in these two great late plays. It’s up to each actor to do that work alone and bring it into the room. But in the long ensemble, the time that has been spent together, the 80-plus performances of each play, the lived-in quality of our work, does, I think, garner interesting and rewarding results.

Time is the governor of The Winter’s Tale; he guides us and shows us the way. But it is time that is often, for me, theatre’s weakness. I am rarely convinced by “distressed” costumes for example. I can similarly smell the fakeness of the artificially “distressed” performance. I do think that lived-in-ness is an unfakeable quality. The great Russian ensembles had that lived-in-ness. Time was present on the stage. These people had clearly lived together, loved and hated each other, and thus were in a place where their Platanov or their Hamlet had an innate and almost unspoken felt experience, a relaxed openness and acceptance of life’s griefs, joys and accidents. The actors’ own lived-in-ness transmitted into the characters’, became the characters’. This was the smell of reality.

We’re still understanding what long ensemble means, what it can and can’t do. We will experiment with the amount of time and what different timescales can create. One year, two years, three years. It’s not for everyone, this length of commitment, particularly not in this age. It’s frightening to sign a piece of paper that renders your life committed and defined for three years. You are in a sense already three years older with one brush of the pen. But the unfashionable commitment to a length of time, to a full and proper relationship, has something deeply lovely in it, something about the acceptance of mortality, of the working of time and of our pleasure in being together as it happens. Because whether we pass our life in countless affairs or in longer relationships, time passes anyway, and no blind hurling passion will ever get us away from that.

David Farr
RSC Associate Director

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