Nicholas Day plays Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night at the Roundhouse (photo: Keith Pattison)
Nicholas Day plays Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night at the Roundhouse

Nicholas Day on preparing an RSC season

Published June 13, 2012

As the Royal Shakespeare Company’s What Country Friends Is This? season opens at the Roundhouse, veteran performer Nicholas Day shares his rehearsal experiences with us:

I so wanted this job. While it was certainly a challenging prospect, it was absolutely what I want to be doing at this stage of my career. Three wonderful plays by the world’s greatest playwright. Twelfth Night’s Sir Toby Belch, a role in which good judgment and teamwork are key. My character Egeon in The Comedy Of Errors has the longest speech in Shakespeare. The World Shakespeare Festival.  The most famous theatre company in the world. What’s not for an actor to want?

The RSC doesn’t normally rehearse three plays at once as we have done for the What Country Friends Is This? season.  Last year, for instance, we rehearsed Cardenio and The City Madam together in London, and didn’t touch A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Marat/Sade until we got to Stratford.

But this trilogy of terrific plays – one each from the beginning, middle and end of Shakespeare’s writing career – were to open together at the main house in Stratford-upon-Avon before coming to London’s Roundhouse. All three plays share exactly the same cast, so you can imagine that it’s been a pretty full-on process for all of us. Amir Nizar Zuabi has come from Palestine (with one of his star actors, Amer Hlelhel) to direct The Comedy Of Errors, while David Farr is directing Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

The logistics of the rehearsal period were a planning nightmare with each show taking priority in turn while the other two sat on the back burner for a bit. Of course the directors took every chance to nab actors whenever they could so we could easily find ourselves rehearsing two characters and plays in one day. Occasionally, even three! As the rehearsal period in Clapham came to a close, in addition to rehearsing six days a week, there were evening calls for all those understudying. There just was no other time to fit them in.

Both directors were keen to run the plays as soon as possible so that we could get an idea of their shape and the journey that our characters go on within them. That, and the pretty relentless rehearsal schedule, made this one of the most tiring, but enormously enjoyable, jobs I have ever done.

The difficulty, as you might expect, is keeping what we are doing in all three plays on the boil when we are focused on any one of them for a week or so. But spirits have been high throughout the process and we are blessed with a mutually supportive company that showed no sign of buckling under the pressure.

One of the great joys of being a member of the RSC is that one is surrounded and supported by a range of expertise that is quite the best in the world. For a producing house, this is a huge organisation and it is significantly to its credit that the spirit amongst those who are working with us on this trilogy is so evidently positive and friendly. One might expect such a complex organisation – where there are so many departments reliant upon each other’s efficiency and understanding – would be a hotbed of impatient dispute. Well, it may even be so, but the effort involved in getting three big shows on means that everybody is just so reliable and responsive. And justifiably proud.

Jon Bausor’s design is extraordinary. The set is rather complex; the only thing that is straight and level is the diving board in Twelfth Night. Yes . . . the diving board. Jon has used the space upstage of the thrust to speak so eloquently about the worlds of the plays.

The lighting is absolutely ravishing and I found it fascinating to watch Jon Clark adjusting and fine-tuning it throughout the long period of previews.

After some twenty or more weeks of rehearsal we were rewarded with tremendous houses. We have to rehearse, of course, with a major character in the drama absent – the audience. I could describe it like this: we’d been practising hitting our balls against a wall, but at last in front of an audience we have somebody on the other side of a net hitting the balls back to us in unpredictable ways.  It’s so exciting determinedly going for long rallies without letting the ball drop.

"The World Shakespeare Festival. The most famous theatre company in the world. What’s not for an actor to want?"