Spotlight: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in the West End

Much Ado About Nothing (jacket)This month we published the official tie-in edition to the West End production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing – starring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. Directed by Josie Rourke (who’ll shortly be moving to the Donmar Warehouse from her current job as Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre), the production is undoubtedly the summer’s hottest ticket. Our book includes the version of Shakespeare’s text being used in the production, along with exclusive material about the production, including interviews with the cast and creative team, design sketches, sheet music and a rehearsal diary by Associate Director Robert Hastie. Read on for extracts from his fascinating behind-the-scenes commentary on the making of a West End hit…

Monday 4th April 2011
‘I learn in this letter…’ The read-through has started. Standing in a big circle in the rehearsal room in West London are the cast of Much Ado About Nothing – and what a handsome bunch they are. Leo Staar, as the Messenger, is having his first encounter with Catherine Tate’s Beatrice. Read-throughs are often an actor’s least favourite bit of the rehearsal process, and can frequently be muted affairs with everyone mumbling and burying themselves in their scripts, scared to make any choices that may be used in evidence against them at a later date. But Catherine, Leo and Jonathan Coy as Leonato dive straight in with reassuring courage, and everyone follows suit. Five minutes in, the company are already making each other laugh. Which is fortunate considering, as Josie points out, they will be spending the whole summer together…

‘Strike up, pipers!’ says David Tennant, and the read-through is over. Rob Jones, the designer, shows us his model of the set and takes us step by step through the various locations his terrifically versatile design can achieve. The younger actors gather round, marvelling at the detail of the tiny model sun loungers, while the older ones quietly calculate where they’ll make their first entrance. Technology being what it is these days, we are also able to see a big-screen presentation showing the movement of the set from one scene to the next. The company are intrigued by what appears to be a mobile disco unit in Act Two, Scene One…

The first day of rehearsals can feel like the first day of school. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and you’re alone and nervous and wondering why you wore these shoes, and surely they never meant to cast you at all and were actually thinking of that other actress called Jenny who’s got the same agent. It’s hard to believe at this point that in only a few weeks’ time you’ll feel like the best of friends.

Wednesday 6th April
We start the day by testing some hardware. The production team has been here since seven o’clock constructing the giant revolving floor that will form the centre of the set. Jordan, the Assistant Stage Manager, plays with the controls; it will be his job to operate them during performance. In order to test how fast the revolve can go with the whole cast on it, everyone in the room climbs aboard, and as not all of the company have arrived yet, the staff of the Bush Theatre are recruited from their office upstairs to make up the body count. We all stand round the edge of the revolving disc as Jordan turns up the dial. Maximum speed is hardly a ride on the waltzers, but the novelty of it still has us grinning like children.

Josie has decided not to spend several days sitting around a table examining the text as some directors do, and as she herself has done in the past – instead we will unpick each scene as we come to it, working on the text and then getting the scene on its feet in the same session. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the language of Much Ado is among the most accessible to us today, and there is little that is obscurely archaic. The actors in Act One, Scene One stand in a circle, their scripts placed in front of them on music stands, and we begin.

Friday 8th April
The rest of the company arrive at eleven o’clock, and as it’s the first time the whole acting company has come together in one room, we take a moment to talk about spray tans. The play is set in a Mediterranean world of blue skies and sunshine, and it makes sense that the people in it look as if they’ve spent some time in the sun. The guys from the hair and make-up department are here to meet everyone, and some of the cast (those more experienced than others in the dark arts of artificial tanning) become enthusiastic about the possibility of having our own spraying booth in the theatre. There is much talk of exfoliation and top-up lotions, and a few bewildered, fearful faces among the male members of the company.

Talking of tans, it’s the first beautiful day of the year. Several of the company sit on the grass outside to eat lunch, and when it’s time to start work again, there are mutterings along the lines of ‘Miss, can we do the lesson outside?’ But back in the rehearsal room, much excitement greets the reappearance of George the movement director, armed with an iPod full of ’80s dance classics. It’s one of the most entertaining afternoons in a rehearsal room any of us can remember, as the company get to grips with all the popping, pointing and posturing they’ve gleaned from their homework assignments. Bonnie Tyler’s ‘I Need a Hero’ blares out, and George teaches everyone the ‘running man’. It’s a joyous end to the first week, and with a bit of luck will keep our spirits buoyant as we move on to the darker scenes in the play’s second half…

Nick Hern Books publish the official tie-in edition alongside the production at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, playing from 16th May to 3rd September 2011. To purchase your copy with free P&P (UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

Click here to visit the production’s website.

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Spotlight: HOME DEATH – a new play by Nell Dunn

Nell DunnNell Dunn is a distinguished writer whose work includes the award-winning play Steaming, as well as several novels including Up the Junction, which was directed for TV by Ken Loach. Her latest play Home Death is based on moving true-life accounts of people dealing with the death of their loved ones at home. It was performed this week at the Royal Society of Medicine as part of the Dying Matters Awareness Week. Here, the writer reveals how her own experience of loss led her to confront the way we deal with the reality of dying, raising urgent questions about the state of palliative care in the UK today.

Where did the idea to write your play first originate?
I wrote Home Death because after the death of my partner at home, I realised I knew so little about how to comfort and take care of the dying. So I began to ask other people, and what I learned I put into the play.

The main impetus was curiosity – a desperation to know. After the feeling of failure in my situation with my partner, Dan, it seemed to make me feel better talking to others.

You interweave a number of individuals’ stories in the play. Was it always your intention to include your own personal experience as well?
I started with my own story. I was heartbroken I hadn’t helped Dan more. He had always been so wonderful and supportive to me, and I so wanted to help, but was frightened and didn’t know enough.

Could you describe your process of researching and writing Home Death?
I always research in a completely haphazard way… talking to someone on a bus for example. I use a tape recorder sometimes, not always. The technique is to gather material, then smash the glass and reassemble it differently by listening to it again and again – hence the unconventional punctuation in the play.

You also write novels and screenplays, but what made you choose to write Home Death as a play?
I think the theatre is the best medium for Home Death. It can be interpreted in so many different ways by actors, yet it is really so simple – stories about the most extreme moment of life. People are so extraordinary, and this is what I have tried to capture.

Home Death jacket

Home Death by Nell Dunn

The play contains some striking images that feature in several of the stories such as the cold, unwanted, hospital bed arriving in a patient’s home. Is this a notion that particularly struck you?
The image of the cold bed was intentional. I was thinking about how an object was attempting to take the place of clear sensible human care. Why an unfamiliar ugly hospital bed to die in, rather then your own familiar bed?

What is your opinion of the current standard of palliative care available in the UK?
Sometimes palliative care is excellent and sometimes dreadful. However, I do think all the different painkillers that now exist should be more freely available to people in their last few weeks of life. Why this puritan approach to drugs?

There are far too few palliative care doctors, and almost none that do home visits. This means if you are dying at home, you are in the hands of a district nurse who isn’t even allowed to prescribe painkilling drugs like morphine – so you can find yourself in a dire position.

Why do you think we are so afraid of dying in today’s society, or do you think it has always been this way?
I think there has always been fear around death, which is why the Victorians made those huge lead-lined coffins to preserve the body for the afterlife. Eternal death was too frightening then, but most of us now believe that this is it – and when it is someone you love, it is so huge.

The first fully-fledged production of Home Death will take place at the Finborough Theatre in London this July – part of Vibrant, the venue’s annual playwriting festival.  Nick Hern Books are proud to publish the script, which you can purchase with free P&P (UK customers only) and a special 20% discount, click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (your discount will be applied when your order is processed).

Dying Matters logoDying Matters
This week (16-22 May) is Dying Matters Awareness Week throughout the UK. Dying Matters is a broad-based national coalition led by the National Council for Palliative Care, with over 15,000 members which aims to support changing knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards dying, death and bereavement, and through this to make ‘living and dying well’ the norm. To find out more or to join visit www.dyingmatters.org or call freephone 08000 21 44 66. 

Introducing ‘Meet The Playwright’ – on Stage Talk TV!

Stage Talk TVThis month sees the launch of Stage Talk, the first show on TV dedicated to amateur and community theatre.

It’s a sign of great confidence in grassroots theatre in the UK that a dedicated programme should appear just as many professional theatre companies are reeling from the shock of Arts Council cuts. ‘Am Dram’ has so often been denigrated or patronised that it’s heartening to see evidence that more and more people are turning to their local theatre group simply to put on a good show.

Whatever your theatrical tastes or instincts, we urge you to take a look at Stage Talk. It broadcasts monthly, on the first Sunday of the month, on Sky Channel 201/FreeSat 403, or you can catch up on the entire programme on the Stage Talk website. And if you’re actively involved in amateur drama, there are plenty of opportunities for you to contribute – including a ‘Show Tube’ section where you can promote your own production.

As a taster, here’s a clip of the regular Meet the Playwright section, sponsored by Nick Hern Books. This first episode featured an insightful interview with playwright Amanda Whittington, whose plays including Be My Baby, Ladies Down Under and Ladies Day have received more than 50 amateur productions in the past year.

Stage Talk TV: Episode One – ‘Meet The Playwright’ with Amanda Whittington

For more information on the full range of NHB plays available for amateur performance download your copy of our latest Guide to Plays for Performance here.

Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington

Be My Baby by Amanda Whittington

Amanda Whittington’s poignant and heart-warming drama – Be My Baby – set in 1960s Britain is currently playing at the Derby Theatre (as part of Derby LIVE) to 21st May. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets – ‘beautifully crafted drama… there’s not a word wasted’ Mark Shenton, Stage.