Just Like Dowagers: Mothers and Daughters In Vile Bodies

Our last and fifth day of workshops consisted of a return to some old ideas and an exploration of some new ones; with a pack of cards we explored power relationships, with Ryuichi Sakamoto we explored how the characters perceive themselves, what it is that helps them get up in the morning, and how they think. It was a fun day, an experimental close to an experimental week.

Since the week began the degree has started again and rehearsals have begun in earnest. Every rehearsal has differed so far as we tackle a different scene and different ideas fundamentally at their crux. Our first rehearsal visited The Shepherd’s Hotel, where our focus was on the lives of Lottie, Doge and Ginger. Our second looked into the world of Simon and Miles. Tonight’s rehearsal was an exploration of Mary and Martha and their scenes in the play.

There are some consistent themes throughout this play: love, money, fame, hope, change, redemption, corruption, but one of the most startling things about the characters we have in this play is the relationship of parents and children.

In the whole of the six main characters we have two parents, and out of the rest of them we don’t seem to have a whole family between them (with the exception of Archie, but then the day someone asks him about his home life is the day the world ends.) Agatha’s mother died in childbirth, an event that has placed a heavy burden on her father and her’s relationship and sent her into the care of a rich maiden-aunt. Miles’ father has eloped to Vienna with his mistress, leaving Margot Metroland to deal with an empty house and a need to fill the void with drugs and alcohol. Adam’s father is distant, his mother potentially dead. Nina’s mother has disappeared into the void of time and her father is far from the kindest figure in the play. And Simon? Well him and his parents don’t really talk anymore. That’s what you get when you’re a cat’s paw (and, you know, a prick.)

Therefore in the play we only meet two parents; the Colonel and Lady Metroland, both of whom serve comic purposes in the play. However the play is littered with surrogate parental figures- the Drunk Major, Lord Monomark, the Prime Minister and his wife, Lottie Crump and even Melrose Ape all step into the breach to fill a world with adults; a world that would admittedly have a constricted older generation thanks to the first great war.

Lily Brewer, who plays Lady Metroland, also plays Mary, who is the Saffy of this Absolutely Fabulous play. Mary is rich, but Mary is not a bright young thing; she is a dowdy and frumpy girl who’s mother has crushed all the fun out of her. When her middle-class and ambitious friend Martha finds her, it’s Martha’s chance to enter the circle of the fashionable set. As we see in the scenes in 10 Downing Street however, Martha may want the BYTs, but they don’t want her:

Martha
Oh Simon, how bogus!

Agatha
Miles, did you hear that?

Miles
I do believe I did!

Mary meanwhile hates this world she is thrust into, but due to a desire to be liked and a desire to do what she feels she ought, she goes along with the utterly disgusting people that are Agatha and Miles, and ends up in conflict with her stern and dour mother. Lily was quick to spot similarities between Mary and Lady Metroland.

Margot, like so many women in the play, was a debutante who came out at 18 and was quickly snatched up by the industrialist tycoon Lord of Metroland, Mr Malpractice. Within the year Margot was fully domesticated and lumbered with a child, and although she loved Miles very much she hated her parents bitterly for selling her into this life so quickly. When her husband ran off with his mistress (for he had an heir, and therefore no further need for Margot, whose youthful looks were drained by motherhood) she was left with her son. So when Miles went off on the grand tour, and then to Oxford where he met Adam, and then moved into the family’s London townhouse, Margot could not have dealt with it worse; needing to fill the Miles-shaped void, she took to drugs and alcohol in a way like she never had before.

Like Mary, Margot is a victim of doing what one ‘ought’, as are so many women in Vile Bodies, including Nina. Margot is not a good mother, but she is the only matriarch in the play who is actually benign, and in no way corrupt. Mrs Brown, played by the wonderful and scintillatingly-voiced Zoe Lambrakis, is a good mother but a cold and heartless dragon who turns her house into a clockwork asylum (intriguingly, the real wife of Neville Chamberlain was actually a feisty and ambitious character- more akin to Zoe’s last big role, Lady Macbeth, than Mrs Brown is.)

Zoe is our resident player of mothers. Unlike Lily, who’s talent for playing desperation comes out so wonderfully in the rabbit-in-the-headlights Mary and who’s talent for aged flamboyance explodes like a firework in Lady Metroland, Zoe has spent her time playing Shakespearean roles at university, and steps into Vile Bodies playing three very different characters, but all, at heart, mothers. Mrs Brown is the stoic iron lady, whilst Lottie is a tart with a hart who mothers Adam but is, essentially, prostituting her motherly love; because if he can’t pay, he can’t enjoy it. However, there is no other woman in the play so protective of Adam’s wellbeing- she arrives to try and get Adam the money they both so desperately need, and leaves having been torn from his side by her Jewish heritage, only to be stuck with the woman he hates and she is little closer to- Nina Blount. Lottie, whenever she bustles about the stage, is a charming and warm character.

Quite unlike Melrose Ape, therefore. Melrose, Zoe’s third character, is the most wicked and disgusting woman alive. Not only a zealous evangelist and open nazi-sympathiser, she is also a complete hypocrite. Melrose is like the world’s worst stage mother; she has erased any history she once had, though we know vaguely that she crept up from a small swamp-ridden family in Alabama or thereabouts, and having experienced evangelism at a young age decided it was her calling. However, she quickly realised wicked men only listened to one thing; youthful beauty. Melrose began collecting beautiful young faith-filled and singing girls from across America, her ‘angels’, who have always borne five names; Divine Discontent, Prudence, Hope, Fortitude and Chastity (although other angel lines may have died out.) These five lines of angels, like the Doctor, or James Bond, have been ‘passed down’ whenever an angel ‘retires’. Just before the play begins, Divine Discontent has been thrown out, Fortitude has become the oldest member, and a new Divine Discontent arrives- a 14-year-old southern belle with a love of God that reminds Melrose of herself in younger days- played by the brilliant Elly Parsons.

Melrose Ape is the sort of woman with scrapbooks of photos and articles about her girls, maybe even collecting the odd scrap of hair. Her life is devoted to the girls she exploits and literally sells off to the highest bidder. When they inconveniently get old or pregnant, she ejects them from the safety of her act.

Although her underlings are exploited and quite frankly raped by her clients, they are safe in employment and finance with her. Though not given much freedom or money they enjoy a life of plenty in a time of scarcity. They have played for the greatest names and in the greatest halls in the world. Before the play, they have just finished performing for Mussolini himself.

But the angels are corrupt and twisted little women; wise beyond their years, music is now a strict job they must perfect, sex is life, and religion is a paradox they can’t understand- how can it be the thing that preaches the sanctity of the body can also desecrate their young forms via conversion? Melrose Ape is a horrible, twisted phantom of a woman. One need only look at Fortitude, a stuck-up Regina George who is 18 and on her way to the glue factory, aware she is on her last legs, ready to be replaced by the smart-arsed and contrary Hope, and how contorted her mind is to see what Melrose does to the people about her. Even Divine Discontent, who arrived with a belief in the goodness of the word of God, has become another victim of the fascist machine that is Ape. She is not a character to sympathise with; she needs no backstory, she needs no love. She is a hypocrite and a bitch.

Yet Melrose Ape is the holy fool of this tragedy. She is the first to speak out and say that the Bright Young Things are a hedonistic and foolish set. Before Simon, Tiger, Archie or Adam can even think the same thought, Melrose is already being silenced by Lady Metroland, a mother figure who, whilst loving, couldn’t give a shit what drugs her son is taking.

And also, the exposure and prostitution of the angels has horrid parallels to the idea of debutantes; whilst the debutante world is not as exploitative or ethically unbalanced, in both girls are sent into the world to find men, and if they don’t do their job as they wish, then a cruel state of pariah-dom may be all you can expect. Martha has had a few years with no male success, Agatha has too but she cares little for meeting a man. Mary’s getting on even at 19, Nina took the wrong man in Adam, and Margot regrets how quickly she entered the world of female servitude. In the end, what is so different from Margot and Fortitude, except that Fortitude knows exactly what she has to look forward to?

Choppin’ And Chopin: The Movement Workshop

After two days of character intense and improv-stodgy preparation, Chloe’s arrival lightened the process significantly with a bit of a changed mode of doing things, and it was super great fun.

Day 3 Log

Chloe started off the day with a quick warm-up of the whole body and then a focus on exploring the movement of every part of your body, from your toes to your elbows. Then she moved into exploring being lead by particular body parts in movement, and moving about the space. We also looked at characters meeting, and a blind character interacting with a still, seeing character.

Next, Chloe drew on Pina Bausch by asking the actors to think of the ‘I am…’ lists we drew up the day before/invent them if they had missed it. Actors thought of words for their character and started to embody those emotional states through movement. Even when people chose states irrelevant of character, there was something to be drawn from the exercise; one of the most fascinating was Lottie doing Fortitude. We began to see the desperation of an angel about to reach the end of her career, and what that can do to a girl who wants to be famous. Also noticeable was the birth of Floss, the second nurse in Agatha’s asylum, who formed under the careful command of the wonderful Lizzy Leech.

Having explored that, we took lunch and then began looking at how characters walk. Chloe asked the actors to consider the very anatomy of walking; what it is that makes their walk their own, and therefore what objective anatomical notes made Nina’s walk, for example, the walk of Nina. As walks were developed, Chloe then warmed up the cast and then had them walking about the streets of London and feeling, but having to hide, disgust, hilarity, offence or sadness at the people around them or at themselves. It was wonderful to see the ways one hides the way they feel, and showed the subtleties of how one masks their feelings.

Chloe then took the cast through a series of choreographed movements to help prepare them for the demands of posture and the dance of the time. Finally we sat down and talked character again, but finally placing the characters into a type of movement; whether they were absurd or natural or performing-natural or natural-performing-absurd or the like.

The final stage of the rehearsal Day 3 was my own creation (well, if you can call it that): an in-character dinner. We went to local student haven and curry heaven King Babas and from the moment poppadoms arrived until the bill was placed on the table, our actors stayed in character. For 90 minutes we met our characters in depth and saw the products of a great deal of work, and we almost didn’t get hated by the other customers. It was really great fun, really drunken, and lead into a wonderful cast social in my living room playing ‘I have never.’

Day 4

Day 4 started off with a return to the wonderful world of children’s playground games. My knees may never recover after a crawling game of bulldog. Ever. But leapfrog, stuck in the mud (or dizzy scarecrows, as Chloe called it- crazy Northerners) and normal bulldog also all made appearances.

Then the cast tried moving with an exploration of resistance, limitation and expression. It was a really wonderful thing to watch as Chloe played a good fifteen minutes of Chopin with assorted criteria for movement.

With this movement we then went back to exploring character walks, and choosing lines which were either emphatic or fake from the characters. Saying them both over and over again, louder and louder, with more gesticulation, and changing inflection, allowed them to find what suited the character best. It opened up a lot of questions about the characters as a result.

Next we tried performing scenes from the play silently, with only movement to express them; Archie, Nina and Adam at the summer handicap, Miles and Simon at dinner, and the angels and Melrose arriving in Dover.

Finally, we tried improv, in which the audience were allowed to yell out anything for the cast to adopt as part of their characterisation; this ranged from ‘hot’ or ‘itchy’ to ‘Nina is Alan Rickman’, ‘Adam can only move by shimmying’ and ‘Hope is now the embodiment of negative space.’

Yeah.

Actors right?

 

Helena Gumley-Mason’s ‘Etiquette and general possibly useful stuff’

A

 

Apologising: – More of a mea cupla (it was entirely my fault) attitude. Acknowledging the mistake you made – “sorry I am so late,” To put it far more eloquently as Debretts does ”The urge to elicit groveling self-abasement is both childish and offensive”

 

B

 

Banting- After the Dr Banting – how to get the new thin look by following a strict diet. You wouldn’t say someone was dieting – you would say they were “banting”

 

Bright Young Things. – . Usually too young to have served in the Great War. . Moneyed . Leisured.. dancing all the new dances. Driving new and faster cars. Inventing there own slang (different sets came up with different saying) For example the Inner London Set in the thirties described things as sweet or “do be a sweetie”

 

BBC – Monopoly. The only broadcasting company at this point. Aimed purely at middle classes and above . Hugely helping/ influencing the way people talked from Lands End to John O ‘Groats. What referred to as “received pronunciation” – basically BBC English.

 

C

 

Cinema – Everyone goes. Several times a week – to “watch the talkies” Sound really came in with the 30s (first was 1927 but talkies really came into their own in the thirties)

 

Cars /Motor Cars – Quite simply – more of them although still very few though. Of course they were needed more in towns. As the thirties went on they became smaller, cheaper and faster..

 

Chivalry. During the thirties it was becoming more apparent that women didn’t “need “ help /rescuing. However a few things were still expected of men toward women. The three main things: acknowledging any female presence– doffing hat and standing up when females entered a room. Walking curbside as well when escorting women in the street (to avoid splashing by motor cars or trams etc. Of course opening doors for women was expected.

 

Cocktails. Abbreviated by people like Wallis Simpson to KTS – Savoy American Bar developed exotic and lethal cocktails and still do them today. KTS tied in with the nightclub culture.

 

Club: Men of a certain club would be part of an exclusive club in London. You could stay there if you came down to London for a night. A place where you would meet people – the phrase “Come to the club for lunch ” recurred often .

 

D

 

Diction: watch brief encounter and talk to david for a long period of time. Nuff said. Also any Noel Coward songs – “The Stately Homes of England?” Just remember clipped, pushing of words to the front of your mouth. The more restrained and correct you are the less you will have to use your mouth and draw any attention to any kind of sensuality. Think of words like awfully, frightfully, terribly. Lengthening of certain vowels – gone owfe – clawthe (cloth) short stupid (stoopid). Garrige not garrage. Reiterated words and phrases such as “I mean” and “don’t you know”

 

Divorce: Increasingly common. In some sets there were competitions to see who could marry most often and get the most money out of it.

 

Dancing – Charleston , the Black Bottom to name a few of these new American dances. Referred to as “The new Barbarism” with the underlying and somewhat disturbing influence of jazz and blues etc.

 

E

 

Edward VIII abdicates. Nation united in loathing of Wallis Simpson.

 

F

 

Fashion. Again this ties in with posture (see later). The Bright Young Things are trend setters but first and foremost – exhibitionists. Their harshest critics …each other.

 

Formality; First in terms of dress even when being casual . Men wold have had a jacket and tie, you would have been used to wearing black tie and occasionally white tie . They would have felt quite familiar with dressing more formally and.

 

(Small gestures while wearing clothes to emphasise the care and pride you take in your appearance. Possibly every now and then just check that your tie knot is jut so..your cuff etc. Sometimes Prince Charles does it in interviews! – More about the language of gesture rather than actually adjusting your tie. When going out not only hat would be worn but there would have been stick (again more for the purpose of accessory than practical function) and gloves.)

 

-Ladies – androgyny !! Move away from the restrictive corsets. Moving away from the frivolity of flappers. No need any more to be afraid of using your body.. Considerably greater sexual awareness. No need to wear dresses either – slacks came into fashion as did plain shirts and plain jackets. Not about relying solely on your clothes for self expression.

 

Fascism; Sir Oswald Moseley and his Blackshirts. It is a phenomenon which triumphs in Spain Italy Germany. Not necessarily a bad word amongst the aristocrats and the sets. Many aristocratic people thought it was perfectly acceptable – especially when it came to appeasement

 

G

 

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. She brought sex appeal he brought entertainment. Adele Astaire interestingly married into the Devonshire Dynasty – became something of a minor aristocrat.

 

Gramophone-Now small enough to be portable. No party should be without one. A portable band you can dance to in your own home. “How deevy!” (slang for divine – but when it came to usic – the thirties equivalent of groovy!)

 

 

H

 

Hair : Short., men using grease such as Brillliantine. KInd of lacquered look. Women leaving girlhood behind at about the age of seventeen or eighteen if you were upper class and had been presented to society.

 

Homosexuality: Obviously frowned upon. Although it was more tolerated in upper class circles – your friends would turn a blind eye. If caught “cottaging” (Hampstead Heath was something of a hotspot for the practice during this period) you would be sent to prison without question.

I

 

India and Empire. The notion of an entire peoples belonging to the crown and Britain still around in this period.

 

J

 

Jazz – new daring slightly decadent. Knowing that your parents wont like it but you and your friends you do . Nazis and Communists also hated it.

 

 

L

 

Laughter – not too much – no more than an appreciative aha. Otherwise it could allude to drunken and unruly behaviour.

 

Ladies – withdraw after dinner to chat while men had whiskey and cigars and so on. Important to note there were two types of lady:

-the fast set (like Wallis Simpson) – sexually promiscuous, more practised in the “art” of ex and seduction. Drink, smoke, do drugs, dance and dress sexually. Delight in causing scandals.

-and the stay at home ones like HRH Queen Liz married to Bertie who was to become King George VI

 

M

 

Marriage – not necessarily on the shelf if not married (for a woman) by the age of twenty five. Still very much the thing to do. Sometimes seen as the only way out of a scandal.

 

Mistresses – almost fashionable after Wallis Simpson. It was understood in certain circles that once children had been produced a man could take a mistress with his wifes full knowledge. Of course if a married woman committed the same act she would be cast out and rejected by society, her friends and family.

 

N

 

Nightclub: Increasingly common. Names like The Embassy , Kit Kat and the Scarlet Peacock.

 

O

 

Oil: More Millionaires and more success stories. It was now more possible than ever (mainly in the US) to get rich quick and go from being a nobody to a very sought after somebody

 

P

 

Posture – women – elongate the body. This is where fashion and smoking come in as well. Lifting the head so you are almost looking down your nose – aware of your own self importance and self confidence without being rude. The more you bare your neck the more you show how comfortable you are (think when a wasp comes near – most push their chin down and hunch their shoulders as a self defense mechanism)

 

Politics: after a brief flirtation with Labour in twenties than it was Conservatives throughout thirties with Baldwin and and then Chamberlain

 

Pride – upper classes the words pride and patriotism recur often. Not a dirty word. All levels of society in their own ways were proud of where they came from and their country.

 

S

 

the Season. Something Nina, Agatha, Mary and Martha would have taken part in. Presentation at court at the age of seventeen. Learn everything from the useless (flower arranging) to the slightly less useless formal circulation of a party of people.

 

Smoking – this ties in with posture. One never smokes holding between finger and thumb always between index and middle finger. Treat it as a gestural tool and an extension of your fingers. Not only does it elongate your hand it also distinguishes you. By this I mean – servants and those in a lower position would usually hold cigarettes between forefinger and thumb so they could hide it from their employers at a moments notice. Similarly in the Army , if you were smoking on duty , you could quickly hide it from your commanding officer. Men always light women up with matches. When women can – use a holder. Pipes also optional. Cigars at big dinners. Everyone smoked.

 

Sex – Bedhopping among upper classes common. (obvs) marriages often contracted dynastic or land reasons and consequently more bed hopping continued after heir produced. Quite usual to have a mistress – “an heir and a spare.”

 

Scandal – upper classes try to avoid newspapers at all costs. In their opinion, “hatched matched dispatched” should be the only time a respectable family appear in news. The Bright Young Things love and loath the papers as we see in the play,

 

T

 

Tea – all drink tea – no one unless very upper class would have coffee. One would use pots and tea leaves not cups and tea bags.

 

U

 

Underwear- for women – no more corsets !! Easier to get on and off and increasingly scanty.

 

University – the only options would be Oxford and Cambridge and a few other mostly red brick places around the country.

 

V

 

Victorian – term of abuse used by the young swinging beings of the Thirties

 

W

 

Work – publishing houses would be the main respectable option for the young men of the sets. Anything which required very little specialist knowledge and wasn’t paid very well.

 

War – all terrified of it. Very recent memory.

 

Wireless no one listened to the radio – everyone listened to the wireless.

 

Y

 

Yachts – the new King Ed VIII goes on a naughty cruise with Mrs Simp – to gasps of horror across the empire. You may have a grand friend who has one.

 

Z

 

Zips – of course fewer and fewer ladies maids are around. Also about ease comfort and economy.

Let Us Go Then, You And I..

…Into a rehearsal room.

Not quite Eliot, but we’ll cope.

So the rehearsal process has finally begun. This is the week before term starts at Warwick (aka ‘Week 0’) and so a great week for messing about; it’s a week of exercises to have fun with the play, to generate a feeling of openness and confidence, to grow into the characters in the script, and adapt to our way of doing things here in the Vile Bodies team.

The first day was a slow, talkative day between the cast and myself.

Day 1 Log

Drama Games

The usual favourites- ‘Evolution’ or ‘Ameba’, Kung-Fu Ninja, and the utterly brilliant new version of assassins called ‘Vile Body’, in which everyone is a Body, one person is Vile, and they seek to kill the other blind, crawling cast members. Hilarity with an office ensues. We also played ‘Bash Says Concentrate’, a game passed down from the lovely Bathsheba, in which the cast must try and perform simple tapping and naming tasks quicker and quicker until people begin to drop like flies. It’s great fun, works a treat.

Themes, Context, Timeline

As a cast we sat and talked themes; the ones emerging being excess, war and love amongst others. We talked about the era, about what it meant for our casts, referencing a very useful list of etiquette details compiled for the cast. Then we created a timeline of important dates for characters- birth dates, children, marriages, cotillion, etc.

Characters

With the dates decided we started chatting about characters in depth; some fascinating new details emerged about the hilarity of the characters- about times in Edinburgh, about Miles and Adam going on the grand tour before uni, about Agatha sleeping with everyone, about Martha’s characteristics. It was superb.

Day 2 Log

Drama Games

The usual- Vile Body, Kung Fu Ninja, Amoeba

Emotional States

The actors all had to remember moments from their lives equating to all-encompassing emotions in the play; we had Desperation, Excitement, Bitterness and Hope. Talking about those non-raw moments and how one moved, we then played scenes with the characters using new pragmatic displays of emotion; we saw Miles learn that Agatha was in Bedlam and have to call Nina and Adam whilst Archie asked him if he really liked him or not, a scene in which Simon tried to tell Nina he loved her but it was interrupted by a long anticipated call from Adam, revealing they wouldn’t be getting married. The moment Adam and Nina agreed to marry, and Adam telling Miles and Nina telling Simon over the phone. Melrose Ape and Prudence meeting Tiger at a Ferry port and trying to convert him, only to discover he’s gay. And Mary talking to her family at breakfast about going to her first divine party that evening.

What we got from this not only were ideas of ways to express the emotions these characters feel, but an overarching theme of the play; the theme of change, so present in the play, is balanced with a theme of hope; a theme of austerity and optimism that things will be better, and also people’s attempts at security (Nina’s marriage, Chastity’s new job, Tiger sleeping with Miles etc. etc.)

Drama Games

Another two rounds of Kung Fu Ninja; one excellent round being performed to a ska medley of Tetris and Ghostbusters.

I am…

The actors walked about thinking of five words their character would use to describe themselves. They then walked about embodying one, trying to embody a multitude, seeing how their physicality felt in a natural sense.

Then we broke down their emotional and characteristic words, and performed improvs in which the actors took on pantomime versions of these states; the elements of Tiger (salt-of-the-earth, ambitious and cautious) had a financial and sexual discussion on a submarine. Lottie’s hostess, manipulate and warm elements talked on a railway platform. And Nina’s spoilt, fickle and sad nature coped with a plane crash in the desert.

After each, we asked the actors what these words provided for their characters as well as what it provided for the actor who chose the words, and if they changed these words.

Spaces

For a quick break, we took a look at a few spaces in the play and, in groups, drew some floor plans; Miles, Nina and Adam’s rooms and homes (Miles’ townhouse, Nina’s flat and Adam’s hotel room) and also the breakfast room of 10 Downing Street.

Finally, we did a quick wind down with everyone lying on the floor. We played Glenn Miller’s version of Rhapsody in Blue (originally a 16 minute orchestral piece by Gershwin) and watched as the characters all woke up in the morning, and how they functioned first thing.

As I said to the cast at the time, these exercises are all a bit eclectic and testing the waters to see what people enjoy and don’t; it gives us a chance to test things out with the text and begin to develop things before even touching the script.

I’m sat here tonight beaming, and very excited for tomorrow. Yay for theatre!

Nina Blount, or ‘She Cursed Cole Porter Too’

She said “I hate to be pedantic but I’m driven nearly frantic
When I see that unromantic, sycophantic lot of sluts
Forever wriggling their guts.
It drives me absolutely nuts.”

She refused to Begin The Beguine when they requested it
And she made an embarrassing scene if anyone suggested it
For she detested it.

~ Noel Coward, ‘Nina’

If we are to only focus on stage time, lines and overall importance to the story, Adam Fenwick-Symes, played by the sensational Matt Bent, takes the role of lead every time. Not because he is the most fascinating character, but because he holds the more flamboyant cast together with his own-brand marmalade of normality. Adam has to be the sort of chap you notice for a second before drifting to focus on a Simon or a Miles.

But potentially the most exciting character to think about, just in terms of half-formed hints and potential elements to the character, is Nina Blount. Whilst Agatha Runcible (who we touched on last post) is riddled with fascinating bits and bobs, they do not float so very near the surface as Nina’s fascinating character.

Some have called Nina soulless, some have compared her to the classic and fascist beauty that was Diana Mitford (pictured above). One can see Nina as the true victim of Vile Bodies, as she thrusts herself between men in a search for security in a world where nothing is certain. But the true beauty of Nina is that she is neither damsel nor villainess, but instead that rare thing; a human being.

Nina’s trajectory in the play is very different from both book and film. In the film, Nina is humanised more than in the book where Waugh portrays her as almost unscathed by such human things as emotion or morality, and instead she becomes something slightly more pathetic. The final scene, of her sadness, coming home and finding Adam and the candles, shows her to be a woman in need of rescuing, yet at other parts of the film she is very much book Nina, in that she can take quite a lot of pain and show almost nothing.

Very early on in the process Chloe Dichmont, our movement director, and myself talked about how natural the characters tend to be sitting on a spectrum of natural to absurd caricature. In my mind, this is a spectrum between Adam and Ape, and Nina to me sat just a few notches below Adam in ‘real as anything’. But as the auditions wore on, and we saw a thousand different takes on Nina (as a cold-hearted bitch, as a petulant child, as a fragile gothic waif at times) it became clear that sometimes the very performative and fake Agatha is actually the more candid; her dream monologue is more full of fear and emotion than anything Nina ever says in the play. Whilst Nina is incredibly natural, this naturalism is perhaps the greatest performance of all, because she is performing the perfect woman and the perfect hostess, and, as I said to Katie last night; Nina’s great hubristic flaw is that there is no etiquette book for love. The heart follows no decorum.

Katie and myself, rather drunkenly, had a long conversation last night about who and what Nina is. Katie told me she was ok with me playing Nina as a villain to build sympathy for Adam, though I said I had no intentions of going for such an easy take on the character; it is incredibly easy to say that Nina is a bitch for what she does to Adam, but the fact of the matter is Adam doesn’t exactly help matters; at no point does Adam sit her down and say that money shouldn’t matter. He plays the game that Nina has been taught to play and both want to just stop the stupidity and be together, but neither can. That is the ultimate tragedy. That the only thing separating them is society.

There are big questions to ask Matt, Katie and indeed Dan about who and what Nina is; what has her life been like? Did she, like Diana Mitford, have a whole swarm of siblings? What is her relationship with Colonel Blount? Where is her mother? Did Nina learn any of her lessons on love from the Colonel and his wife? When is it that Nina and Adam both realise the relationship may never work (for me, it sits in a scene in Act 2 in which Nina expresses a fear this may be the last time they ever really talk.) When is it that Nina’s shell cracks? For me originally it was when Adam tells Nina he’s sold his share in her, for Caddick it’s Miles, Agatha, Archie and Adam all turning round and leaving her at the Asylum.

Most importantly: how sexually experienced is Nina? Evelyn Waugh puts it across very clearly that Nina is a virgin before Adam, and vice versa, but how clear does Nina make this? Nina is such a siren, and lures so many men in the play, that we have to presume she does not make it clear she is inexperienced.

And if we forget about sex and think purely of love; does Nina really love Adam? There is a good argument for either side. Equally, does Nina love Ginger? Does Nina, perhaps, even have feelings for Simon?

The first stage in the rehearsal process is for the actors to know exactly who the cast are to each other, know the lives and habits of the people they will be playing. The actors need to be able to step into a scene and know where they are, who they are and how they are the people they are playing, from the thoughts to the external habits of the character. This may not all come in the first week; it may take time to discover how posture and fidgeting effect each character. I’ve said to Katie that we want Nina and the Colonel to have, even if just one subtle thing, mannerisms in common. The immediate thought was to have both be very languid, slow drinkers, running their fingers round the rim of the glass and then taking long, powerful glugs. Something almost predatorial to the everyday activity of consuming liquid.

I look forward to looking back at this blog- both this post and the whole thing- at the end of the project and seeing what has become of the characters and ideas I write about here. I have a feeling the characters I have come to know and love in my head are in for a real adventure in the hands of our incredible cast.

On Tuesday we start rehearsals, and I’m terrified but also super excited. From Tuesday onwards I will also be keeping a log of what we do and what comes of it, and posting it on here as soon as I get a chance. I can’t wait!

Trousers & Trumpets: The 1930s As Social Rebellion

As I’ve come down with something all of a sudden, I live in fear I may not be able to go costume hunting Thursday, which is an essential task we have to get round to ASAP. However, by hell or high water, I will be in London Thursday and Friday. I’ve also bought a ticket for ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest: The Musical’ and I refuse to miss it.

However, due to my illness, I have been able to indulge in watching  a show my costumes goddess Lulu introduced me to; Downton Abbey. A show I dismissed after a lacklustre first episode, having bought the first series and watched the whole thing I’m madly in love. There is so much of Evelyn Waugh in a period drama like that (admittedly set the other side of WW1) that at times the story of Mary’s romance was ripped from Nina, and at times I saw elements of so much of Vile Bodies in the TV show.

What it also showed, however, was the vital importance of clothing at a time like that. Clothing said an impossible amount about a person, it was a sort of language. One remembers the scene in Brideshead Revisited set 20-odd years later during which Sebastian comes down to dinner in tweeds, which is a horrid shock for all who know and adore him.

Vile Bodies, therefore, is almost obsessed with the clothes of era. Vile Bodies has to look and feel cool, like a party you wish you were invited to, especially at the start of the show. Warwick graduate’s adaptation of ‘Belleville Rendezvous’ really got this feeling across; I wanted to get up on stage and join them when I entered the theatre. As soon as everyone begins performing ‘Sing Sing Sing’ and the cast erupts on stage in a firework of hedonism, I want goosebumps down the audience’s neck, and I want them to immediately think ‘wow. Ok. This is pretty great.’ And the clothing is another part of that whole aesthetic.

Lulu was desperate to do it, having an obsession with period vintage clothes and wanting to delve into it more, this was a perfect excuse. We spent hours looking at crazy pictures, talking about themes and motifs and colour schemes, and it was eternally satisfying. The costumes we hunt for in the days running up to Christmas will be a centre point of the show, as dressing that way will effect everything just that little bit.

A big thing about the costumes is androgyny, and one of the first things Lulu and myself said was that Agatha and Miles were going to capture this completely; Agatha will be in men’s suits, her hair styled like a man’s, but most importantly she’ll be the only woman wearing trousers. Katherine Hepburn (pictured above) caused a sensation doing this herself, and I remember that when I first heard about Hepburn’s trousers I was in awe of such a shocking choice; indeed, as Lady Sybil shows in Downton Abbey, trousers were a big statement for a woman. I’m not sure how aware Agatha is of this statement in terms of politics and feminism, but the important thing is she’s going to look bloody fantastic.

I could not be more excited to explore the clothing of the era with a dear friend and fellow obsessive of the 1930s like Lulu. It’s been utterly essential that the team have the same interest and passion for the era and style that I do. One of the most difficult things I think early on will be to get away from the 1930s as a gimmick and instead make it a part of the overall tapestry of the show. Whilst the show IS a period piece, it’s very easy to be a bit panto with the RP and the clothing. It’s also very easy to forget the 1930s had a distinct sartorial identity separate from the 20s and 40s either side of it; I myself had done that very thing, and I feel like a fool now to have not seen it. It’s also going to be essential that we abandon the feeling that this sort of swing jazz is just elevator music, which could be an issue; the music we are using has connotations of National Trust properties, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and retirement. What needs to be remembered by everyone and relished by everyone (and Hen could incite passion for black people into the KKK) is that the music of the show is not tame, it’s dirty and its sexy and it’s unusual. Saxophones, trumpets and the like are suddenly being employed to make the sounds of voluptuous women strutting, and people swinging their dance partners round, and new sexy costumes and dances. Jazz was the punk rock or grime of its day and the cast need to appreciate the dirtiness whilst also enjoying the chance to play with it’s dual role as calm and pleasant background music when the tempo slows down.

All in all, this is a show that seeks to explode the incredibly important social changes of the 1930s. Julian Fellowes talked of how Downton shows a rarely displayed era which he felt odd about because the 1910s was crucial to the development of England. But whilst there was definite steps taken to Suffrage, and technology leapt forward a thousand bounds, the 1930s are equally important and equally peculiar for they lie on the precipice of war. The 1930s was post-chanel, post-suffrage, post-flappers, an era of jazz and sex and economic frenzy due to the wall street crash and yet here we have aristocrats still doing cocaine off the Prime Minister’s table and having sex with whoever and whatever they liked. This isn’t wartime stoicism, this isn’t Brief Encounter, this is sexy and uncouth and louche, and I hope the cast enjoy every second.

Reading Between The Lines

Christmas is in a week and in another week and a bit rehearsals for Vile Bodies begin, and I’m bricking it because for the first time I’m in charge of a big group of actors leading them through exercises I’ve been coming up with, and Chloe won’t be there until a bit later in the process; so it’s just me.

One of the things about directing, I always notice, is that your life literally becomes obsessed with your project. So over the last few weeks everything I do and see becomes a chance to think of something new for Vile Bodies.

A group of my friends did a very interesting project at Warwick recently; ‘The Ensemble Project’, in which a start-up team plus a group of auditioned actors formed an ensemble who put on three productions of The Lover with three different couples. One of the most interesting things was their focus on free writing, which they described as a process of seeing how people think about different things and using these to see how that translated into characters (I think. Obviously I’m not any of them, and I wasn’t involved so I can’t actually say it’s real purpose but this was the general gist I got.)

This sounded interesting and, obviously, as a partially devised and otherwise student written piece it makes sense to bring in other student’s writing in a way. So as well as exploring how people think in relation to a theme and given the chance to free write, I also want to try a slightly-less-free-write (we’ll think of a better name. Perhaps) in which we look at how characters would free write on key themes.

Going one up on that, one of the things I find most useful as a character is an ability to think as the person you’re playing. As a result, I want to take that free writing and try people listening to a scene and writing how their character is thinking throughout it. For example, take Adam and Nina’s first phone call; what is it Nina thinks whilst she jokes and banters and finally puts the phone down to almost cry at the idea that, once again, the marriage won’t be happening. What is it she thinks when all is silent, and she’s on her own, and she leaves the stage? Or what does Simon think when he sees her put up with this? What does Miles think when, once again, he sees the man of his dreams kissing the fiancee he’ll never have? During these moments, as other actors read out the scene, I’d like to know what the person is thinking. What does Nina think every second of this scene?

When we’ve done that, I’d then like to try either line feeding these thoughts whilst we do the scene, or, alternatively, recording the thoughts of the character and playing them through headphones whilst they perform the scene. Or even abstracting it, and just recording strong and intense desires whilst having to do something basic like have a cup of tea, and see how this effects people.

Vile Bodies is all about subtext and when that subtext stops being clandestine. It’s all about what people are hiding, when people stop performing, and why do people make these choices. It’s why, in the recalls we looked at Laban, to see how one internalises a state of feeling and performs another on top. It’s why we, in the first round, looked for people who didn’t express the obvious emotions in Nina’s monologue, or people who knew how to mix candour and performativity with Agatha.

This is obviously not the only thing we’re doing; but the week is jam-packed with ideas to do with power struggles, subtlety, emotional shifts, physicality v naturalism and then Chloe will be arriving so we can add in even more crazy before the scenes even begin being explored. I’m also looking forward to delving into the characters at hand, that’s going to be exciting.

David