The Beauty Queen of Leenane
First days are always weird aren’t they? Everyone’s a bit nervous. Everyone’s a bit hot. Everyone’s made sure they’ve done their hair and is worried they might address their new boss with some lettuce in their teeth. First days in theatre are just the same, except for most artists, they have a first day every few months, each time they form a new company and embark on a new project.
For our first day on Beauty Queen, we all gather in Hull Truck’s green room and try and soothe the mood with tea, chat, and a whole range of introductions led by Mark, Hull Truck’s artistic director, and the director of the show.
The read-through, when, as a company and a building, we all share our first read of the play aloud, comes that afternoon. Read throughs are both terrifying and exhilarating, completely unimportant and completely necessary. They remind you of how much work there is to do and why you’re excited to do it. In some ways, the read-through is like the first breath that the whole company takes together.
Discovering a play is a slippery thing. It seems like it should be simple, all there on the page for you. You’ve just got to make it happen out loud. And in some ways it is that. And in some ways it’s not that at all. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is particularly twisty. McDonagh has created a world which feels both instantly familiar and starkly unusual. A world where items of domestic comfort become totems of violence, where the rhythms of everyday language turn themselves in comical somersaults and the cosy becomes cruel. It’s a mixture of isolation and claustrophobia, a study in the lightness and darkness of everyday life and at its heart is a mother-daughter relationship which feels properly alive and kicking in complexity and truthfulness and bitter dependency.
This is all stuff we start to unpick over the coming week. Four weeks rehearsal sounds like quite a long time, but as soon as you open the choices to be made about what lies beneath the surface of the text, you find time slips through your fingers. Aware of this before we start Mark makes sure we move at a fair pace, discover as we go, learning through how bodies interact in the space as much as in close analysis of the dialogue. All the actors are open and generous in their choices and this is always a gift.
The role of an assistant director can be a funny one, more than any other in a theatre process it is undefined, waiting to be shaped by what you make it, and what the director you are working with feels they need. Mainly you support rehearsals, offer input when you feel your eye might be helpful, hang back when you feel space is needed without too many voices to cloud the process. I might run a parallel rehearsal if something needs to be clarified while they push forward in the main room, or I might keep an eye on a particular sightline or rhythm. Mark is very giving with his rehearsal room and you always feel like you can offer your thoughts, which really makes you feel you are vital to the process.
By the end of the first week, we all feel like we’ve made proper contact with the first half of the play and have dragged it into the open alive and half kicking. On Friday everyone bustles off, some of the actors back to their homes and families in different parts of the country, some to their digs to explore Hull for the weekend. We all take a deep breath, ready to push forward into the second half in week two.