Who is Virgie? Researching After Electra

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015 by Tricycle


Today we have the first in a series of guest blogs from Phil Bartlett, Assistant Director on After Electra that plays at the Tricycle from 7 Apr – 2 May.

Hello! My name is Phil Bartlett and I’m the resident Assistant Director at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, where I’m involved with the theatre’s extensive programme of new writing. Currently I’m in rehearsals for After Electra, a new play by April de Angelis which is being directed by Samuel West and premieres in Plymouth this March and will then play at the Tricycle Theatre. After Electra is a black comedy centred on Virgie, an ageing artist who refuses to grow old without making a fuss, and the fallout from her unconventional birthday celebrations. Over the next few weeks I’ll be using this blog to give you an insight into the rehearsal room, reporting back on how the play develops as Sam and the actors interrogate April’s script and translate her words into action.

Rehearsals kicked off with a read-through of the entire script. As the name suggests, a read-through involves the actors speaking their lines aloud and is a chance for everyone involved in the production can hear the script as it stands on the first day of rehearsal. Read-throughs aren’t always useful, but with a new play it’s often helpful and in this case it was a delight to hear the actors together give voice for the first time to the comedy and drama of April’s dialogue. The read-through was followed by designer Michael Taylor talking those present through the model-box, which is a to-scale model of what the set will look like. I won’t reveal too much about the design at this point, but it was exciting to see how full of detail the environment is going to be and get some indication of the kind of furniture, props and lighting we’ll have at our disposal. The Drum and the Tricycle stages are different shapes and so Michael also explained to us how the set would be adapted at each venue to fit the spaces.


After lunch, the wider production team left us and we began rehearsals proper. Rather than standing the play up straight-away, however, we gathered around a table in order to go back to the first page of the script and gradually work through each scene compiling a list of facts and questions. Facts are anything we know from the script to be true (for example, that the first scene takes place on Virgie’s birthday) whilst questions are anything left unanswered in the text (for example, the exact date of Virgie’s birth). It took us a few days to work through each scene in this way, taking turns to read a speech a time regardless of who will speak it in performance, but was an invaluable way of checking that everyone was clear of the given circumstances of the play and highlighting any ambiguities in the script we needed to fill in. Often these ambiguities are details the audience will never know the answers to, but deciding amongst ourselves the precise layout of Virgie’s house, for instance, ensures everyone is performing in the same play and helps solidify the world we are presenting.

At the same time as compiling our facts and questions, we took note of any dates mentioned in order to construct a timeline of events. Some of the characters have known one another for more than fifty years, and so whilst the action of the play takes place over just seven months the people concerned have a collective history which stretches back into the previous century. Using any specific references in the script to time as anchors, we filled in the gaps ourselves to pinpoint exactly when and where the key events in these people’s lives took place, and in so doing discovered clues linked to their relationships and behaviour. ‘Life did get a bit chaotic,’ says Virgie at one point, but establishing a firm chronology has already helped us hugely in understanding the memories and experiences the characters carry with them when they enter the story.

To help us find interesting and water-tight answers to the many questions our script work has raised we’ve collectively been carrying out lots of research outside of rehearsals – this has ranged from consulting maps to work out where exactly along the coast Virgie might live to investigating the movements of the tide at specific times and finding out the cost of a holiday to Venice. Much of this research has already been done once by the director or playwright before the start of rehearsals, but asking the actors to also research the topics related to their characters allows us to collectively decide upon the most interesting answers – provided, that is, that they are supported by the script. Research isn’t just limited to typing key phrases into google, either – actor Rachel Bell, who is playing Shirley, is arranging a tour of the House of Lords, for example, and we have plans to visit an artist’s studio. We’ve looked at paintings (such as the violently physical Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, mentioned at an important point in the play), listened to poems (Ted Hughes’s Full Moon and Little Frieda, for instance, which cropped up in our discussions of an important offstage character and is definitely worth taking a few minutes to enjoy – link:, and even had a drumming workshop (as this video proves!)

This work is only worth doing, of course, insofar as it furthers our ability to tell the story well, and after four days we had amassed enough information to begin exploring scenes on our feet. Finding a physical shape for the story inevitably raises a host of new questions, but it’s great to already see the information we’d uncovered in those initial sessions support the actors in making exciting, convincing performance choices. The first week ended with us arriving at a basic shape for the first scene of the play, and having then had a couple of days off to rest and continue individual script work we’re all now looking forward to getting back in the room and continuing our journey through this extraordinary play.

After Electra is on stage at the Tricycle from 7 Apr – 2 May. Click here to book.

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