Danusia Samal as Demi in Circles
Today we have a guest blog from Tessa Walker, director of our upcoming production presented by Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Circles. Tessa gives us an insight into what she loves about playwright Rachel De-lahay’s work, the journey of bringing Circles to the stage and the thought processes behind some of the directing choices.
I love Rachel’s writing; I love the verve and energy and fearlessness with which she writes. I love how she sees the world through utterly unique eyes, like no one else does. I thought the life, the fire and the epic sweep of The Westbridge was unbelievably impressive for anyone, particularly a first time writer, and the detail and precision with which she wrote Routes, combined with a sheer anger at our immigration system, will always stay with me.
When I first started at The REP, two years ago now, I began to seek out Birmingham writers, actors, theatre makers and directors. I was delighted to find out that Rachel was from the city, had her first experience of theatre in Birmingham and still spends a great deal of time here. She felt absolutely the right person to be a writer in residence and I was beyond pleased when she became our Channel Four writer in residence. It was during her time with us that she re-visited Circles, the beginnings of which were a few scenes between two young people circling the city on the Number 11 bus. As the play emerged it found a much wider, more brutal scope as she began to write not just about a friendship that, without wanting to give too much away, is not all it seems but became about cycles of violence, more specifically cycles of violence and its effect on women. Three generations of women in this case. It’s not an easy subject, it’s not palatable, I don’t think it’s something society really wants to face but the reality is many women on the receiving end of violence act this violence out in turn, sometimes on themselves, sometimes on others but mostly in ways we will never see and are even less be able to understand. Its my feeling that we are surrounded daily by the most subtle – dangerously subtle, so much we hardly see them – images and narratives in which women are treated violently. I’m not saying Circles can re-balance all of these, but I’m incredibly proud to be associated with a play that runs right at the subject, tackling it head on and with detail, integrity and humour to boot.
One of the things that has also been so vivid about the play is that it has the Birmingham accent in it. Not because the characters are comedic – though they can be – or for whatever reason the Birmingham accent usually finds it way into the stage, but just because the people in it are from Birmingham. Simple as that. This shouldn’t be rare, we should hear the Birmingham accent everywhere, but we don’t and its a pleasure to hear it on our stage, and even more of a pleasure to hear Birmingham audiences responding to it. The play is also a hymn to the city; you can almost see it going past the window on the bus and the characters carry the landscape of Birmingham within them and in their stores, their experiences and their references.
Janice McKenzie and Sarah Manners in Circles
The play’s development has had quite a journey. About half of it was re-written in rehearsals; Rachel would write in one room as we would rehearse new scenes in the other. We had no idea how it would all hang together until about two days before we started teching and even then we have performed scenes in a different order from the text as it is published. We found, and are still finding now, different ways to overlap and interweave the stories in the staging so that the stories hopefully collide and comment on each other. It’s play of two very separate stories, it’s a bit like combining Skins with The Beauty Queen of Leenane and its been a joyful and exciting challenge to create a space in which the two strands, so different in tone and pace and focus, can exist together.
The actors have been wonderful in achieving this, they have been responded openly and swiftly and with great integrity to the changes and, as a result, have a real ownership of the play and it’s world. It’s only a short play – just over an hour – but the journeys in it are huge and the cast navigate them with honesty and with commitment and with brilliant insight. We rehearsed in two pairs really, both sets of rehearsals fueled by endless cups of tea and too many biscuits. In both pairs we started by reading the scenes a few times and then we broke the text into units, working through the scenes moment by moment. This is a great way to unpick what is really happening and to stop too general an approach. It’s a good way to make sure scenes don’t run away with you but rather you are, as much as you ever can be, in control of them. Do this for too long though and it can get boring so we also got scenes on their feet as soon as we could and began to discover a physical life for them. I quickly gave up on the bus scenes being too realistic, I didn’t want us or the audience to ask about where the other passengers were (sitting downstairs, if anyone asks) or for us to worry about not being able to roam around, jump up and down, use seats in all the different ways one can. The bus scenes needed a life and a warmth and a sense of ownership and that’s very hard to achieve just sitting still. In comparison the scenes at ‘home’ that should feel safe and relaxed and warm don’t, neither of the women can be at home with each other, too trapped in what they can’t say and what they don’t want to deal with. It was fantastic to find this, and much more, in rehearsals. It always seems a bit naff to me when directors say they’ve had fun in rehearsals, as if all you’re doing is guffawing and playing practical jokes, but rehearsals for this have been fun. Sometimes very focused, sometimes a bit baffling, sometimes getting loads done and at other times nothing, but I have had fun. Fun because the actors are brilliant, funny, vibrant people. Fun because the play is unique and complicated and has brilliance in it. Fun because every day you make a discovery, even if the next day you might realise it was the wrong one.
I’ve been asked to write here about what the response to Circles has been. I’m afraid I don’t really know. Audiences seem to like it a lot, though ‘like’ is probably not the right word. I hope people recognise their city and their voice and maybe their story in it. There’s a lot of laughter from audiences I’ve seen it with and also some shock and upset. It might be the sort of piece that people describe as ‘packing a punch’. The reality is though its very difficult to really see work you have directed for what it really is, let alone work out what people really think. I’m not sure you ever can. What I know at this point is that I love the writing and I love the story. I think – thanks to a tirelessly talented creative team – it looks and sounds brilliant. I think the acting is fantastic. I think it puts an untold story from an under represented city on stage. I know I’m very proud of it.
Circles plays at the Tricycle from 27 May – 14 June. View the official trailer here. Book tickets online here.