As I packed my bag on the Sunday following four wonderful performances of Bleak House, I only wished I was moving onto the next city, the next show… I was just starting to find my rhythm and the technicalities of the show were feeling embodied and I just wanted to keep going, I wasn’t ready for it to end! Although, being home, I have been able to reflect on what was a truly, brilliant experience.
Before Bleak House began, I spoke with a friend and mentioned I would be playing Esther Summerson, to which he replied, ‘oh god, she’s so pathetic and weak.’ Unfazed by this, I went into rehearsals, ready to work, with an open mind. Week one was very much about discovery and play, making bold choices, even if they were wrong, it was a time to make mistakes and try things out. During week two, the set arrived and it was like visually seeing the brilliant minds of David and Zoe slot together. The scaffolding which Zoe had designed provided beautiful frames for which David edited our visceral, beautiful melodrama. Melodrama and performing on scaffolding were two very new things for me, but it’s amazing how quickly the body adapts and David soon had us swinging upside down and hanging off the sides. Marvellous- a playground for adults!
Throughout the entire process I had my little notebook permanently attached to my hip, because David is always dropping nuggets of information that I wanted to remember. Something that particularly struck me, was after the dress rehearsal, he said that “in melodrama the emotion should not overwhelm you. It should be for the audience. If you weep too much, the audience won’t and you do not want to deprive them of that.” I needed to be reminded of this, as I have never played a character so like myself before. I feared I would get caught up in the characters emotion when reliving an experience similar to my own. David also often spoke about an actors need to be liked. Liked by their director, liked by each other and most importantly, liked by the audience (although we tend not to admit this). Esther is someone who craves love and desperately wants to be liked because she has never felt worthy of it. She is also openly fragile, naïve, indecisive, and melancholic; the parts of me that I try to keep hidden. Not your typical traits for a heroine, but to me that is what makes her special. Esther finds it hard to see herself as beautiful, especially next to her beloved Ada. As I delve further into this competitive world, full of beautiful actresses where their outer self is so often considered before their inner, it can be hard not to compare yourself. (Especially when you are the girl who leaves class like you’ve just stepped out of the shower because you sweat that much – thank you David!) But just like Esther, I have learnt to accept myself in all my forms and realise my own self-worth. It helps when you are surrounded by a generous, passionate, thoughtful cast of people, whom for a short time become your family, daily you are reminded that you belong, and that everybody’s unique in their own way. I see so much of my seventeen-year-old self in Esther and even though we are centuries apart, one being fictional, the other being real (I think) we are connected through a shared journey to discover oneself, which I’m sure everyone can relate to.
I learnt that in melodrama there are moments when the actor has complete power over the audience. As the narrator, I got to watch the audience gasp as Tulkinghorn rolled like a snake from the top of the scaffolding to bottom, hold back tears as poor, little Jo died and laugh as Madame Krooke self-combusted. The audience were taken on a roller coaster of emotions, never knowing what was going to happen next and constantly being shifted from one emotion to the other. Storytelling is a powerful art form and the theatre is a special place to connect people from all walks of life. I felt this during the last performance when I delivered my final line; “if she is a girl, we shall call her…”, and someone whispered “Esther” just before I did. It was an utterly magical moment. I felt the audience had been with us all along.
Bleak House may be over, but there is still work to be done. More voice work, more physical training, and more learning – which I realised with David, is at the heart of everything he does. Being a part of the David Glass Ensemble was a gift and I got to experience first-hand, not only how David works but how he is providing people with opportunities that can often be hard to be to come by. He is bringing together artists from all cultures and backgrounds… I met beautiful the Italian ‘Brides’ and lovely ladies from China.
After watching the performance, my friend told me he was wrong about Esther. As for me, I can only hope to meet her again in the future…
Thank you, David, Gavin, Zoe, Natalie, Hester, Robert, Kerry and the entire cast of Bleak House for an incredible experience I shall never forget!
Photograph curtesy of Robert Golden