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Phil Willmott

What’s it Like to Close Down A Show? Part 1

Peace In Our Time By now everyone reading this will have been affected by our virus and will be facing anxiety-educing financial uncertainty and huge logistical issues simply getting from day to day. The problems and feelings of theatre makers are an irrelevant drop in the ocean of this huge crisis.

However a as a diversion I thought I’d tell you a little bit about how it feels to close down a show in case it’s of momentary interest. Also a little bit about how those effected have drawn on theatre camaraderie to lift their spirits.

I'm a theatre director and for the last month I have been preparing and rehearsing a production of Noel Coward’s PEACE IN OUR TIME, a fascinating play unseen in London for a very long time. Here’s a little background to the project.

Every year at this time I direct the popular ESSENTIAL CLASSICS SEASON in which great writers of the past have reflected on issues of relevance to us today. This year our repertoire has been suggested by the 75th Anniversary of V.E. Day and the three shows explore British life in W.W.2 as we consider how we got from “Peace in their time and socialism” to “Peace in our time and Brexit”.

The first play TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS explored the psyche of the upper class youth who’d go on to fight in the Battle of Britain, then our hit staging of the Lionel Bart musical BLITZ! celebrated the spirit of working class Londoners at the time.

Finally Noel Coward ’s PEACE IN OUR TIME was to put the wartime bourgeoisie centre stage in a play that considers how Britain might have fared under Nazi occupation and having lost WW2. As Coward’s biographer Sheridan Morley observed “‘Peace in Our Time’ displays an absolute belief in the unconquerable common sense, patriotism and ultimate imperturbability of the British middle class”

Coward is best known for sparkling comedies like PRIVATE LIVES. And PEACE IN OUR TIMES would surprise you, as it did the original audience, with the darkness of its drama. Also, in 1947 the public was in no mood to watch a play about losing the war. He had a few flops during his career but nothing as catastrophic as this one. The brutal review for the play in the Evening Standard was headed CRISIS FOR COWARD which may explain why few people have heard of it, read or seen it since.

The post-war timing of that first production, it must be conceded was an error on Coward’s part but with hindsight I considered it worth dusting off the play to find out whether he did actually misread the mood of the times. After all his previous hits had perfectly captured the hedonism of the 1920’s, the caustic wit of the 1930’s and wartime spirit. BLITHE SPIRIT was the perfect balm for a country in mourning and BRIEF ENCOUNTER still has the power to move us to tears. Did his powers of empathy and observation really leave him when he wrote P.I.O.T? Or was it simply “too soon”?

I was about to find out!

It was a fascinating production to rehearse with considerable challenges beginning with assembling a huge cast of 18 who would not only suite the roles and play them brilliantly but who would also bond together as a working group, what we call in theatre “an ensemble” - a collection of artists who will perform as if in tune with one another.

In my experience that’s best achieved by bringing together people who will enjoy each other’s company, respect each other and make each other laugh. We heard from around 800 actors who were interested in auditioning. With my Casting Director (the person who organises who your audition and makes recommendations) we chose around 100 people to send us film clips of them performing a speech. We then chose around 50 people to invite for a face to face audition, they performed their speech again and I got a chance to see whether they responded to my direction and get a sense of whether they’d be fun and creative to work with.

Finally after a lot of work we chose 18 people aged 20 – retirement age and it was wonderful to bring them all together and get them talking and laughing. I was relieved to find that we had chosen well and not only were they very talented but their love for the project and each other was immediate, and rehearsals were fuelled by their enthusiasm.

The first rehearsal challenge we faced was finding a playing style. It needed to be detailed and truthful of course but we learnt fairly quickly that Coward’s drama collapsed in on itself when played as contemporary TV realism and without the heightened speed and dexterity of delivery that we find in his films from this period.

Then there was the problem of how to bring the 22 characters in and out of focus in a way that was as clear as possible to follow. I knew the audience would initially struggle to understand who was who in a stage full of people. But, like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, PEACE IN OUR TIME has a cumulative effect that slowly pulls everything together to grip you.

It’s a subtle, slow-burning study of the every-day corrosive effect of existing within an oppressive regime as observed by Coward in occupied France. It was important that we all understood both the France that had inspired the piece and the imaginary world of England under Nazi occupation that he had concocted.

The action is all set in around a bar, which brings its own challenges. If the bar faces the audience it dictates that either the servers have their back to us or the customers. If the bar runs from upstage to downstage it means much of the action is played in profile; none of which is satisfactory. I conceived a staging where the bar changed positions with every scene so that sometimes you saw the action from the perspective of the staff and sometimes from the POV of the drinkers.

Facing and solving all these demands made the bond between us all even stronger. In such circumstances you become entirely wrapped up in the theatre you’re creating and tend to shut out the outside world.

But the virus was heading our way!

In part 2 I’ll tell you how we began to feel it slowly creep up on us and how the repercussions consumed us all and the production.