Omnibus artistic director (and director for Spring Offensive) Marie McCarthy sits the actors and the writer around a table as part of the second rehearsal of Omnibus Associate Artist Victoria Willing’s work, which opens in three weeks to the day on 18 April.
I join part way through a script reading that McCarthy pauses after every few lines to dissect and delve into the characters. I sit slightly back from the table, keen not to interrupt the creative energy that is buzzing around the room. The atmosphere is calm and welcoming, where discussion can occur freely to get under the skin of each part. McCarthy picks apart lines and examines their construction, not in terms of pace, metre or delivery (that will happen later in the process) but to build a picture up of April’s Bed & Breakfast on the Somme, currently occupied by guests Tom and Pam. I speak with writer Willing to understand her initial inspiration for the play:
Where did the inspiration for Spring Offensive come from?
The idea initially took shape when I was on the Somme travelling around the area. It’s only just over the Channel and yet it felt really different, really sparse and bleak. I was really taken by the whole First World War tourism industry that has set up around there – the town of Ypres, for example, looks like a medieval town, but it’s been rebuilt in the 20s as in the First World War it was completely flattened. So, it’s kind of pretend, a reconstruction. There’s a lot of that Disney feeling, yet there is also the reality of the underworld, which is the dead bodies, dead soldiers and the cemeteries. The past is under the ground and the present is over the ground living off what happened.
It’s not a moral point I’m making – I’m exploring a number of things: people running away; British expats’ view on Europe; the European view on the British; how people earn a living. It’s very much also about women of a certain age – the fact that the two women in it are around 60, there is the notion that you’re supposed to turn into a certain person. But people don’t change that drastically or dramatically. There are still the same underlying desires, fears and lusts. It explores all that in an unusual, weird environment.
The past is under the ground and the present is over the ground living off what happened.
This is very much a research and analysis session. Sketches, theatre plans, maps of Northern France and various World War 1 images are strewn across the table and on the walls – pieces of the puzzle that McCarthy is assembling for the show. Some of the props – an oven glove and tea towel adorned with poppies add extra tactile pieces of inspiration. The set design is provided by Willing’s daughter, Grace Smart. I wonder how this dynamic is playing out so far:
Your daughter Grace is going to be the stage designer for this. Have you worked with her before?
No I haven’t – she very kindly offered to help. She’s been designing for a couple of years and after graduating and getting the Linbury Prize for Stage Design she’s been going full strength ever since – I think she’s currently doing three productions at once! She had a great idea for the design about being immersive, the audience are to be quite involved as if in April’s living room. There’s a feeling of being stuck in this slightly unusual place.
At this point in Willing’s script, it feels as though each character is given individual focus. Pam is first – McCarthy, Willing and actor Maggie Daniels throw ideas and inspirations back and forth to build up her background, her reasons for reacting a specific way or the hidden meaning behind her inflection when delivering certain lines. The other actors chip in with stories, recollections and alternative thoughts – creative concepts that bounce back and forth across the table, slowly taking shape and growing more concrete. Tony Turner and Terri-Ann Brumby get their turn as well (as Tom and April respectively) as the pieces start to slot together.
McCarthy doesn’t lead with an iron fist and likewise Willing doesn’t push forward her original ideas and ignore any other options. The development of the script feels organic and the relationship is well forged between these two – the play has been a few years in the making and both have helped to mould it into the version it is today:
“I had a production [Could It Be Forever? ] that I took to Edinburgh with a co-writer some years ago, but I’ve not had something done in London before” states Willing. “Marie came in on Could It Be Forever? afterwards, did and workshop and a rehearsed reading of it as well as doing a rehearsed reading of this play last year at the Soho Theatre. She’s been by my side for quite a lot of this – she’s really helped me with the script, dramaturgically. We’ve discussed the play and the characters at some length over the last three or four years. It’s been a slow process with a lot of changes but I think it’s in a very good place.
How helpful is it to have such a close director-writer connection for a work such as this?
I think it’s absolutely essential in what I am doing as a fairly new writer and as somebody who would never wish to direct anything. She’s very indulgent with me – she lets me have a lot of say even after writing. It’s not like I’ve handed the play to her and then they go off and rehearse, at this stage I’m very involved and the script is still going through little changes. There are some things that you don’t notice until the first reading. But I don’t want to make changes forever because, being an actor, I know how scary that is when writers constantly hand you new drafts.
Even with the initial understanding between writer and director, Willing taking a keen interest in the opinions of the actors as they perceive the characters and inhabit their personalities. The process is collaborative and I feel that I start to know these three fictional people better because the team explore them. McCarthy often asks questions of the actors to help establish their comprehension – no trick questions, no right or wrong answers, simply an open dialogue. I can look to the opposite corner of the rehearsal space and imagine fuzzy outlines of each part slowly materialising, taking shape and becoming real.
The reading continues after these brief discussions. McCarthy verbalises all the stage directions as if testing them aloud to see how they feel, where they fit and place them into the production. There’s jollity in the air as personal stories are told – April is a big fan of Status Quo, prompting childhood memories of trying to imitate the signature shoulder dance. Parts of the script are skipped pending further re-writes by Willing.
An hour gone in the blink of the eye, I stepped out to let the dialogue around Spring Offensive continue. There is so much work going in to understanding the unwritten, unspoken personae of each character, the proof in the pudding will be to see how effectively that translates into the stage performance. I ask Willing about her hopes for the production after the two-week run:
The show is on for two weeks at the end of April in the Omnibus. What do you hope will come next for the show?
I would love for it to be seen by people who could take it on somewhere else, a tour or another theatre. That’s the ideal, but I like to concentrate on the people that are going to come and see these twelve performances and give them the best time that they could possibly imagine – make them laugh, make them cry, make them smell lamb stew. I’m not well known as a writer, I’ve not been doing it very long, so everything is about moving forward.
Spring Offensive is playing the Omnibus from 18 – 30 April. For more information and to book tickets, see the website.