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In the near-empty Almeida theatre in London in mid-November, six actors are trying to nail the choreography for a musical number. The moves look simple enough – they have to walk slowly past each other, then turn out to face the auditorium as the song ends – but two cast members keep wandering perilously close to each other. Director Rebecca Frecknall pulls down her mask and the music halts. “Guys, careful!” she says, clearly straining not to do anything as hazardous as raising her voice. “Two metres, remember …”
Frecknall is directing this year’s Almeida Christmas play, Nine Lessons and Carols, written by Chris Bush, and Covid is an unignorable presence. Created and written here in the auditorium and pulled together largely when England went into its second lockdown, Nine Lessons is being rehearsed in a way that aims to cover every eventuality: social distancing and mask-wearing, twice-weekly testing, labyrinthine backup arrangements if a cast member gets ill, the whole DCMS-guidance-approved corona enchilada. But what happens if they’re not actually able to open? Frecknall is looking on the bright side: “No one ever said no to a few extra weeks’ rehearsal.”
Like so many other live venues around the world, the Almeida was forced to close its doors in March and hasn’t opened them to the public since: performers’ and creatives’ contracts were paused, staff largely furloughed, eight months of shows put on hold. Although it became clear over the summer that the government would step in with financial support, somehow it didn’t feel right simply to pick up where they left off.
Hours after the cultural recovery cash came through in late October, Frecknall called Bush and asked if she’d be up for collaborating on a new piece; a few days later, they started auditioning actors over Zoom. All told, it’s been five weeks from initial script meeting to previews – a process that would generally take months, if not years, for a piece of new writing. When I visit, designer Tom Scutt is hovering, masked-up, trying to figure out exactly what the show would look like. “I write fast,” says Bush drolly. “Which is … useful.”
A corona play it certainly isn’t, but realities that have dominated this year – isolation, anger, protest, a need for escape, unexpected connections – predominate, along with a wry sense of humour. The song with the deceptively tricky choreography is themed around solitude but, appealingly, it’s a chorus number.
Though Bush shaped the script, everything in the show has been generated during rehearsals, tailored to this particular cast. In the version I see, Nine Lessons has a somewhat Caryl Churchill-like texture, built up of separate but subtly interlinked scenes, each of which can be adjusted or dropped if a cast member does test positive. “I’ve been asking questions like, ‘What do you never get cast as? What do you enjoy doing?’,” Bush says. “The words and ideas have been generated in the room, but I’ve chosen them, if that makes sense.”
Despite the festive, religious title, they’re not trying to preach, Bush says. “There’s a line somewhere: ‘Some of us have always been alone. Alone and lonely are not the same.’” Frecknall points out that the subtitle is Stories for a Long Winter and says: “Chris was interested in the idea of lighting candles, staving off the dark.”
Talking of darkness, they were less than a week in when it was announced that England would be going into a second lockdown: when we meet, it’s still not clear what will happen next. It must be weird, I say, having no clue whether they’ll be permitted to open. “You have to work on the basis that you’re going to,” Frecknall says.
A few weeks later, soon after news arrives that London will enter tier 2, I phone Frecknall. Live theatre is back on, I say: she must be thrilled. She laughs, a little wanly. “Er, of course. But honestly, I barely know what day it is, let alone which tier.” They’ve been working full-tilt, but this is the first time she’s entered technical rehearsals when sections of the script are still being rewritten: “Some people don’t exactly know what they’re doing yet. Everyone’s had their wobbles, but they’re holding their nerve.”
Previews have been moved back by a day. She doesn’t want the audience to make allowances – this will be a finished piece of work – but she’s also hoping that they’ll catch the spirit in which Nine Lessons has been made – its gonzo, slightly guerrilla-ish nature.
I wonder what she and the team have learned from this most topsy-turvy of years and this frantic sprint finish. She pauses for a moment. “To just do it. To not be anxious. You don’t know what’s coming next, right?”
• Nine Lessons and Carols is at the Almeida, London, until 9 January and will be livestreamed on 15 December.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Holding their nerve’: Almeida reopens with play devised during lockdown