The recent production of Jim Cartwrwight’s Road at the Royal Court made for unmissible viewing – a blindingly relevant show that gives expression to the inhabitants of an unnamed northern road in Eighties Britain. After seeing John Tiffany’s production, I sat down with actors Mark Hadfield and Liz White to find out more about the process that went into creating the show:
Do you have any kind of rituals you perform as a group before you go on stage?
Liz: Jonathan Watkins, our brilliant movement director, used to get us into a circle to perform a series of exercises to music, often to a really funky tune. We still do it even though he he has left, because otherwise we don’t get to bond as a group before going on stage – it is really important to keep that connection alive throughout the run.
Mark: John Tiffany used to come with a whole playlist of songs from the Dallas theme tune to ‘Ease on Down the Road’ and Diana Ross, which we would all then do aerobics and Jane Fonda-esque physical warm-ups to.
We also incorporate the Tai Chi movements that are shown towards the end of the production to help us coordinate with each other. If you haven’t seen a member of the cast for a long time (especially if we do not share any scenes with them), it is so important to keep that connection alive.
So how does this help you transition into performing? The production has a very varied pace, switching quickly between fast and physical to much slower.
Mark: The Tai Chi movement focuses the group, which then enhances how effective the more energetic parts of the warm up are. We are pumped up because of these high energy movements, but also very aware that we are in the play together working with each other.
Liz: And it always takes a good few weeks to find the rhythm of the play, and these rituals have been integral to helping us find that.
Was there any part of the rehearsal stage process that came as a surprise to you?
Mark: Elements that aren’t written in the play came as a surprise, specifically the transitions between scenes.
Liz: What we didn’t realise until we got onto the stage was that the glass box was a two way mirror, so we couldn’t see the audience through it. All we can see are our reflections.
What have you had to do in order to become more comfortable acting to your own reflections?
Mark: I had to try and develop a way of looking beyond my reflection. I look to the corner of my reflection, because I know I would start to analyse myself too much if I was facing myself head-on all the time.
Liz: Mark’s performances contain a lot of physicality whereas I am very still, especially when playing Valerie, who is lamenting the state of her life. It was really difficult to fine tune my performance, because she is looking forwards throughout her monologue. But I like to imagine that she is talking to some higher power, to the Furies if you like, and this helps me not be so aware of my reflection.
What effect does this have on you when the doors are opened and the audience is revealed to you? That’s a very unusual experience in the theatr – the audience presented to the characters and not the other way round.
Liz: Once I had gotten used to the doors being closed, I then had to get used to them being open and performing it to an audience again! Every audience and every time is different, this helps to develop our relationship with the set.
As an audience member, I can appreciate the shift in perspective that this artistic device produce. We gain a similar perspective with the performers because we can see our reflections in the box as much as the actors can – it breeds a hyper-awareness of our own presence throughout Road.
Because the play is set so specifically in the 80s and in the North, it can be quite difficult to make plays like this feel less out-of-date. Were the any moments in the rehearsal process where the text suddenly took on new relevance?
Liz: John Tiffany was very aware of the surprising support Corbyn’s more Socialist Labour Party received during the General Election, especially considering that this was happening off the back of a Conservative government. We compared factors from 1986 to the present day, such as inflation rates and the level of unemployment.
Mark:We were all given a specific area of life to research that related to our characters – it was very interesting to see how elements from that time have had an effect on the present day. There seems to be very similar struggles nowadays, as if the lessons from that time have not be learnt.
Liz: Quite early on the Royal Court interviewed John and Jim Cartwright together. Jim said that at the time he didn’t think that the state of things could get any worse; now he realises that it can. But you can’t set the play now because of the technological differences. Even things like our relationship to drugs – back then the drug of choice was alcohol, so that’s why nearly everybody in the play is affected by it.
Mark: What struck me most of all where images that I found of places in the North East; photographs that look like they were taken just after WWII. I still can’t believe they were taken during the 80s – kids playing on mounds of filth and discarded furniture everywhere.
One of the things that I found so visceral about this production of Road is the characters’ drive for better days. As a 24 year old, I became aware of the vast amount of disenfranchisement occurring throughout today’s youth – it can feel like we are not necessarily equipped with the tools we need to be able to achieve our dreams in this current climate.
Liz: Carroll is 24 – playing this part made me realise how lucky I was that I was able to go into acting, to be able to get a decent student loan and to have my tuition fees payed for. Nowadays, without the money to be able to pay to attend drama school or to achieve those aspirations, I just don’t see how it is possible.
It reminds of those speeches at the end of the play: where were the opportunities, where were the jobs? Where are they now? Just like during the 80s with the coal and steel industries, jobs are being taken away without any promise of new ones.
The characters do not seem to have anything concrete that they are working towards. That they just want to experience excitement and to try and enjoy life if they can.
Mark: The characters want to keep their dignity. Although we see them slowly self destruct, you can clearly sense a community there. They are just trying to keep their heads above water.
Liz: Without a job it is very hard to do that – to feel needed, with a routine with somewhere to go everyday. It can be very isolating. I remember not being in work for a long time and not feeling like I was worth a lot because I wasn’t paying into society. I didn’t feel like I could ring the doctors etc. so I started to feel really agoraphobic. It is exactly these people that appear in the play that would be looked upon as scroungers. If you have been robbed of an industry then it isn’t your fault!
Have you got any advice for someone who might want to get into the performing arts?
Liz: Make your own work, make your own opportunities. This is essential, because jobs are not going to be handed to you necessarily. I adapted something very early on in my career. I begged borrowed and stole to get it performed and that is how I got my agent.
Mark: You have just got to do it. Anyway you can. Perform in a youth group or put something on with a friend. And don’t let people talk you out of it! Get out of the idea of fame. I think young people focus too much on what is the next thing they can do that is going to make you famous. There is so much more to gain from focusing on the passion you have for whatever you want to do rather than trying to do things to make you “famous” or “well-known”.
Road teaches you is that your value has nothing to do with your employment status, it has more to do with your interaction with people than who you are on paper.