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THE PLAY PRODUCED

THE RIIDE DOW,N MOUNT MORGA

by Arthur Miller Janet Birkett discusses her production for CHADS Theatre, Bramhall, Stockport The name Arthur Miller WilS enough to prompt an eager interest in directing this production. I had vague memories of Tom Conti in a hospital bed, but knew little more about the play itself, When reading the script, the comp lex life and relationships of anti­ hero Lyman Felt more were compelling than the technical difficu.lties. I was aware Lyman left his hospital bed to interact with hi s past life, confronting a roaring lion on sa fari in Africa, moving from the deck of a boat, to a park bench, a New York street, and numerous other interiors anJ exterio rs. The intricate relationships of the characters are reflec ted in the staging, Lyman Felt, as Miller's orator, explores the concept of morality in the 20th century, a huge undertaking from which MiJler does not shrink, nor does he allow Lyman any mercy, Lyman has secre tly been marri ed to two women for the previous nine years, fathering a child in each relationship, Both women believe they have a happy and fulfilling relationship, 'TI1e play begins with Lyman in a hospital bed after a near fatal car crash, encased in bandages from head to foot, with one leg raised, one arm at an odd angle, When his first wife Theo and daughter Bessie appear in the waiting room to visit him, Lyman leaves his "cast" and his bed to interact with them. On the arrival of his bigamous second wife, Leah, all hell breaks loose. With Lyman moving in and out of his cast, the play relates the story of all their lives up to the present point; the reality of some scenes, and the surreal nightmare state of others. Though undoubtedly a profoundly dramatic piece of theatre, the play is interspersed with considerable humour.

attempting the extremes," ':: needed a set suSt;"" "normality", char _ in1perceptibly int terrifying a by . or worst nightma were no s ugge9ti the script, no ligh sound plot, no t details, preconceived Howe ver, Mil ler refer to Eo Hopper, an Am • artist whose embodies heightened nightmare the play, pro\" ideas for lightin", decor.

energy, vocal range, sensitivity and humour to undertake such a demanding role, skilfully fulfilling all Miller asked of hin1, making the whole thing seem effortless. 'TI1e women's parts are no less dramatic, Theo, his first wife, is a magnificent woman, strong, vigorous and intelligent. The heartbreak of her final breakdown is one of Miller's greatest scenes. The second wife, Leah, much younger, is a very successful businesswoman, very sexy, "like a ripe cantaloupe melon". In spite of her aggressive independence, she loves Lyman passionately, agreeing to have a child by him, His final betrayal shatters her confidence. All are caught up in the tragic aftermath of

Lyman's decei t, including Bessie, his much loved daughter by Theo, and Lyman's lawyer and closest fri end, Tom . The ghost of Lyman's father appears intermitten tly throughout the play, luring Lyman to accept death as a solution to the mess of his life; a.nd finally there is the Nurse, an unwilling witness to the unfolding drama and, in the end, perhaps his only friend. The play is fluid with no scene breaks. Time and reality are subjective, Miller's note at the beginning sa ys, 'The play veers from the farcical to the tragic and back again, and should be performed all-out in both directions as the situation demands, without

opportunities of contrasted with open artistic freedom of the c were introduced by pai n backdrop of wild mountain over the entire cyclorama. Fr by a gauze, it remained hidl {'tl lit for particular scenes. The of the set, inel uding the scener: a combination of organic = greys, white, many shades of and black. The main stage rostra and flats were covered dark grey, shad ing to blac. furniture continued this 0 minimalist theme, black leath chrome chairs, black ash tah l the exception of the hospital w room, where the wicker ann were vibrant poster colours 0 " green, yellow and red. War~ provided other splashes of co brigh t red suit for Leah, and in stark white, dusky pin\,.­ terracotta for Theo, and bot tl~ _ and burgundy for Bessie. Lyman only wears prope.r during th e first few spending the rest of the pia hospital gown. The gown just below the knee and, Ii e men unaccustomed to wea~ skirt, the actor playing Lym...­ to practise arranging his leg _ ­ down, so as not to re\'('; undercarriage to the aud i Sharon Stoner A sense of precariousness 1 design seemed essential, although Lyman argues " however passionately he PI' his integrity, he does not " firm ground, presenting a d' · of reality. The hospital cons tmcted stage right, on

Lyman rarel y leaves the stage, displaying myriad moods and mental acrobatics, fighting relentlessly to justify his behaviour. Chads were truly fortunate to have in Bruce Keesing an actor with the

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THE PLAY PRODUCED

.; x 8'6" rostra , ti tJed like a huge .. b of stone balanced precariously ilh no visible means of support. t at a right angle, it sloped . ,wnwards from the upstage left mer at an angle of about 10 路egrees. Flats on either side of the :J ~e were tilted inward at an angle . m the top, and a V-shaped thrust tended from the front centre stage ~\ ing an extra acting area. The pe of the rostra was a rathe r ring move, presenting obvious t iculties for the actors walking on e rostra, especially for Leah, who 'ore very high stiletto heels. The mpt provided an article about d . strous opera prod uction in hich an entire cast, unable to stand p on the tilting stage, slid to the . 'ttom of the slop, clinging to an .Iar. Undeterred, because it "lUyided absolutely th e desi red . ect, the cast practi;ed walking on and (lur persistenCf! paid off. I.;)\'ing set the scene, as it w ere, e re a re only a few technical dies left to o'erJeap, not least of lich is the technical problem of I'.\' to construct a body "cast" from hich Lyman G Ul emerge and re颅 ler without a break in the action, full view of the audience. TIle -tOO in th e bed ha s to remain right when Lyman removes his

own head from inside the cast. However, the head canno t be attached rigidly to the body, beca use when Lyman is inside the head, he needs to have some movement. H e remains in the cast for a good deal of the second act, and ha s some very emotiona I scenes, so he needs to be able to turn his head, also to retain the use of at least one arm. Much discussion ensued <1S to the best way of constructing this cast. TIle first plan was to wrap Bnlce in cling-film, cover him with Modrock creati ng a full body plaster cast, leavi ng him to dry out, finally cutting the cast off with a circ ular saw, and re-assembling the bits into a s uitable position. TIlere are a number of flaws in this plan of action. Modrock takes quite a long time to dry, even if several hair dryers were lIsed to speed up the action. Also, .Bruce felt rem oving the plaster cast might be like hil ving a full body wax, very painful, and he wasn't keen on the cling-film. Pe rsonally, I wasn't convinced he would survive the circular saw, and I couldn't face re-cas ting a t this stage, so that plan was abandoned. So, we needed the front cast of it bod y, one cast of an arm projecting at an odd angle, h-vo full legs, one suspended, a bandaged head which

will move, whilst remaining flexible from the neck joint, and a second arm which is mobile. Furthermore, we needed the actor playing Lyman to be able to enter and leave this cast with fluidity. Another helpful suggestion involved ha ving two actors, one playing Lyman in the bed, another Lyman out of the bed; the id and the ego, so to speak, a far from idea l solution, but it came back to haunt us on the last night of the run! I decided to ring the agen ts to discover how other theatre compani es had overcome these difficulti es. They rang back two days later to say that no company, professional or amateur, had done the play since its first production in 1991, so we were r ally on our own. A contraptio n was designed on the principle of the silly seaside ho liday picture, where you put your head through a cut-out scene. The bed was raised a t the head, on top of the tilting rostra. The actor sa t on a swivel char in a U-shape cu t into the bed. The "body" was attached to a board reaching to the top of the actor's chest, so that when. he was 路 seated in his chair, he appeared to be in the bed. The bod y casing extended to surro und his real neck, with a false arm on one sid e, and the empty sleeve of his hospital gown on the other side, allowing the actor to sli p his real left arm rOlUld the side of the body support and through the sleeve of his hospital gown, so he could move in a limited way, in keeping with his injuries. Are you following thi s so far? TIle "legs" were inanimate, permanently plastered into position, so the only problem left was the head, created by blowing up a balloon to correspond to a slightly larger measurement than Bruce's head (a good many jokes ill thi ' stage). The balloon was covered with papier mache to create a kind of helmet, and finally covered in Modrock. A brilliant but simple dev ice connected the neck of the body to the head usi ng strong elastic, stretching to allow Bruce to get his head in or ou t of the cast, and holding the head in position when empty. Producing the body cast itself was a majo r exercise, ga mely undertaken by two women, neither of whom had any previous experience in this particular line of work, but who were creative, ingenious and persisten t l To begin with, Julie di scovered Modrock, obtainable from craft shops, is actually off-cuts of the stuff used to make bod y casts in hospitals. You soak it in water briefly, place it in position, and even tually it dries rock hard. A chicken wire frame was modelled on Bruce's chest, and then the frame was covered with Modrock. Arms and legs were rather a worry, but nurses in the plaster room at the loca l hospital very kindly gave

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advice, and eventually we got Julie successfully plastered - both legs and one arm and, most impo rtantly, cut free again without serio us inj ury. Bruce is at least a foot taller than Jul ie but the legs, being separate, could be adjusted and one arm was measured up correctly when plastered on the body. It's almost as difficult desClibing the procedure as it was to do it. Music and li gh ting for this production were as important as the performances on stage. Both wo rked in technicians synchronisation wi th the actors, painting and sculpting the mood to suit the ever-changing physical and emo tional scenery, lyrical love scenes, wild passion, terrifying nightmares, bitter arguments and the stark white reality of mental breakdown. Music and lighting linked the play together, indicating transition between time zones.

All SCRIPTS, SCORES AND L1BRETII FEATURED IN "THE PLAY PRODUCED" AND "THE MU ICAl P ODUCED" TAl OM CAN

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The Ride Down Mount Morgan - July 1998