This week I had the opportunity to attend a play reading of Ismene and The Underground, two plays written by Makato Satoh in 1950s Japan, translated by David G Goodman, and adapted by Jo Allan. I decided to attend initially because a friend asked me to and I thought “I’ve nothing else to do, and it’s free”; however as the day approached I began to think of the comparison between play readings and performances – I became increasingly intrigued to see how the event would pan out. I have, myself, been part of a play reading – a first run through of a friend’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights, which took place in her living room amongst bottles and crisps. It is something different though to make the reading, which is effectively a rehearsal, something to which you invite an audience.
First of all, there is something incredibly freeing about seeing actors ‘on stage’ in their ordinary clothes, scripts held together by a combination of staples, metal clips, or just shuffled into the correct order. As an actor myself, I felt from the moment they sat down a real sense of intimacy, as though we the audience were almost intruding on a time of rehearsal, usually a place for actors to explore without the pressure of performance. This means that a play reading provides a unique insight into the workings that go on before ‘opening night’, but also keep the audience focused on the playwrights words without getting distracted by set, costume, and effects. There is real art in the simplicity of reading.
Susan Harrison took the role of Ismene in the first play, and did so with expression and depth that one might not expect from a play reading. Without the luxury of a real stage, and with script still in hand, Harrison brought Satoh’s words to life and did justice to his story of Antigone’s underappreciated sister. Known for his performances as Albert in the National Theatre’s War Horse, Jack Monaghan held the larger part of the Guard in The Underground – a relaxed, happy-go-lucky 17-year-old working the tube carriages, Monaghan faces a dilemma when the Driver of the train (Christopher Godwin) refuses to stop at the last station, whilst an argumentative married couple (Louise Ford and Bill Nash) attempt to kill each other. Shifting from the oblivious teenager, the Guard finds himself in the Wife’s embrace – Monaghan proved emotional and concerned opposite Ford, with a tenderness echoing his previous role.
Although the spectacle of theatre is something to be embraced and enjoyed, the simplicity of a play reading provides a depth of text that can be lost amid the convention of the stage. Seeing the inner workings of an actor’s rehearsal and preparation provides an insight into character development, whilst helping the play’s complexities to unfold further, giving a naturally growing performance that remains rough and organic.