Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Solace of The Road at Derby Theatre - interview with Polly Lister and Robert Vernon

On a freezing cold wintry Tuesday afternoon I came into forty-five minutes of rehearsal for Derby Theatre's 'soon to be' production of the late Siobhan Dowd's novel Solace of the Road. In this case it has been developed into a play format by the acclaimed playwright, Mike Kenny.

After the rehearsal I met up with Polly Lister and Robert Vernon – two principal members of the cast - for a chat about the story and how they fit into it and how the rehearsals under artistic director Sarah Brigham were going.

Heidi McKenzie introduced me to the actors and vice versa and outlined my acting and writing credentials. It was a very relaxed and intelligent interview.

Once we were quickly settled I read Polly and Robert a one page synopsis of the book and asked whether in theatrical terms it related to the story that Mike Kenny has developed.

They both agreed that in broad outline of the story and its characters it was spot on. I asked them how far they were into the rehearsal process. Polly said they were day two of week two into the rehearsal process.

Polly Lister

Polly: Earlier on we were a doing an exercise where we were all told to write things down for our different characters but when it came to present, Miko (Robert's character) said “Well actually I've got three characters” That was really funny and actually from that became a blueprint of Miko. And so when Sarah talks about it we have Michael the real guy and then we have another two versions of him which is really Holly the main character played by Rebecca Ryan.

Rebecca Ryan
Robert: When he has to leave his job then he's Michael and then when he has to relate with Holly he becomes Miko. The version she meets most of the time is that version. There is a third phantom ghost figure which represents the romanticised island calling her. Call it an idyll on the green hills. We talked in ways of saying that Miko pulls her through the story and he is the Irish spirit guide who is a fantasy.

Polly is playing Holly's mum, her step mum and a variety of other roles along the way. Polly said that all her characters have an impact on Holly/Solace's life on her particular journey. They all represent certain themes which are all important to her development. And so I play Mrs Atkins who embodies the authority that she is railing against. I play Chloe who is a university student at Oxford who she meets on the coach who represents a better future for women. This is a very sort of wholesome vision of a strong young woman whereas I think she has only had negative versions of strong women before and this girl is presenting something quite authentic, polite, kind, intelligent, generous and she is still strong and groovy.

Robert: She becomes more accessible as well because at first she seems like something that Holly couldn't be and then no, you've also got this commonality - meaning she could be like her.

Polly: Yeah yeah and then of course there is the awful mogit woman she meets at the ferry port. Actually this woman does just represent just utter misery. I do get to play just a one noted character too. (laughs).

I said that in the brief rehearsal I had just witnessed there was a lot of laughter and excitement as some of your cast worked through a motorbike riding scene that necessitated human balance and body co-ordination skills. It was very funny but I asked whether the play had a lot of humour in it?

Polly: I think it has every sort of voice and every sort of tone and there are belly laughs and I also think there are wry smiles. I think there are knowing laughs and I think are variants of all emotions.

Robert: There are some very human moments as well, aren't there? Warm. But then there are psychological elements. There are some quite harrowing moments that are just sort of teased out and then just moved away from it. They leave just enough remnants of those difficult emotions so it is really interesting. The thing is that the pace is really fast.

some of the cast in rehearsal
Polly: Sarah said that the piece we worked on last night has really worked and whilst we are characters we are definitely in the cranium of Holly Hogan and so that any image we represent or present has a feeling as if Holly is developing an old fashioned photograph. Every sort of influence we give it makes the photograph something that we can play with as it is developing. The best way I can describe it is as if we are subtly playing with the tonal levels in her brain as she calls upon the bits that she knows will help or scare her

Phil: And do you think that would be aided not only by the acting/ conveyance of emotions but also enhanced by Barney George's set design and the lighting and sound scape? I'm thinking of the whole bringing those things home in the theatrical illusion of moments fading in and out as memories. Like you would see in an old fashioned photograph developing in the dark room tray. Eventually we get to see the whole sharp picture but it can still be manipulated and interpreted by the onlookers – the cast and the audience.

Robert: We are shifting through all these memories and we keep getting reminded that the design is about black. So the ability to have absolute darkness on the majority of the stage and just pinpoint one area and seeing nothing else you can just frame it along with a few things simultaneously. Suddenly you can go 'look at this!'. That's really interesting, it has a focus and can create very intimate things.

Phil: It is very much like what I saw in the Derby Theatre promotional video for this show. Moving swiftly from place to place and scene to scene.

Robert: Yes, that's spot on. I think also the danger with this sort of thing is that there are so many things happening so fast it can all just blur into one and you don't get the detail. It goes bang look at this and now bang look at this.

Polly: And playing the dichotomy between the two things in her head she can conjure an image top right of warmth and 'come to me – come to me' and beckoning and down here something different that contrasts. We are talking a lot about light and colour and dark and shade and everything... but... down here we are now skew whiff, slightly at odds with the other impression. They are both co-existing in her head and it is the one she chooses to extinguish that carries the story forward or for that matter bring up or put down. It's like emotional puppetry with light, sound and acting.

Phil: That's very interesting. I can imagine that as you tell it – how it might be presented.

Robert: Stylistically it is fascinating and there will be lots of explosions of light very quickly...

Polly: There is a thunderstorm on the heath where it is her epiphany or her nadir. But from the nadir comes her strength and resolve. We did a time line today and we worked out that she's actually, if everything chronologically makes sense, on that hill, in the pouring biblical rain talking to Jane Eyre, for four and a half hours! So she's in one hell of a thunderstorm and in that thunderstorm every emotion is crashing over another one and she's manifested in most of the characters in the play … screaming at them all.

I asked in all this dramatic cacophony if microphones might be used. The answer was that Polly and Robert believed that it would be done live without mikes.

Polly: We are using two hung mikes for radio announcements and such and that's more of an artistic thing than a vocal thing.

I asked Robert to tell me something of his character.

Robert: Oh well, right. Miko in reality was her care worker in Templeton House and they've had a very strong relationship. He is very dedicated but at the start of the play he is moving on to new things. In the play he is a part of her psyche that she looks to for comfort, for advice, and for guidance. Also he is just a buddy on her road trip. Sometimes it s nothing more than that – someone to bounce off and say “ hey look at that – look at this”. Light-hearted. I'm finding where we are getting to in the play now he transpires to be a very pointed absence where she meets the most threatening character. Unfortunately, he is not there at all. This means that she is actually confronting the issue at hand herself and in a mature way. Her age is only 15 but the majority of the characters believe she is 17 or even 18 years old throughout the play because of her behaviour. Looking back at Miko he is very warm and human and that's the thing – I didn't want him to be just some apparition.

Polly: We had a day when lots of children who lived in care and were coming out of the other side of it came in to work with us and the biggest topic of conversation they wanted to talk about was Miko's character. This was because on a scale of one to ten, when he says he is leaving Templeton House, if ten is the worse and one is the best plus this represents absolute abandonment and say, you felt ten when your mum left, what would Miko be? They all said 'ten'. It is that important and so it is so important for Robert to get the role spot on and he does.

Phil: That must have been moving to hear such an absolute opinion from the children in care.

Robert: Yeah, it was good to hear it in such strong terms because in the story we obviously would never under estimate the significance of her mum in her life even though Holly says that she can't remember her mum properly – it is all stories and pictures – poetically described as a painting running in the rain. Whereas he is a real person and the person that has been the most dependable
for her.

Polly: In rehearsal we did a thing where we had to write who had been around in her life more so who has been a constant in her life. The only person who beat Miko was her pet dog Rosabelle– a fluffy toy to which she had clung for a good proportion of her young life. Rosabelle has been with her in every single life event until the audience meet her.

I was interested to hear about a human being focussing their loving nature and need to express love on a toy when there was little human love in their life and I related a story about myself going through a divorce some years ago and happening upon a toy monkey found in a work environment which became a focus for me of succour for a while.

Polly: That's very sweet. In the story of the play Miko says to Holly that she should put the toy dog down, not pretend to feed it food any more, keep it, don't dispense with it but set it aside and lessen its value – let it just warm your feet. You can't treat the toy like a real thing any more – you need to grow up. Holly then chooses to leave the toy dog at the care home.

Robert: I really like that idea of the mementoes because as the play progresses elements of that are bleeding through into earlier moments and revealing truths through experiences and items. As you say – with these qualities and ourselves as living mementoes (especially in this story) she is the memento. She is the only connection to the mother really and that is referenced to. There is a twinkle in the eyes – a memory of the mum...

Polly: Like a shadow looking into the same mirror as Holly so she can see her mum reflected and the mum's saying “There's a little bit of me in those eyes” and that's obviously Holly saying “I can see my mum.”

That was possibly the most intelligent and insightful and poetic interview I have ever done. Many thanks for your feelings, your information and your intellect actors Polly Lister and Robert Vernon I look very much forward to seeing Solace of The Road at Derby Theatre.

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