Regular visitors to Westacre might have spotted something of a trend in our plays over the last few seasons (apart that is from the usual high quality performances and, we hope, entertaining productions). It’s all about the numbers – of cast members that is. It would seem that, looking at recent productions, two is very much company on stage at Westacre.
Productions of plays for solo performers have been limited at Westacre to the work of one man – the inimitable Alan Bennett and his hugely popular Talking Heads series, many of which have been performed to great acclaim over the years in the studio theatre. And of course we’ve had innumerable plays that require three or more actors – Alan Ayckbourn usually peoples his plays with several couples at a time (I should know – I’ve played many hapless husbands to exasperated wives in several Ayckbourn plays). Musicals tend to require an army, but one that can sing and dance with military precision.
But two-handers as they’re known require a certain set of skills to make sure that the theatre-goer has a rewarding night’s entertainment. We’ve had a lot of practice recently at Westacre – Contractions by Mike Bartlett, Victoria Station by Harold Pinter, April in Paris by John Godber, The Open Couple by Dario Fo and Franco Rame and the aptly named Two by Jim Cartwright. All of which, we hope, have provided an absorbing experience for our audiences.
The first person who has to do their job well with a two-hander is the playwright. Thankfully, when you’re in the company of Pinter, Godber, Cartwright et al you know that you’ve already got a head start. However, even a skilled playwright needs to make sure that their characters and plot are as engaging as possible – after all, these are the only two people that an audience are going to see on stage all evening, so they have to want to spend a few hours in the company of these characters. Jim Cartwright in Two keeps the audience entertained by having his two actors play several different characters throughout the play, while Pinter and Fo restrict themselves to a one act play, so the plot can’t get too complicated. Mike Bartlett, in his characteristic style, presents an unsettling scenario that becomes increasingly surreal, while John Godber slowly gives a bickering couple their marriage back over the course of April in Paris. The different approaches are all fascinating and challenging in their own way.
Challenging particularly, that is, for the actors. One obvious hurdle is the amount of lines you have to learn – you know that if you’re in a two-hander then the next line is always going to be yours. If you’re in a play with several different characters you might have long periods when you don’t say anything, sometimes for pages, but in a two-hander you’re always up next. It taxes the memory, and your mind can play tricks on you – I once saw a production of another two-hander, Endgame by Samuel Beckett, where the unfortunate actors got stuck in a loop and repeated the same two pages of text several times. Ironically, it made the experience more, shall we say, ‘Beckettesque’ than usual.
You should never switch off for a moment when you’re on stage, whatever the size of the part you’re playing (‘there are no small parts,’ says Stanislavsky, ‘only small actors’), but that advice counts doubly so in a two-hander. There’s no hiding place, rarely any time off stage to take a breather, and there’s a fair chance that at least 50 per cent of the time the audience will be looking at you to be doing something interesting.
Two-handers are also challenging for a director. You know that you’re not going to have another actor turn up in the next scene – these two characters are it for the duration, so you need to help your actors pace themselves so they can be as engrossing as possible for an audience every minute they’re on stage. It usually requires incredibly close attention to the story-telling in the play – what can your actors do to make sure that the audience fully understand all the nuances of the story, and feel that they have watched a play that is rich and rewarding, despite only two actors occupying stage.
Which brings us to this summer’s productions, and the latest two-hander planned for the Westacre studio – Not About Heroes by Stephen Macdonald. Concentrating on the meeting between the two WWI poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the play dramatises the profound friendship and deep admiration that developed between the two soldiers during their time at the Craiglockhart War Hospital, a military psychiatric hospital for the treatment of shell-shocked officers.
Owen is the second most read poet in the English language after Shakespeare, and his friendship with Sassoon, who had already published several works by then, was hugely instrumental in his becoming such an influential writer. The younger poet’s early death, agonisingly late in the war, has only heightened his reputation.
The play deals with powerful themes of patriotism, pacifism, the bonds of friendship forged by war, and the possibilities and limitations of the written word to explore the experiences of modern conflict. These are themes that resonate as much today as for soldiers of the Great War. Macdonald distils these themes through the characters of Sassoon and Owen, and uses their poetry to great theatrical effect. A pivotal scene in the play shows Sassoon adding his contribution to one of Owen’s greatest poems, Anthem For Doomed Youth.
We are extremely lucky at Westacre to have a Bursary Scheme that attracts highly talented young actors to work on our summer productions, and we will be welcoming two of our ‘Bursaries’ on board for this play. We are also planning to use the latest video projection software to help bring the words of Sassoon and Owen to life on stage in some hopefully eye-catching ways. Rehearsals start in a couple of weeks, at which stage we’ll see if everything goes to plan. One thing that’s guaranteed, and which always comes with the territory when you’re staging a two-hander – we have a couple of young actors who have a lot of work to do, starting with all those lines to learn.
Not About Heroes by Stephen MacDonald and directed by David Connor opens at Westacre Theatre on Thursday 31 July.