The Almeida Theatre, London, opens Before the Party Thursday 21 March. Directed by Matthew Dunster (Mogadishu and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) Written by Rodney Ackland (Absolute Hell), Ackland’s hilarious adaptation of the Somerset Maugham short story is an intense portrayal of how the upper middle classes adjusted to post-war life. The piece revolves around the Skinner family as they try to return to normal and prepare for the latest social gathering where daughter Laura returns from Africa. Aesthetica speaks to Michelle Terry who plays jealous elder sister, Kathleen Skinner about their rehearsal techniques and her appreciation of Ackland’s script.
A: What was it that first caught your eye in the script?
MT: Before I got the script I read the Somerset Maugham short story which the play is based on. Once I had read the Ackland text I realised how loosely the play is based on the story and this intrigued me. All the ideas that Maugham explores in the short story are exploded and extended by Ackland. I found the play incredibly funny and at the same time, painfully sad and traumatically aggressive. This tragi-comi conflict and the fight to maintain the thin veil of social convention against the dark violent shadows of the human psyche lurking below the surface was a conflict that really interested me.
A: Kathleen Skinner, the character you play, is quite jealous and not that happy – how do you feel about Kathleen? Has playing her helped you empathise with her?
MT: I think as an actor you must always empathise with your character to a certain extent, otherwise you remain outside of them and end up commenting on them rather than inhabiting them. I’ve had three weeks of exploring Kathleen so far and I’ve come to feel great affection towards her. Although her actions seem cruel and manipulative, the challenge has been to understand where this cruelty comes from. Kathleen is so deeply envious of her younger sister Laura, extending all the way back to their childhood, but rather than acknowledge her envy Kathleen has protected herself with an armour of duty, decorum, convention, societal aspiration and nurturing her father’s ambitions of becoming an MP. In Laura’s absence Kathleen found a role within the family and successfully managed to maintain control and order in her life, but with Laura’s return, and once again Laura receives all of the attention from the family, Kathleen’s feelings of deep rooted envy have resurfaced. Before the play begins Kathleen receives information about Laura which threatens the reputation of Kathleen and the whole family. Kathleen sees it as her duty to protect the family, and therefore must expose her sister’s uncouth immorality, albeit unconsciously driven by the envy which she has fought so long to control.
A: How was it working with a Rodney Ackland text?
MT: The writing and story telling of Ackland is impeccable. You can tell from his very detailed stage directions that he is a writer who can visualise exactly what he needs us to do in order to achieve what he wants the audience to receive. We haven’t always been able to be wholly faithful to the stage directions, for both practical and motivational reasons, but they have always steered us in the most appropriate direction to realise this play. The play can turn on a pin head in mood, style, pace, or tone and all of us have had to be ready to deliver whatever the play needs to make each moment work. That has been the greatest challenge and most joyous discovery: just when you think you have found something to cling to, Ackland rips it away and changes tack.
A: How do you approach a new role?
MT: I don’t have a set method. I read the play before rehearsals and do whatever research I think will be necessary for me to understand the play and then once rehearsals start I do whatever is needed to achieve the play. If it’s a good play, then you usually know what you need to do to make that happen.
A: This piece is set in post-war Britain. Did you enjoy getting into the costumes and accents that this piece required?
MT: I haven’t actually got into any costumes yet. I think they’re still being made so that won’t come until later, but finding the “accent” of the time has been integral. Understanding the thoughts, the feelings and the characters need to speak are essential , but how those thoughts sound when they come out of your mouth is equally important. If you can’t hear the thoughts or understand the thoughts then the character becomes indistinct and the play is harder to understand. It’s a very “english” accent and requires a lot of muscularity that I’m not used to, so it will take a lot of work to make sure it comes out of my mouth sounding authentic rather than acted. But that’s the fun of it.
A: How has the cast worked together to make Before the Party work?
MT: Matthew Dunster, the director, leads us every morning in circuit training and yoga. It wakes us up! Gets us physically fit and also working as a team. Then for the first week and a half we interrogated the text, not on our feet, just analysing the thoughts behind the lines and where those thoughts take us. Then for the last week and a half we have been slowly working through the physical life of the play on a marked up space with working props and furniture. We have three young girls playing the part of Susan which has meant going back over everything three times to allow each Susan to have her turn, so we are getting plenty of opportunity to get this play into our bodies!
A: Do you have a dream role?
MT: No. I prefer to be surprised.
Before the Party, 21 March – 11 May, Almeida Theatre, Islington, London, N1 1TA.
Video courtesy of the Almeida Theatre.