I sit in my corner watching intently, as Hilary Tones and Ruth Lass read through a very moving scene between the two sisters. Everything feels very still and deliberate. Assistant Director, Amanda Huxtable says “It’s a choice, isn’t it? People have secrets and people die with them.” This is a valuable thing to consider when watching this play, because throughout the show we see the ghost character of the mother, Ludmilla, reflecting on their family’s history, and in seeing the hole she has left in the family we wonder what secrets she has died with.
After reading through this scene, the actors take their place in the playing space. They have read through the lines thoughtfully and they are now ready to bring some life to it. Polly Frame as Ludmilla wanders through the scene and creates a presence for herself between these estranged sisters. It is both touching and haunting to see, but I am blown away by Polly’s instincts as a performer. She is not invasive in the scene, but creates a haunting reflection of the missing connection between these two characters.
As the company work through this scene, the actors often make suggestions to Mark, almost asking his permission, to which he’ll often just reply, “okay”, leaving the door open for them to make their own decisions. There is a power in this, and to observe it has taught me that it often works better for the scene to let the actor do what feels right, or indeed allow them to explore it and see if it doesn’t feel right. In doing this, the director does not constantly have to instruct the actors but is giving them the freedom to engage with their characters on their own.
The company runs through the scene again, the sisters making confessions to each other, one learning something incredible about the other’s past. Mark asks all three actors what they felt during the scene, and they all have very different ideas. Ruth and Hillary talk about how these characters often try and fail to understand each other, and both begin to cry as they explain.
During this rehearsal both Mark and Polly offer very personal memories to the company as an emotional reference point. Mark talks about his Ukrainian family members and the moments at family gatherings where it felt like certain things were being held back in conversations, and there was a sense that some things just aren’t to be mentioned. There is a beautiful moment in the scene when Vera is telling Nadhezda about what has happened to her, and behind the mound of suitcases we hear a low and chilling weeping noise. It’s this moment that really pulls together the emotional depth of this family’s history, and further Ukrainian history. Polly Frame has a fantastic talent for creating atmosphere, so much so that this moment sent chills right through me.
It is not until this rehearsal that I understand what the set represents. The suitcases stacked all over the place to make up the family home represents the family history and the secrets packed away but always laying amongst them.
The atmosphere of this rehearsal and the amount of care that the company took while exploring it was incredible to see, and a real contrast to the previous rehearsals I had attended. This play has so much more emotional depth than you might think, and through this process I’m learning an incredible amount about Ukrainian history and the scars it has left behind.