Over the last week, I have been watching rehearsals for Ruddigore, which opens on September 30 after its huge success in early 2010. While writing this, I am cosied up next to two skeletons who live in a prop box when they are not on stage. The atmosphere is relaxed, as everyone loves working on this production. Choreographer Kay will often run warm up sessions, so performers are prepared for the energetic movement sequences on the rake. Before they get to the point where a whole scene or an act are run through, rehearsals are about simultaneity as well as repetition. A sequence is repeated and refined as the performers co-ordinate the many things that happen at the same time (singing, words, movement, gesture, facial expression, reactions). There are also some intermittent periods, where performers are going over steps, music and text, spoken dialogue or movement sequences in isolation. At a Ruddigore rehearsal, a scene in Act 2 sees director Jo Davies talking through a point involving a cloak with the singer of Robin, while Rose and Richard are practising a lift – impressive, as Amy Freston (Rose) sings some very high notes while flung head down over Richard’s (Hal Cazalet) shoulder. They practise it ‘dry’ several times, doing the movements on their own, then running through it again and marking the notes, while a line of chorus bridesmaids practises dainty steps, with the choreographer Kay demonstrating alongside them (but mind the tiger rug along the way!). To a passer-by, this might just seem like a hive of activity, but it’s a flurry of micro-rehearsals before everyone comes back together again with piano for an improved version of the sequence.
The next day, the gents who sing the parts of the Murgatroyd ancestors practise the choreography of ‘The Ghosts’ High Noon’. One ghost gallops in on an imaginary horse, one persistently chases Baronet Ruthven with a lance – nothing is safe from these mischievous ghouls. This is a show stopping number of skilfully choreographed mayhem, meaning lots of detailed one-by-one rehearsals, concerned with cues, timing and position in the space, often while manipulating props (my skeletal rehearsal room companions!). And of course there’s an opportunity to trip over the tiger rug.
Ruddigore is a performance which requires a lot of energy – try performing a Charleston on a raked stage while singing, or try dancing round a couple in an excitable group of singing bridesmaids at least twenty times until it’s exactly right, not to mention spooky dances while singing about the ghosts’ high noon in forte. Finally, try finding your breath in the vigorous finale and its infamous patter, congratulating Mad Margaret and Sir Despard Murgatroyd in William Gilbert’s immortal words:
‘Prompted by a keen desire to evoke,
All the blessed calm of matrimony’s yoke,
They will toddle off tomorrow
From this scene of sin and sorrow
For to settle, settle, settle, settle, settle, settle
In the town of Basingstoke!’
Dr Kara McKechnie lectures in theatre and performance at the University of Leeds. Her book on Opera North will be published by Emerald in early 2013.