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Sean Foley and Alice Power discuss the creative process behind The Painkiller

Marieke Audsley chats to Director Sean Foley and costume designer Alice Power on revisiting The Painkiller.

Sean Foley’s adaptation of France Veber’s The Painkiller stars Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon alongside Claudie Blakley, Marcus Fraser, Mark Hadfield and Alex Macqueen. It is the fourth production in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season of Plays at the Garrick.

You originally staged The Painkiller in Belfast in 2011. Is this production very different?

Sean Foley: It is both exactly the same and completely different… Like any new play, or adaptation of a play – and especially with comedies – you need time to develop it as a live theatre event. It was fantastic to be able to debut the play at the Lyric in Belfast. They were a brilliant audience, and it gave us all the chance to be able to see where and how we could improve the show. We worked on it every day and that process has been picked up again now. I am particularly looking forward to doing this type of play in a classic Edwardian proscenium arch house, which I always feel is the perfect theatre architecture for comedy and farce. There’s such focus on the stage, and the entire audience gets all the information at the same time.

What’s it like returning to a production five years on?

Sean Foley: It’s great to have the chance to work on the play again, both as a writer and director. When you leave a play on opening night, your work usually finishes – apart from giving the actors notes as the run goes on (if they are still listening to you…), but you always feel you can do more, so it’s great to have had the opportunity to develop some of the writing in the play, particularly giving a little more depth to the characters.

Alice Power: It has been fantastic to remount The Painkiller and have the chance to improve a few things. The overall shape of the set hasn’t changed, but I have rethought the colour scheme and the décor.

Lots of comedy in the production involves very careful interplay between the actors and the set, which means you must have to work particularly closely to ensure the moments run smoothly….

Sean Foley: This type of play, like most farces, has a seemingly realistic setting so the first challenge is to make it seem realistic, but also to work out the geography of how the farce can work.
Where the characters go on the set, when the doors open and close etc, are just as important as what they are saying. One of the real benefits of having working with Alice Power over a long period of time is that, as a designer, she is very aware of how stage comedy works and how the set functions. It’s never something that just ‘looks nice’ with her design, it is more or less another player in the comedy. Basically, farce is partially geometry and if the designer doesn’t have a great understanding of staging and how character is expressed in space, it would be very difficult to create a set that works for the play.

The relationship between director and designer is always a vital one in the staging of any show, can you tell us a bit about how your work together?

Alice Power: I have worked on comedy plays with Sean for over 20 years, firstly on the original comedies produced by The Right Size – which set a premium on visual and physical comedy – and more recently working on existing plays. It is always challenging, fun, exasperating and exciting all at once. Sean really likes to get involved in how the design can enhance the play, and it is refreshing to work with a director who values what design can offer. Sean is also open to my ideas when thinking about visual gags. It’s very rewarding when one of these ideas makes it into the show and gets a good laugh from the audience. Wear and tear is another great consideration: in film it is perhaps more straightforward to set up a visual gag to work just the once, but in the theatre a gag has to work night after night, and as with many of the show I work on with Sean, there is a certain amount of destruction going on with set, props, and costume! This requires a great deal of planning and liaising with all departments.

What were your main sources of inspiration for the look of ‘Maison de Lits’?

Alice Power: It’s based on reality. I remembered staying in a boutique hotel near Taunton while working away from home and discovered that all the rooms were identical apart from a few colour and ornament changes. I think this was where the mirror image rooms idea started. I then researched boutique hotels for more information about styling and décor.

How long does the design process usually take from initial ideas to the finished production and what are the stage involved?

Alice Power: The whole process takes just under four months for a show the size of The Painkiller. I start by reading the play several times and making notes of the action. Sean and I will then talk through how we might stage the play and we both sketch out our ideas on paper. I will then spend about a week making a simple model of the overall idea that we have discussed. Then we ‘act’ the show model actors and see if all the action can in fact work in what we’ve imagined. It is often at this stage that we find new solutions and visual comedy together that can feedback into the play. Once we are both happy with that, I star on the actual scale model with all the furniture and small detail, which takes about three to four weeks to finish to what is called the ‘white card’ stage. Then we look at the overall design again, and see where it can be improved, and discuss all the colour and finishes. Before any colour goes on to the model, I will show it to the lighting and sound designers who sometimes need small adaptations, or suggest changes that could work. As the set is being drawn up and costed I will gather ideas for costumes and draw characters and discuss costume ideas with Sean.
The set is built in three to four weeks and I visit throughout this period to check finishes and that any tricks are going to work as we want them to. In a show such as this, we have two days to get it in to the theatre and three days of technical rehearsal to fine-tune everything before we start previews. I will continue to work on the show during previews.

Sean, can you tell us a bit about how you approach rehearsing such a fast-paced play, packed with physical comedy such as this one?

Sean Foley: It may sound a little prescriptive, but the reality of a play such as this is that only half the play is in the test and there is so much physical business – which has at least an equal value as the works – so the only way to work on it is on your feet. There is a style of creating theatre that starts with a lots of discussion and ‘textual analysis’, but I’ve never thought that that is a very good use of time for creating comedy, so I keep the rehearsals active at every opportunity. Actors can sometimes get stuck in existential questions like, ‘Why? Why do I say this? Why do I come in then? Why would I wear this hat?’ So I try to find an approach that more or less replaces the question ‘why?’ with ‘how?’ ‘How do I say this? How can I feel like this? How do I wear this hat?’ The ‘how?’ includes the ‘why?’ that they often want to discover. Increasingly I also like to work with a dummy set, as so much of the play is to do with the interaction with the reality we are setting up. The set is a character so the actors need to have a relationship with it, just as they do with their fellow actors. Also, in the end, everything will be about how the actors play together – how they know each other’s timing, how they react to what is being said etc, so I try to make sure that we do a lot of the actual playing of the scenes together. The French call rehearsal ‘repetition’. And it is definitely the case that the more you repeat and refine and practices the material, the better you will be at acting it.

Is there a particular pleasure in bringing new comedies to audiences compared to staging more well-known plays?

Sean Foley: Both are great to try to make work. To entertain as many people as possible is our job after all. But I love working on new shows, partly because no one’s got anything to compare it to, and in a sense, neither have I so it really is a properly creative challenge. Having said that, and while we all like to feel that we are ‘contemporary’ and ‘innovative’, it is undoubtedly true that the Greeks were most likely doing versions of everything we come up with anyway.

The Painkiller runs until 30 April 2016 at the Garrick Theatre.


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