I wonder just how many shows in preparation have never seen the light of day because of the intervention of COVID-19. Some of them did manage a few fleeting performances while still more cruelly others made it to first night only to find they could go no further. No doubt many of these will have been put into cold storage and are biding their time in order to make their return. Others have been brilliantly repurposed and emerged in digital form to surprise and delight. Rush from the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine strand falls somewhere between the two and provides a fascinating glimpse into one of the key stages of making theatre, that of the first read through with the actors.
Rush by Willi Richards first appeared onstage at the King’s Head in Islington in 2018 and after some rewriting was intended for the Trafalgar Studios in June last year during the Pride celebrations. The production had got as far as casting two of the three actors needed (Daniel Boyd and Omari Douglas) and was working on the third when lockdown occurred. Changing mediums, we now become privy to that moment when the actors meet up for the first time and start bringing the play to life through that initial read. In this case, of course, they are remote from each other but still react and modify in the way that they would had they all been in the same room. Rupert Everett plays the third (previously uncast) role.
It is an interesting experiment for anyone interested in the theatre process although at ninety minutes it is stretching patience somewhat to keep the idea afloat. The play is structured round a love triangle between the three protagonists badged rather reductively as Man, Lad and Boy. The former pair have a long established if open relationship in which they like to imagine themselves as a spy and a superhero at odds against the world and then Boy hoves into view and disrupts the equilibrium. Man, particularly, has seen it all, from closeted relationships to the AIDS crisis to the emergence of gay rights and equality but finds it difficult to deal with this personal situation. Boy by contrast has been born into a world where queerness (he doesn’t use the word “gay”) is much more of a given and does not struggle for recognition. Lad is caught between the two – though it is a trap of his own choosing.
Rush is very much a comedy of manners in which pretence and artifice are well to the fore; the piece clearly owes a massive debt to the coding inherent in Wilde’s Earnest and much of the language is heightened. Another key influence, referred to quite explicitly in the script, is Coward’s Private Lives the famous double relationship triangle in which the central pair use wit as a defence mechanism to sublimate their true feelings. Everett is, of course, a prime exponent of this form of drama and brings a loucheness to his portrayal of Man which is gradually peeled away to reveal his inner life. It goes without saying that with a full rehearsal schedule and proper exploration of the text this character in embryo would have grown in depth and breadth.
Omari Douglas (currently garnering plaudits in It’s A Sin) has a bit of an advantage over the others having played the role of Boy in the King’s Head production; I can see why he was recast as it is a nuanced portrayal of a character who isn’t quite as comfortable in his own skin as he would have others believe. The longest scene in the play is shared between Everett and Douglas as they meet for the first time and try and figure each other out. It is left to Boyd’s lad to juggle his double life and although he at first seems the most interesting of the three characters, the structure of the piece has him rather fading into the background in the final third of the play. He does, however, make a brief return to apprise us of the choice he has to make, although it is an ambiguous one.
Places are designated by the relevant section of the script appearing on screen so it’s up to the audience to supply the scenic deficit by “piecing out imperfections with thoughts” (to slightly rewrite Shakespeare). Some rudimentary ready to hand props are employed to bring a little more life to proceedings – would these really be used in a regular table read? Director Joseph Winters, due to direct the stage version, does as much as he can to ring the changes of how the actors are represented onscreen, but the format is necessarily limiting. Although this was an interesting experiment which, for those of us intrigued by that sort of thing captures a pivotal moment in the life of play making, but ’m not sure it is one that would bear repeating. I think the piece would have worked just as well as an audio drama where imagination could have really free rein. Let’s hope that the production will be allowed to realise its full potential soon.
Rush is available on the BBC iPlayer – click here
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