If there’s one thing more exciting than working on a new play, it’s working on a new play that is challenging and redefining theatrical form. Working on In the Republic of Happiness – a constantly surprising mix of music, elements of improvisation, which starts around a dinner table and ends up in a new world – has certainly felt like I’ve stepped out of my rocket, oxygen masked and fully suited, and stepped into completely uncharted territory.
The world that Martin has created is a wild journey through an expansive and richly layered terrain of political ideas, popular culture references, stylistic innovation and biting satire that makes synopsising it feel both very difficult and very reductive. But if I have to be reductive for the purpose of this blog, I would say that they play is a triptych examination of the culture of individualism that pervades the modern, western world. The play excavates our contemporary obsessions with our own entitlement, our increasing demand for choice and personal freedom divorced from the political implications of our actions or from any notion of society.
The rehearsal process has led us to examine these themes from a huge array of perspectives: we have spent time exploring space travel, the talk show host Wendy Williams, Loose Women, the work of Capitalist philosopher Milton Friedman, dementia, cult leaders, terrorism, Honey Boo Boo child, Nick Cave and Transhumanism (the philosophy and science of immortality). The splinters of these voices are woven through the play, most explicitly in the play’s second act, in which the cast drop the identities they have assumed in the first act and transform into a chorus of contemporary individualists. Staging the second act poses a unique performance challenge. Dominic has asked all eight actors to learn the whole 30 pages of script that makes up this second act. In performance, no one will know what lines they are going to say: it’s completely up to them to decide what line they are going to come in with in the moment. Perfecting this has, for very obvious reasons, been at the centre of our rehearsal process: watching he cast develop into an almost psychic unit has been exhilarating and fascinating to watch through rehearsals and through performance.
In fact, rehearsals are constantly evolving to cover all of the elements of performance, from the games in the morning to choral work, to detailed character interrogation for the performance of Act 1 and the running through of Roald’s brilliant songs, which in themselves summarise the events of each scene. The show cannot have received more loyalty, belief and commitment from the cast, who have risen to this challenge with collective strength and an unwavering sense of adventure. It is hard to think how we could have rehearsed this with even one discontented voice from within, as their collective performance needs absolute mutual trust and respect. But this cast are bound together like a strange and wonderful family and the approach in the rehearsal room has always been – however seemingly surreal or whether one back story is shared by eight people – that we search at all times for the truth in the text, the truth of the characters’ intentions.
It’s going to be a very difficult piece to come back to earth from.
By Adele Thomas