Actor’s Diary: Sam O’Sullivan, THE NORMAN CONQUESTS

13 Sep 2018

Take a peek into THE NORMAN CONQUESTS rehearsal room through the eyes of actor Sam O’Sullivan.

Alan Ayckbourn wrote THE NORMAN CONQUESTS in 1973. The three interconnected plays take place over a single weekend in a family’s country home. Each of the plays – TABLE MANNERS, LIVING TOGETHER and ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN are set in a different location around the property, the effect being such that as characters exit one play they may actually be entering another; noises are heard off stage and their source revealed when the location shifts; and characters appear to behave in an erratic fashion only to have their motivations or the misinformation they were acting under made clear when the audience see another show. Each play stands on its own and can easily be a complete experience, although the full extent of Ayckbourn’s craft is revealed by seeing two or three. There is also no official order, so depending on how audiences choose to see the trilogy, they may form different allegiances to characters and view events differently to someone who saw things unfold in another order. THE NORMAN CONQUESTS opened in the summer of 1973 and are seen as a highlight of Ayckbourn’s illustrious career.

Today marked Day Thirteen of rehearsals for our production at Ensemble Theatre and we begin previewing in a little over a month. When work started two weeks ago we began reading scenes in a chronological order, jumping from play to play as the events unfolded. That is, in fact, how Ayckbourn wrote his trilogy and he describes this experience as ‘crossways’ as opposed to how the audience see the shows, which is ‘downwards’. It was the perfect way to start because it drives home how logical and rational the characters’ individual worlds can be. Although, these plays are very much comedies they are deeply rooted in a place of truth. No one intends to be irrational, but much of the conflict and comedic moments arise from miscommunications that take place between people who are doing their best under the circumstances they think they are in.

At this stage we have managed to work through TABLE MANNERS and LIVING TOGETHER two times each. The first time, slowly – blocking the action and negotiating the demands of the script, and the second time doing what’s known as a ‘stumble through’, where we put down the script where possible and see how much has stuck with us – which is to say, slightly less slowly! Everyone is doing remarkably well with the amount of lines they have to learn. For us, it helps to think of THE NORMAN CONQUESTS not as three plays but as one long play. That being said, this means there are six hours of material for us to get our heads around! I am personally thankful that as Tom, the veterinarian neighbour, I get a scene off per play, during which time I can take my script out of the rehearsal room and beat myself over the head with it as I look out over Sydney Harbour. (This method is a surprisingly effective means of learning lines).

With LUNA GALE (now on at Ensemble) moving into the theatre, our team now has the luxury of working between two rehearsal rooms. One is set for TABLE MANNERS while the other is set for LIVING TOGETHER and as some of the cast work on one, whoever is free is in the other room working on the other. Tomorrow, we are going to read through ROUND AND ROUND THE GARDEN as a full cast, in case any of us were getting cocky and needed reminding that we still have a whole play to get on its feet! But despite the occasional bouts of blinding terror that accompany the preparation of any play, let alone three, everyone is in high spirits and the rehearsal room(s) are a positive, vibrant and often hilarious place to be.

 Sam O’Sullivan

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