Terry Grimley meets Jonathan Munby and Rebecca Gatward, two-thirds of the directing team which has brought Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to the RSC stage...
Imagine three directors rehearsing one company of 20 actors in 19 short plays performed over two evenings, and there in a nutshell you have the task the RSC set itself in staging Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Now previewing in the Swan Theatre at Stratford, the twopart production presented an unusual challenge to its trio of directors - RSC associate Gregory Doran and former assistants Jonathan Munby and Rebecca Gatward.
"At the beginning Greg got us all together and said his only criterion was that he wanted it to be medieval," explains Rebecca. "Then we all went off and read the scripts and pitched for stories we wanted to do."
Jonathan continues: "There was a slight overlap, but basically we wanted to do different tales. Greg has put together three directors who work in a different way, and that was essential in ensuring variety. We're doing the entire canon of tales but for two or three, and we had to keep ringing the changes.
"It struck us how different these tales are - they were written by the same man in a short period of time, but the differences are enormous. We looked at what the ideas were at the core of the tales and then we could find a journey through them."
While the directors had an overview of how the whole mosaic of self-contained stories would fit together, the actors had no such luxury. Rather than dividing the actors into three mini-rep companies, they were shuttled back and forth between the different directors to work on a whole range of characters.
"As directors we always had the big picture in our heads, but for the actors that didn't happen until week seven," explains Rebecca. "It was a bit like being at drama school, they would go from room to room.
"We had nine weeks in rehearsal rooms in London, which seems like a long time, but when you're doing two shows it isn't, particularly when each play has its own design and its own score, so it was like doing 19 plays. We've had to work very, very hard."
"We had to be incredibly disciplined about our time," Jonathan adds. "Usually you are in control of time and if a rehearsal overruns that's fine, but here you had an hour and a half and you had to achieve what you set out to do in that time."
Though he describes this rehearsal period as a worrying time for the actors, Jonathan is full of admiration for the company, not only for its ability but for its commitment. He describes how actors would watch scenes they hadn't seen on backstage monitors, taking a sense of collective ownership for the whole production.
How much of a revelation was it to work in such close detail on Chaucer's masterpiece?
"There's a largesse about him, he's an inclusive writer," says Rebecca. "He loves people and their variety. I had read some of the tales and prologues at school and knew about the bawdy tales. I was attracted to the Clerke's Tale, about the woman who is mistreated and rejected by her husband and accepts it because she knows she will get her reward in heaven. It's an extraordinary tale for a modern woman, but you have to understand that it's a religious parable, and as a parable it makes complete sense."
Jonathan points out another aspect of the tales that makes you wonder why the RSC hasn't thought of doing them before. Not only does Chaucer anticipate Shakespeare in the worldembracing range of his vision, but the thematic outlines of several Shakespeare plays can already be seen in the tales.
Previews have been running for a couple of weeks and the audience has proved to be the final ingredient.
"They are absolutely loving it," says Jonathan. "I wasn't sure what the response was going to be, but Stratford audiences are very kind, especially during previews. When you reach the end of Part 2, when the Pilgrims stand and sing the final hymn, there is a real sense of completing a shared journey.
"It's a show that's played very directly to the audience and it's wonderful to have real people there after nine weeks of talking to empty chairs. And it's perfect for The Swan - it's a great storytelling space."
* The Canterbury Tales Parts1 and 2 are in repertory at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, until February 4 (Box office: 0870 609 1110). Also on tour at Adams Grammar School, Telford (Feb 28-March 4; Box office: 01952 619020).