Ulster Museum Welcomes The Rivals

Theatre director Rosie Pelan wants her actors to 'romp, romp, romp' in post-Restoration comedy

Rosie Pelan has a nasty dose of the flu, but she isn’t going to let that slow her down - not with her production of Richard Sheridan's The Rivals by Richard Sheridan being staged at the Ulster Museum this weekend. ‘The director has to have the discipline of turning up week after week,’ Pelan says, sitting in the café at the Crescent Arts Centre. ‘I had the flu last winter too and still turned up every Sunday.’

Last winter was when 47-year old Pelan and her actors, most of them graduates of her acting classes, started work on The Rivals. It has been something of a slow burn production. Deliberately so. Neither Pelan nor her cast could afford to give up the usual amount of time required to put together a production.

‘A few of my regular actors in my Thursday night drama class said to me, "Please direct us in a production",’ Pelan explains. She is shedding layers as she talks, starting with her hat and working her way down to her gloves. Beneath the bulk of winter woollens she is a trim, fresh-faced woman with a long pony-tail of salt-and-pepper hair. Bright-eyed too, but that could be the flu. ‘I’ve been saying no to the idea for years because I teach in the evenings.’

In addition to her workshops at the Crescent Arts Centre Pelan, a classically trained actor and graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (where she shared a room with David Tennant), also teaches in Queen’s University's School of Drama and on Queen’s Open Learning courses. Teaching is something she took up after she had taken early retirement from acting to come back to Belfast.

‘I didn’t want to be going on tour and living out of a suitcase in my 50s and 60s,’ Pelan explains. ‘I ended up coming back here and thought, “If I’m living here and not acting full-time, what else do I love to do?” and I’ve always loved teaching acting. I didn’t want to give that up. And with an amateur or fringe production you have to set aside two or three evenings a week.’

However, when her students dangled the prospect of directing a Restoration comedy in front of her nose, Pelan says it was ‘like a little electric light going off in my head'. Partially because she adores Restoration comedies, but also because she wants to share her classical training with her students. She points out that while her training, as a matter of course, incorporated both classical and contemporary skills, a lot of drama schools now offer either/or training.

‘Personally I think that if you are only focusing on the contemporary that you miss out. If you train in the classics, and get classical voice training, that is the grounding for everything that comes after. Quite frankly, if you can handle Shakespearean verse structures and Restoration language, which is so dense and complex it requires you to have all kinds of verbal dexterity and breath capacity and so on, then you can handle anything.’ She stops and grimaces apologetically. ‘Sorry. I can get quite passionate about it.’

With The Rivals Pelan hopes to give her students a chance to experience a bit of what it is like to be a classical actor. Written in 1775 The Rivals isn’t one of Pelan’s Restoration comedies (she thought that would be a bit too challenging), but is instead what she calls a ‘Post-Restoration’ comedy. It is playwright Sheridan’s first play, it has ‘a young man’s thrust’, according to Pelan, and is a fast-paced, densely written comedy of manners satirising notions of romantic love and chivalric honour prevalent at the time it was written. It’s a challenging, but light-hearted play.

The male lead, Captain Jack Absolute, is pretending to be a poor, lower ranking officer so he can woo Lydia Languish, who has notions about how romantic elopement and poverty would be. The usual cavalcade of misunderstandings and hurt feelings lead to Absolute being challenged to a duel with trigger-happy Irish baronet, Lucius O’Trigger. (A character who, on the very first opening night, was hit with an apple from the audience. Sheridan rewrote and recast the role.) ‘I am constantly telling my students, “I want to see romping”,' Pelan says, slapping her hand on the table. ‘The key word of the week is romp, romp, romp!’

With only one week to go Pelan seems confident about the production, saying that the actors, characters and language have finally clicked together. She admits, however, that over the year long rehearsal she’s had her moments of doubt. She didn’t start with a full cast, some of the actors were forced to drop out over the year and Christopher Kelly, their Jack Absolute, went to England to do a degree in Classical Arts and will only be back in time for the dress rehearsal.

‘There were times my spirits were low, but I never allowed myself to believe it wouldn’t happen,’ Pelan says. ‘Somehow I always knew it would come good.’

Some of the problems have even turned out to be opportunities. Lydia Languish's guardian, Mrs Malaprop, played by Enid Crowe, was cast after rehearsals had already begun. Pelan is delighted with the actress. 'She's put an awful, awful lot into the production and she's just marvellous.' In addition to Crowe's skills as a performer she secured the stage in the Lecture Theatre at the Ulster Museum for The Rivals.

‘Enid works at the Ulster Museum. She went to the director, Les McLean, and made the suggestion on our behalf. He readily agreed, so we’re doing The Rivals in the Lecture Theatre. I’m chuffed to bits and Les McLean has has been very accomodating and helpful. He’s quite keen on the idea.'

There are a few logistical difficulties to work around at the location. Entrances have to be performed around an immovable lectern stage left and there’s no facility for lighting. Nevertheless, Pelan turns that into a positive. ‘It’s very Brechtian,’ she grins. ‘With just one bright light. It’s all on a shoe-string and very minimal. So it’s very much the actor's medium. It's all about the actors, the language and the audience.’
The Rivals will be in The Lecture Theatre at The Ulster Museum on December 19 at 2pm.