Johnny Got His Gun is about a young man who has lost everything in the First World War. Literally everything. His arms, his legs, his entire face, eyes, nose, ears. He is a shell of his former self. Yet in spite of appearances, ‘Johnny’ is a beautiful play which chronicles his journey to get back in control of his life. The young man Joe may have lost everything, but he is determined to stay alive and make every moment count.
Haunting and affecting as it is, it is also uplifting at times and constantly exciting. It is a piece I will never forget and directing it has been as rewarding as it gets. The decision to work on it has been one of the best I’ve made, and yet when George Warren, Metal Rabbit’s producer of Johnny, first sent me the play, my initial instinct was to find any reason to say ‘no’. Johnny Got His Gun is a monologue and I had just finished working on a monologue at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe, the world premiere of Philip Ridley’s incredibly intense Dark Vanilla Jungle, and I was still exhausted from it. It had been a huge success, selling out and winning a Fringe First (and has just finished a 2014 tour and sell out run at Soho Theatre), and was definitely a special moment in my career. Gemma Whelan, the actress I had worked with, had given a tour-de-force performance that had resulted in her own award nominations and deserved acclaim. Surely I would love to recreate that feeling? Of course; only, I knew by now what it took to get there…
But once I read Johnny, I fell in love with the script. You follow your instincts on these things and directors know that good scripts like this, which you’ve never seen before are rare, so really I didn’t doubt it after that. But I was still wary of taking on another one person show. In fact my experience on Dark Vanilla Jungle made me to warn everyone involved of the challenge ahead. If you get everything right on a monologue it can be a uniquely brilliant experience. But the work it takes to get there is more intense than anything.
There are practical challenges. In an ideal world all actors have a long enough rehearsal period for lines to enter their memory organically which can save the laborious and sometimes diluting task of bashing away learning lines late at night. However, in practical terms, I think an actor has no choice but to learn lines ahead of time, otherwise they are left with a huge block of text that is becoming ever more daunting; a ball and chain holding back their body in anything they want to achieve. If your rehearsal period is particularly long, an actor may want to wait but most rehearsal periods are not long enough to avoid it I think.
There is also very little time to learn lines within rehearsals, as all the director’s focus is on their one actor. Those breaks in time, so valuable to any actor in any other process, where there is time to digest and consolidate all you’ve learned, are reserved to the short breaks through the day and lunch time. This can be incredibly intense for an actor, and overwhelming. Going slow and relaxed can help build up trust between you and help them feel more in control. Really it should feel like a dialogue between you, a collaboration. A lot of boundaries can be broken down between an actor and director in this situation and I feel this is a healthy thing. The actor does not have anyone else to build a bond with so a warm understanding between the two of you is really important.
The process of rehearsing a monologue has challenges as well. Most text analysis should concentrate on keeping the words active. In a larger cast most of an actor’s focus is on what they are doing to another character, but the obvious challenge is that this is not the case with a one-hander. However you have to find who they’re talking to, otherwise there is no truth. Whether it is directly to the audience (whoever they see them as), or somebody the actor can see in front of them, everything they say must be active. Physicality can be a struggle as well, as it can be difficult to play off thin air. But we are always physical in all we do in life and I encouraged the actors in both to physically embrace all they were doing and throw themselves in. You have words to engage with and your whole body has to feel what you’re doing.
Later on, actors can feel very vulnerable in first performing the show in run throughs and in front of an audience. It’s a lonely place up there, and I think that is when it truly hits home that you are on your own. There are no fellow cast members to bounce off after a quiet audience, nobody to have a laugh with about the mistake in the second act. This loneliness is very palpable for the performer and I think it’s important for the director to fill that void and encourage the actor as much as possible. Being there early on and being strong for the performer is essential. Equally, it is hard for you! Directors always put themselves on the line when they hand a play over to a cast and trust has to run both ways. With a monologue this is amplified tenfold. But you have to keep your cool, avoid building it up into an earth-shattering challenge, and focus on the job in hand, moment by moment.
Actor Jack Holden has embraced this play from the start and never shirked from the challenge. He has worked incredibly hard and has brought all the creativity you need to bring when you have entire responsibility for the stage. Jack was experienced before but I think he knows this work has taken many things so much further for him. For me, it has cemented my love for the monologue form, which gives back so much for what you put in. I will always pause and consider before taking on any project, but I know I’ll never be reluctant to take on a monologue again!
David Mercatali’s production of Johnny Got His Gun is at Southwark Playhouse from 21st May – 14th June 2014