‘All the world’s a stage’ is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, even more relevant in social-media-mediated twenty-first century life than it was when he wrote it in 1599. Yet, if that maxim has been so often repeated as to seem hackneyed, New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton audaciously reclaimed its resonance with her debut novel, 2008’s The Rehearsal. Written, as her Master’s thesis, when she was just twenty-one,Kate Erbland, ‘NYFF: The Rehearsal Filmmaker Alison Maclean Explains Why Author Eleanor Catton Is the Perfect Collaborator’, IndieWire, 21 September 2016, <http://www.indiewire.com/2016/09/nyff-the-rehearsal-alison-maclean-eleanor-catton-1201727083/>, accessed 9 August 2017. it’s about students at a drama school who are put through their paces, and contains ‘post-structuralist ideas’ that she sought to apply to the adolescent female experience.Eleanor Catton, quoted in Brannavan Gnanalingam, ‘Eleanor Catton on The Rehearsal’, The Lumière Reader, 6 March 2012, <http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/eleanor-catton-on-the-rehearsal/>, accessed 9 August 2017. What resulted was a work in which chronology is jumbled; plotlines bleed into one another; and ‘performance’ and ‘reality’ are deliberately confused, stage directions and theatrical effects employed even when stories aren’t playing out in the theatre. Thus, all the world of The Rehearsal really is a stage – and it’s up to readers to interpret who is acting, and when.
It isn’t the most obvious text to bring to the screen. But, following the wild success of the author’s epic, Man Booker Prize–winning second novel, 2013’s The Luminaries, the appeal of a cinematic Catton adaptation only grew. The eventual film’s director, Alison Maclean, was, like Catton, born in Canada and raised in New Zealand. Having lived in New York since the success of her debut film, Crush (1992), Maclean had long been looking for a reason to return to New Zealand, and saw in The Rehearsal something ‘brazenly original and female’.Alison Maclean, quoted in Laura Berger, ‘TIFF 2016 Women Directors: Meet Alison Maclean – The Rehearsal’, Women and Hollywood, 8 September 2016, <https://blog.womenandhollywood.com/tiff-2016-women-directors-meet-alison-maclean-the-rehearsal-2dbe833b1c5c>, accessed 9 August 2017. Approaching the text, she and co-writer Emily Perkins had to find a ‘way in’ to the story: to turn narrative misdirection into linear form, find straight drama from a work of slanted language, fashion a movie out of a text more suggestive of experimental theatre. They chose to focus on – and flesh out – the juiciest elements of the story: the domineering teachers and impressionable first-years at a prestigious acting academy, and the fallout from a high school girl having an affair with her teacher. In the book, these two stories are drawn together when Stanley, a naive eighteen-year-old acting student, sparks up a relationship with fifteen-year-old Isolde, the sister of the girl at the centre of the scandal; in the film, this becomes the main narrative. The Rehearsal is a wonky love story in which our lead (James Rolleston, BoyThe titular character from Taika Waititi’s 2010 film Boy. all grown up) must navigate which intimate experiences, personal emotions and stories of others are to be grist for acting, for drama, and which are best kept private, sheltered. Like any good adaptation, the film is a fundamentally different experience from the novel, becoming an artwork with its own ideas, its own desires.
In a great opening sting, we first see Stanley’s face via his headshot. A tableful of applications – for a place at the Institute, a fictional acting college in Auckland – sit smiling up at us. The applicants’ fates are soon determined by the instructors, whom we don’t see, only hear: making pronouncements from on high, as though gods. Stanley is called ‘virginal’ before we ever meet him, and so, when he ambles in from far-flung Whakatane, awkward and sexless, we’re already viewing him with the teachers’ predatory gaze. The scene is over in fifty seconds, introducing the swift pace with which Maclean – in concert with editor Jonathan Woodford-Robinson – keeps the film moving. While she favours static compositions, with action often happening out of frame, Maclean gets in and out of scenes quickly, moving with an economy of motion; no sooner is an invite to a weekend party proffered than we’re on our way there. The Rehearsal fits a lot of ideas, and piles on a lot of thematic weight, into its brisk 102-minute running time.
In an early acting-class exercise, Stanley is charged with portraying desire for Frankie (Michelle Ny) but fails, admitting to his at once inspiring and terrifying teacher, Institute head Hannah (Kerry Fox), that he’s never really wanted anything before. In a later exercise, we see another teacher, Livia (Miranda Harcourt), trying to shake Stanley out of his timidity through body and vocal exercises. These acting tasks are initially played for laughs, something tipped off by the casting of comic actors Rachel House and Cohen Holloway – known for their recurring work with Taika Waititi – as instructors. But, after the film depicts kids rolling around on the floor while Holloway’s Michael says things like ‘let skin move the skin’, the classes grow more revealing; the games, roleplaying and trust exercises forge accelerated intimacy through revelation, manipulation, exposure.
After we meet Stanley’s smarmy, oft-absent father (Mark Ruka) – in town from Sydney on business, swapping dirty jokes with his shy son at a harbour-side restaurant – a class exercise demands that Stanley then portray his father. At first, Hannah isn’t impressed (‘You’re not being your father; you’re just presenting him for our judgement’); soon, however, we see him delivering a pitch-perfect impersonation of pops. But, when his classmate William (Kieran Charnock) attempts a comic take on his own family – telling a well-worn anecdote about an Easter lunch turned parental battle – during an exercise about students’ ‘most intimate moment’, Hannah tears him apart, deriding his clown act as an attempt to crowd-please, the opposite of intimacy. ‘This is the last place I’d share anything intimate,’ William retorts – and, here, we get a glimpse into the dark side of both character and college; the tension among the group says so much more than Hannah’s platitudes ‘acting’s hard work’ and ‘acting is a horrible career’.
In playing Hannah, Fox drew on her own experiences at Wellington’s Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School (drama schools in the 1980s, according to Fox, were places where ‘people were ripped apart and brought to the point of hysteria, or crisis, or overwhelming despair’Kerry Fox, quoted in Eleanor Black, ‘Kerry Fox on The Rehearsal, and Finding Her Own Way’, Stuff.co.nz, 11 September 2016, <http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/83989417/Kerry-Fox-on-The-Rehearsal-and-finding-her-own-way>, accessed 9 August 2017. ), and, between takes, she would do acting exercises with her young, inexperienced cast-mates,Elisabeth Easther, ‘Interview with Alice Englert, One of the Stars of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal’, New Zealand Listener, 22 July 2016, <http://www.noted.co.nz/currently/profiles/interview-with-alice-englert-one-of-the-stars-of-eleanor-catton-s-the-rehearsal/>, accessed 9 August 2017. further blurring the lines between art and reality. Perkins attended the same institution, meaning she, too, could lean on her formative acting-school experiences. The school setting, and the sequences set therein, gets at one of Maclean’s central aims for The Rehearsal: to explore acting as craft, as theme and as metatext for her own film.These aims recall Maclean’s 2006 short film Intolerable – a documentary experiment openly inspired by Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema (1995), in which the process of auditioning actors becomes the film itself; see Shonni Enelow, ‘Interview: Alison Maclean and Kerry Fox’, Film Comment, 3 July 2017, <https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-alison-maclean-kerry-fox/>, accessed 9 August 2017. In coming up with a young ensemble vast enough to populate a whole acting school, she and casting directors Tina Cleary and Miranda Rivers auditioned endless candidates; once they were assembled, this group spent a week doing rehearsals and workshops, both echoing the story and bonding them as a group. ‘I liked the idea that the thing these kids are training to do is the thing we’re watching,’ Maclean explains.Maclean, quoted in Berger, op. cit. ‘You’re watching actors train, but you’re also watching acting. The film is made of acting.’Alison Maclean, in ‘The Rehearsal Press Conference | Alison Maclean | NYFF54’, YouTube, 23 September 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEUCbcSzcdw>, accessed 9 August 2017. In bringing ‘the process of learning to be an actor to life in a film’, Maclean wanted to understand actors – her chief collaborators – more deeply, but she also sought to use ‘the rehearsal as a metaphor for the process of becoming an adult and the time of transition when you’re experimenting with possible ways of being, possible selves’.Alison Maclean, quoted in Alex Heeney, ‘Writer-director Alison Maclean Raises the Curtain on The Rehearsal’, Seventh Row, 1 October 2016, <https://seventh-row.com/2016/10/01/alison-maclean-rehearsal-film/>, accessed 9 August 2017.
The film charts Stanley’s gentle growth, his slow loss of innocence, as both a person and a budding thespian. He moves into a ramshackle sharehouse with William and fellow student Theo (musician Marlon Williams); there, we see the obligatory sheets hung as curtains, fading patterned wallpaper, stained carpet, cracks in the walls, couch in the backyard. They show him The Colour of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1968), give him drugs, let him borrow a tie to play Angels in America’s Joe Pitt in a school ‘field activity’ on the streets of downtown Auckland. And, being residents of a sharehouse, they expose him to the domestic presence of sex: the virginal Stanley awkwardly knocking on Theo’s door when he’s in bed with a lover, or making himself scarce to leave William and Frankie alone.
Slowly, the boy who’s never wanted anything finally finds he desires something: Isolde (Ella Edward). They first meet by chance on a bus: Stanley having just auditioned for the Institute, Isolde on the way to a tennis lesson. It’s she who catches her sister, Victoria (Rachel Roberts), and their coach, Mr Saladin (Erroll Shand), in flagrante delicto in the club’s equipment room. Even before Isolde and Stanley become an item, we occasionally follow her: still attending tennis practice, dealing with the glares and gossip in the locker room; at home on the couch with her sister, watching an episode of bro’Town. Isolde and Stanley’s relationship progresses slowly, in nervous stints of hanging out, all furtive glances and mutual blushes. Stanley summons an acting exercise for confidence – pronouncing, ‘Thou, nature, art my goddess’ – before moving in for the couple’s first kiss, while lying in the grass at Auckland’s iconic One Tree Hill. When they have sex for the first time, awkward and bashful, Stanley is forced to wonder whether he, having his own dangerous liaisons with an underage girl, is any different from a predatory teacher. He finds himself drawn into the scandal when Victoria, still in love with Saladin, borrows his phone during a family barbecue to call her forbidden paramour.
The defining assignment for the students is to devise a theatre piece for a presentation at the end of the school year. Stanley ends up in a group with William, Frankie, Thomasin (Alice Englert) and Oscar (Scott Cotter), and, when they sit down together, they seem somewhat clueless: unsure of whether they’re coming up with devices or content, something conceptual or that’ll advance their nascent careers. Garrulous William takes command of the spitballing session – ‘I don’t want to do something that’s good,’ he says, adamantly – but his cockeyed contrarianism and love of the TED-enshrined viral video ‘First Follower’‘First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy’, YouTube, 11 February 2010, <https://youtu.be/fW8amMCVAJQ>, accessed 9 August 2017. doesn’t produce anything profound. After Saladin comes into the cafe where Frankie works and openly flirts with her, she is inspired: the tennis-coach scandal is topical and provocative, rippling with sex, sport, shame, celebrity, infamy. Despite Stanley’s intimate proximity to the family at the centre of the storm, it doesn’t take much good-natured peer pressure for him to go along with this idea. And so the gang get to work: watching all the news coverage they can find, poring over YouTube videos of Saladin on the tennis court and in the court of law, discussing details of the frayed family life that Stanley has gleaned from Isolde.
In one of few moments in which the film is evocative of the book, Maclean crosscuts from the group discovering ideas, developing their work and cod-psychologising about the affair, to seeing the family acting them out; we’re unsure if this is the family going about their lives, in parallel action, or if they’re being summoned in the collective imagination of the rehearsal. Occasionally, Maclean leads us into a scene cold; we expect to find ‘reality’, but instead we walk into the unreality of the crew performing. Throughout the process, both William and Thomasin ask Stanley, constantly, whether he’s told his girlfriend about the show – a question that looms like The Lie from a romcom, ready to be revealed at the end of the second act.
Eventually, everything unravels. William, whose desperate need to be liked masks manic depression, goes off his meds, then drives his mum’s car into Manukau Harbour – acting underlined as a pursuit that the troubled forever attempt to find respite, and escape, in. Stanley, too scared to tell Isolde about the performance, breaks up with her. She finds out, anyway, and after some soul-searching, he apologises to her and her family (her outraged father spits, ‘What kind of person thinks it’s okay to use the details of someone’s private life for cheap entertainment?’). Even the Institute grows shaky: the teachers are forced to reapply for their jobs, or resign, while Hannah chases a dream of a new waterside 1000-seat theatre space.
Throughout the film, we are shown Stanley’s theatre group’s initial tennis-scandal ideas, played out in front of a pink wall, scattered in a fashion that breaks with the otherwise-straight chronology. Frankie, in a blonde wig, miming a hypersexualised tennis rally, appears ninety seconds into the film during a flash-forward. But the scene in which William delivers his monologue – as the coach, saying, ‘You’ve got to have the ability to forget, to let it all go’ – comes after he’s died; his words, as though from beyond the grave, linger eerily. Eventually, the group takes heed of William’s words and his original anti-theatre ideas, scrapping the tennis-scandal work – due to Stanley’s guilt, manifest as moral coming of age – two days before their performance. That big-show finale brings most of the cast under one roof, and ends with an artful riff on ‘First Follower’: the audience drawn to what lingers on the other side of the stage curtain, filing through a Lynchian gap in the crimson drapes into the shadowy unknown.
Maclean wanted the climax to be not just meta-theatre within the film world itself, but a piece of meta-theatre for The Rehearsal’s audience: ‘something that brought you out of the film and brought you into the experience of watching the film […] a present-tense experience – an experiential thing, not a performative thing.’Alison Maclean, quoted in Enelow, op. cit. This propels the movie, on close, towards the disorientation of the novel, as if inviting viewers in through Catton’s literary proscenium arch. While the movie has a more normative narrative – and is, in many ways, more moralistic than Catton’s source text – Maclean homes in on the themes of the drama: the power dynamics between teachers and students (Perkins and Maclean having ‘experienced both sides of that equation’Maclean, quoted in Heeney, op. cit.); the parallels between sexual predation and artistic predation, young people’s bodies like clay waiting to be moulded; agency and consent in sexual, emotional, educational and narrative concerns; risk and trust in both acting workshops and relationships; acting as a kind of sport, with successes and failures, winners and losers.
Surprisingly, the film’s best articulation of these themes comes from the otherwise-comic-relief figure of Stanley’s father. He’s a psychologist and, thus, sees his son’s pursuit of acting as joining an opposing team. ‘Theatre has its roots in magic, ritual, sacrifice,’ he explains. ‘I’m in the truth trade.’ This divide, obliterated by Catton, is, here, something Maclean pokes at: there’s truth to be found in theatre, magic in reality; the partition between on stage and off, flimsy at best. In The Rehearsal, all the world’s a stage – and, for the young people on it, learning to act is learning to live.
|1||Kate Erbland, ‘NYFF: The Rehearsal Filmmaker Alison Maclean Explains Why Author Eleanor Catton Is the Perfect Collaborator’, IndieWire, 21 September 2016, <http://www.indiewire.com/2016/09/nyff-the-rehearsal-alison-maclean-eleanor-catton-1201727083/>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|2||Eleanor Catton, quoted in Brannavan Gnanalingam, ‘Eleanor Catton on The Rehearsal’, The Lumière Reader, 6 March 2012, <http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/eleanor-catton-on-the-rehearsal/>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|3||Alison Maclean, quoted in Laura Berger, ‘TIFF 2016 Women Directors: Meet Alison Maclean – The Rehearsal’, Women and Hollywood, 8 September 2016, <https://blog.womenandhollywood.com/tiff-2016-women-directors-meet-alison-maclean-the-rehearsal-2dbe833b1c5c>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|4||The titular character from Taika Waititi’s 2010 film Boy.|
|5||Kerry Fox, quoted in Eleanor Black, ‘Kerry Fox on The Rehearsal, and Finding Her Own Way’, Stuff.co.nz, 11 September 2016, <http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/83989417/Kerry-Fox-on-The-Rehearsal-and-finding-her-own-way>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|6||Elisabeth Easther, ‘Interview with Alice Englert, One of the Stars of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal’, New Zealand Listener, 22 July 2016, <http://www.noted.co.nz/currently/profiles/interview-with-alice-englert-one-of-the-stars-of-eleanor-catton-s-the-rehearsal/>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|7||These aims recall Maclean’s 2006 short film Intolerable – a documentary experiment openly inspired by Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema (1995), in which the process of auditioning actors becomes the film itself; see Shonni Enelow, ‘Interview: Alison Maclean and Kerry Fox’, Film Comment, 3 July 2017, <https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-alison-maclean-kerry-fox/>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|8||Maclean, quoted in Berger, op. cit.|
|9||Alison Maclean, in ‘The Rehearsal Press Conference | Alison Maclean | NYFF54’, YouTube, 23 September 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEUCbcSzcdw>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|10||Alison Maclean, quoted in Alex Heeney, ‘Writer-director Alison Maclean Raises the Curtain on The Rehearsal’, Seventh Row, 1 October 2016, <https://seventh-row.com/2016/10/01/alison-maclean-rehearsal-film/>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|11||‘First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy’, YouTube, 11 February 2010, <https://youtu.be/fW8amMCVAJQ>, accessed 9 August 2017.|
|12||Alison Maclean, quoted in Enelow, op. cit.|
|13||Maclean, quoted in Heeney, op. cit.|