It’s the first day of rehearsals and everyone is gathered for our very first read/sing-through of the script. Selina Cartmell, the director, leans over to me and whispers “what a company…”. And she’s right. Assembled around the table is an extraordinary group of performers, musicians and movers. As we listen to them work their way through the script, a thought strikes me – the show doesn’t sound at all like I was expecting. I’m based in New York most of the time, and I have become quite used to a “Broadway sound”, the type of voice that American performers are encouraged to develop – often technically brilliant but quite uniform. Listening to our performers, I realise how satisfying it is to hear this show in their voices. Different colours emerge and there’s already a kind of emotional depth to the singing that is extremely exciting. Selina is keen for this production to be driven by the stories of the characters and their words, not just the music and the spectacle. It’s going to be a treat to watch this company of performers bring the show to life in the intimate setting of the Gate – this won’t just be the glitz and glamour of Broadway, but also something rawer, more urgent.
ASSASSINS follows the (sometimes intersecting) stories of nine real successful and would-be assassins of US presidents. It’s a journey through the history of the United States and events that shook the world – some familiar, some forgotten. Our early rehearsals have involved the actors delving into research about the real assassins that they are going to embody onstage. There’s been plenty of discussion about these figures and the impact that they all had. Something has become very clear – if we just represent them as pure villains then there will be very little point to the production. Both humorous and chillingly provocative, Sondheim asks the audience to encounter these assassins as ordinary people. He takes us beyond their mugshots to try and understand what made them pick up a gun and take a fateful action. As we start to work on scenes, it’s fascinating to see how we all begin to find aspects of these characters that we agree with; arguments they make which sometimes seem entirely reasonable. Partly this is the necessary process of actors finding humanity in their characters, but it’s also something deeper – a subversion of the image of these assassins as simply one-dimensional monsters. Maybe this is the genius of this musical – in trying to find the human side of these assassins, Sondheim shows us how thin the line can be between an ordinary person with convictions and an extremist blinded by their beliefs. And more than twenty-five years after this show was written, perhaps that’s something worth trying to understand more than ever…
– Marc Atkinson, Associate Director
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