Theatre: All together: exit, stage left: Why did a whole cast walk out on the Young Vic? Robert Butler hears both sides of the story

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IT WAS the fourth week of rehearsals for the Young Vic's Omma, a new version of the Oedipus story, and in a hall across the road, things had ground to a halt. It was the scene where the priest (Toby Jones) asks Oedipus (Robert Bowman) for help. Instead the actors asked the director, Tim Supple, for help. Supple didn't want to give them the kind of help they wanted. So rehearsals collapsed. 'We spent most of the afternoon talking,' Supple says.

The argument became, according to different people, 'pretty involved' and 'quite brutal'. After a half-hour break, Supple returned with his fellow artistic director of the Young Vic, Julia Bardsley. There was more talk, then an ultimatum: either rehearse the way Supple wanted to, or leave. Everyone went home, and next morning, when Supple rang round, the four actors - Jones, Bowman, Des McAleer and Claire Benedict - all said they wanted to leave.

Those involved are at pains to explain not only that they saw the other person's point of view, but (more unusually) that the other person saw their point of view. There's no rancour, they say. It was very adult. Strange, then, that a cast of four talented and experienced actors spent three unhappy weeks working on a show that they have now left.

The pressure is on at the Young Vic. Supple and Bardsley succeeded the highly popular David Thacker last autumn. Bardsley's first production, Therese Raquin, was panned; the box office slashed prices, and still didn't pull in an audience. So the stakes were high for Supple's first production.

He is 31 and not short of ambition. At Chichester in 1992, he directed Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench and 70 extras in Coriolanus; for the National in 1993, he adapted and directed the oldest surviving piece of drama in the world, Gilgamesh. This time he's taking on something 2,000 years younger - one of the Greek tragedies.

'I'm convinced that a way to the sensation of those plays is in denying all that we think of as important about performance,' he tells me, over breakfast in a cafe in The Cut. The things he wants to deny are: 'Investigation of character, familiarisation of the territory, trying to understand how it feels.'

He would have mentioned all this denial to the cast in advance, but Supple says: 'It wasn't clear to me until rehearsals how total my approach would be.' Robert Bowman, who was to play Oedipus, Ismene, Eteokles and Polyneices (a rare opportunity, that, for any actor), says that before rehearsals began, 'There was a bunch of

possibilities. But they weren't set in stone.' Supple thinks that he did outline his ideas to the actors, but 'before rehearsals something can sound very exciting to actors, but not be fully tangible. I think genuinely they would have heard what I was saying but not known fully what it meant.'

Omma, by Kenneth McLeish, approaches the Oedipus story by drawing on Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Theban mythology, and then presenting it in a way that McLeish calls 'not so much linear as prismatic'. The cast of four approached Omma the way most actors approach any play: by trying to ask the right questions. In Bowman's words, 'What are we doing? Why are we here? What do we want from each other?'

Knowing these things is traditionally an advantage when you're standing under bright lights in front of 500 people. Supple wanted them to treat the text like a score: stick rigidly to a pre-recorded soundtrack of percussive piano music, the words fitting the music on the tape 'like a spoken opera'. His idea was to shake free of the prevailing psychological approach to drama, which he felt was inappropriate to Greek texts. 'We're not going to talk about character because it's not a play. (It's more like an allegory.) We won't talk about emotions because we can't feel them and we can't express them.' (How could we possibly know, for instance, what Medea feels or why she kills her children?) He wants something that is pre-modern - free of hows and whys - but performed in a way that is very modern.

Supple takes a bite of Danish and widens his attack. 'I'm rebelling against certain assumptions. Live theatre has to be different every night. That's one assumption. All the best theatre has to be organic. That's another. Or that the Greek plays are dramatically recognisable. The idea of finding a chamber version of these plays, in a round space, with microphones, a constant score, suits and things, is very exciting.'

The cast tried to get excited too. But three weeks in, according to Bowman, 'the understanding wasn't increasing. As actors we suspend our doubts and think this is going to make sense. But towards the end of the third week it wasn't clicking.' Supple admits to having 'times of wavering'. But 'I decided to force a situation where a decision had to be made.'

'There was no backstairs intrigue,' Bowman says. 'We all felt very strongly about the way of working. It was a group decision. If one of us was going to go, we all would.' So the cast did a remarkable thing for jobbing actors. They took one week's rehearsal pay and walked out. 'I've stood on stage before and not understood what I was doing,' Bowman says, 'and in the end that's far worse.' None of the other actors will discuss it. Directors have a lot of power.

Luckily for the Young Vic, the posters didn't name the cast. Two previews were cancelled and the press night moved back. Within five days, there were new leaflets and a new cast. This time Supple picked younger actors, with musical skills; three had worked with him before. 'I was totally explicit. I was saying: 'Conrad, you're going to have three weeks, and you're playing Oedipus and his son and his daughter, and you're going to have to trust me, and you're going to have to work with this tape]' ' Conrad (Nelson) said OK.

In future Bowman intends to be very clear about how a director intends to rehearse. 'If it's over- conceptualised, then I wouldn't be for them. Life's too short.' Supple thinks British actors limit themselves. 'They are afraid of conceptualisation and intellectualisation. And I think through experience they build up a set of habits that closes them off to an agility of response.' In what way? 'What I'm asking actors to do is be actors, but work as singers and dancers, where you have an action that is part of a choreographed pattern. I think actors can have a problem in working that way.'

'Omma': Young Vic (071-928 6363), previews from 1 March, opens 8 March, runs to 2 April.

(Photograph omitted)