Remembrance of Kings Past

by wjw on November 25, 2014

While noodling around on Tor.com after admiring the John Picacio art on my story, I found an essay by the excellent and learnèd Ada Palmer on Shakespeare in the Age of Netflix, with emphasis on BBC’s recent Hollow Crown series, which I recommend as an excellent analysis of the problems of staging (or filming) the plays for a modern audience.  I can contribute little to the discussion except for some minimal insights by someone who once played Prince Hal onstage.

Not that this was produced in anywhere you were likely to see it.  The production wasn’t even in a theater, it was in the central atrium of a university office building.  Our student cast was motivated by a ferocious and transcendent love of the stage combined with an intense desire to get an A in our Shakespeare class.  “Because our teacher told us to” is, I suspect, a relatively rare reason given for a production of Henry IV, Part I, but this was ours.

We didn’t even have a director.  The actors put the thing together out of bits and pieces, assembling our production as we went along.

It helped that we were all pretty pragmatic as actors.  We weren’t going through the psychic contortions of the Method: we were all pretty much of the “stand on your mark and say your goddam lines” school.  We all figured Shakespeare knew a lot more about his play than we did: we were there to illuminate his work, not to crowbar an interpretation into the text.

We did a lot of cutting, in part because we knew that at some point the English Faculty was going to want their building back.  But what we mostly cut was the stuff we couldn’t make work: if our Falstaff couldn’t make us laugh with a line, then out it went.  If a line didn’t work in our Henry IV’s East Texas dialect, we felt at liberty to cut it.

We had some swashbucklers in the cast, and we choreographed the hell out of the battle scene.  We got the University of Albuquerque to loan us a bunch of genuine broadswords, but they were so cut up during rehearsal that we didn’t dare use them in performance— we were afraid one of the swords would snap and fire razor-edged shards into the audience.  The final performance was done with fake swords, which did not ring but clatter; but the choreography was still damned good, except for a bit where Hotspur’s shield was supposed to get knocked off his arm— which it did, but then the damn thing landed on edge and rolled offstage into the wings, and the audience watched the rolling shield instead of the actors, so by the time we resumed the fighting we were foaming mad, utterly homicidal with frustration and despair, and it showed, and we really knocked their socks off.

I didn’t devote a lot of time to worrying about “interpretation.”   I honestly didn’t care whether the audience liked Prince Hal or not— if he plotted ahead of time to spurn Falstaff, it was only balanced by Falstaff’s own treacheries—  but I remember I was petrified by Hal’s speech over Hotspur’s body.  I knew that this one speech was key to Hal’s character, as I understood it anyway, and I couldn’t make up my mind about it, and always made some excuse or other not to have to speak the lines during rehearsal.   The first time I spoke the words aloud was during performance.

I kept in mind Hal’s prayer in a later play, Henry V, on the eve of Agincourt, where he begs God “not to-day, think not upon the fault my father made in encompassing the crown.”   Hal’s father was a usurper and murderer, whose treachery was repaid by more treachery.  My Hal’s reaction to this was disgust— he loathed having to be the son of a usurper but duty-bound to support him anyway, in part because the other guys were worse.  He hung around Falstaff because it was a kind of mortification of the spirit— he felt he deserved nothing better.

So when I finally gave the speech— “When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound; but now two paces of the vilest earth is room enough”— I gave it all the loathing and disgust I could.  People were kind of startled, ever having heard it that way before.  I staggered off and collapsed, possessed by the notion that I’d somehow got away with something.

We threw the thing together, and it worked, in part because we were nineteen and fearless and didn’t realize our own limitations.

My memory isn’t entirely clear on this, but I believe the cast party was truly Falstaffian in scope.

 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Phil Koop November 25, 2014 at 5:26 pm

How about the problems of staging a modern rewrite of a Shakespearean play, from the viewpoint of a couple of minor characters, for a modern audience largely unfamiliar with your young playwright? Those students at the Oxford Theatre Group who mounted the first-ever production of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead must have been pretty pleased with themselves, the way things turned out.

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