PLAY-reading-TIME: Henry IV (part 1)

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So last week was a very Henry IV-orientated week for us here at Smooth Faced Gentlemen proving the saying seems to stand true; all good things come in threes!

Henri Merriam in The Merely Players Henry IV

Henri rehearsing Henry IV with The Merely Players (© The Merely Players)

On Sunday, we went to see our very own Henri Merriam in The Merely Players‘s production of Henry IV Part 1 at The Cockpit Theatre. These guys have a very interesting model: they begin the process with actors off-book, and then, eight rehearsals later they perform…For just one night. A very language-focussed production – no set, few props, (some borrowed from the audience!) and the actors perform in the clothes they turn up in. Henri played Worcester… one of the few characters in the play not called Henry!! What did we think? T’was exceptional! The actors were fully charged, the comedy was charming, the fights transported you to the battlefield, and it was great to see a show so focussed on pure performance. The Merely Players - Henry IVIt grabbed us by the scruff of our necks from the start, and didn’t let us go until the final word had been spoken.  We’d certainly recommend catching one of their shows.  As You Like It is up next at the end of June and then Twelfth Night in August. We’ve already got our tickets!

Secondly, this week, the rumours have been confirmed: The Donmar Warehouse are following up 2012’s unforgettable all-female Julius Caesar this autumn. And the play they’re doing, is (drum roll please…) Henry IV! Needless to say, we’re very much looking forward to it.

Hariet Walter in Henry IV (© Donmar Warehouse)

Hariet Walter in Henry IV (© Donmar Warehouse)

And thirdly, by coincidence, on Saturday we read (can you guess what’s coming…??) Henry IV Part 1, as the next in our series of all-female readings.

For anyone who doesn’t know the story, the two parts of Henry IV take place between Richard II and Henry V. Part 1 follows Bolingbroke from Richard II – now King Henry IV – but arguably focusses more on his son and heir, Prince Hal – who’ll become Henry V. Reading it, there was a real feel of it being a prequel… Yaz thought it felt like an origins story.

Anna Beecher & Rachel LIncoln

It was such a great choice to read. Lots of fun and very interesting. Compared to a lot of Shakespeare we’ve worked on, it’s very simply constructed – “structurally gentle”, as Anna said. The pace ramps up and up throughout. The first act is all about planning and plotting, with long, wordy scenes, but almost every scene is shorter than the one it follows, so by the end, you’re really on the edge of your seat, and with a sense of ‘to be continued…’

Some initial thoughts:

  • The switches between quick-witted farce and high-stakes drama is particularly fun to us, with our company’s love of mixing humour with tragedy.
  • The prose was great, stronger than the poetry in places. It had a wonderful rhythm that made it impossible not to be funny, even though we were sight reading.
  • It felt very modern and close to home. The English geography makes it a lot more immediate and real than all these plays set in Italy we’re used to!
  • Interested in the context it was written – the obsession with bloodlines in the context of Elizabeth having no obvious heir is something worth exploring.
  • The whole play and every character seems obsessed with honour. But particularly Hotspur and Hal.
  • Hotspur is a really wonderful character. We had quite a debate over whether it’d be more interesting to play him as a hero or an arrogant blighter! Everyone had something to say about him.
  • Hotspur seems to reflect one side of Hal, and Falstaff the other. In a way, they seem to initially be there only to define his two sides.
  • You can see why everyone loves Falstaff, and why productions are so often remembered by their interpretation of that character. We wondered if you could have a thin Falstaff, and make it a running joke that everyone calls him fat?
An insult in the text of Henry IV

“I had rather live with cheese and garlic in a windmill…”

  • Lots and lots and lots of insults in the play. The first act pretty much reads like one of those Shakespearean insult books! Many of them relating to animals or being womanly…

…which brings us onto gender. Lots of interesting ideas were discussed, some of which are repeated below:

  • MichelleThere are lots of insults towards bad treatment of women. As Michelle, (reading with us for the first time), pointed out: “having a female actor saying that about a woman is very interesting, it helps flag them up…” That’s something we’re almost used to, so it’s lovely and really important for us to have fresh eyes at the reading. She also noted how different the attitudes towards women are compared to Hamlet (she was in an all-female production) – in the latter play, they’re patronised; here, they’re openly insulted.
  • This is set in a male-dominated world, so there are obviously very few women. But still surprising to have only three female characters, all minor, and one who doesn’t speak! (In English anyway)
  • Yaz reckons that if SFG did it, we should cut those three women. That’d certainly make a point! But we also loved the horror and humour of the bride who only spoke Welsh.
  • With so few women, in such masculine settings – brothels and battlefields – it’s especially interesting for an all-female show. Lots of blatant “lad culture”, and masculine posturing. It’s especially obvious when, say, Mistress Quickly enters and they change the way they speak.
  • Inevitably, it also means there are no real romantic relationships – it’s set in “a world without intimacy” (Anna’s words, again).
  • Carly and LaAlso lots about masculinity and father-son relationships. We’ve repeatedly found that in Shakespeare’s plays they often link masculinity to honour, and that;’s especially true in Henry IV. “Woman’s son” is even used as insult, more than once!
  • The women are there to serve and define the male characters. Mortimer’s wife is a joke – though one we’ve lots of fun ideas how to present – and Lady Percy is literally only there to show how preoccupied Percy is. Strikingly similar to Brutus and Portia in Julius Caesar. In fact we compared a speech from Lady Percy and Portia and it’s amazing how similar they are. See for yourselves:

You’ve ungently, Brutus, stole from my bed…
…It will not let you eat, nor talk, nor sleep,
And could it work so much upon your shape
As it hath much prevail’d on your condition,
I should not know you, Brutus. Dear my lord,
Make me acquainted with your cause of grief.
— PORTIA, Julius Caesar (Act II scene 1)

For what offence have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?
…Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,
And I must know it, else he loves me not.
— LADY PERCY, Henry IV Part 1 (Act II  scene 3)

Click here to see both speeches in full side-by-side →

Either way, it’s been great to explore this play we knew so little about. I think it’d make a great choice for an all-female production, and we can’t wait to see how the Donmar tackle it and merge it with Part 2 in one production!

It’s also worth noting that both parts are playing at the RSC right now, with Anthony Sher and Alex Hassell. Not seen it yet but we’ll definitely catch it before the year is out. Here’s a trailer:

Some questions we haven’t answered yet (and we’d love your thoughts):

  • Was it considered bad to be fat in Elizabethan England?
  • The Welsh wife – why is she there? Would we/you keep her in? Is comedy enough of a justification?
  • With fewer women, is what they do more noticeable?
  • Is the play really about father-son relationships, or is that just part of the story? On first glance, they don’t seem to be that deeply explored, just mentioned. Perhaps it comes out more in performance?
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