The Prince and the Passion: in this exclusive interview, actor Matthew Amendt talks about playing Prince Hal in Washington DC with the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Matthew Amendt displays a unique passion when talking about his performance as Prince Hal in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent dual presentation of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, his longstanding relationship with Prince Hal and Shakespeare being the cause. Amendt first encountered Hal when he was seven years old, and then again in 2009 when, as part of Guthrie Theatre, he performed the title role in their touring production of Henry V. Now, he takes some time to reflect on the great king’s younger persona.

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You started performing Shakespeare at a very young age…
“Well, my mom was an English teacher and needed a prop infant when she was directing shows. I think I played the changeling in A Midsummer’s Night Dream when I was just a wee tot. Ever since then it has just been really present for me and made a lot of sense. I was too young to know any better – that I wasn’t supposed to like it. It wasn’t a popular thing to like Shakespeare.”

What appealed to you about Shakespeare?
“I loved the sweeping grandness of the story and the beauty of the poetry and the power of the verse. All those things really meant a lot to me. I was very young and I just grew into it as I got older. Then I trained at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where I was fortunate enough to be taken into the acting company there and worked for ten years on all the great Shakespeare plays.”

Why did you particularly identify with the Hal/Henry character?
“To be honest with you, I am as befuddled about it as anybody. I had some health stuff when I was young and my mom gave me these plays when I was frightened, when I was a frightened sick kid. I think every little kid loves to think that there is a story out there about them, particularly princes and princess and kings and kingdoms, monsters and dragons. I think that the journey that Prince Hal takes to become Henry V and the choices he makes as that king meant a lot to me. That you could make mistakes and come back from them, that you could change, that you weren’t out of the game.

“He just sort of felt like a big brother to me, somebody to take care of me and keep me on the straight and narrow. Of course, as I got older the ambiguity of the plays and the cruelty of all the characters – Hal certainly can be very cruel – came through, and it became more challenging for me. It’s a great story to grow up with and grow into because it’s so deep and broad, and complex. There is something for everybody at every point in their life.”

How did audiences react to this production?
“Well, you know, what’s fascinating about these plays is they exist on such different ends of the spectrum depending on the viewer. I have had people in the audience come up to me and say they have never been able to connect with Hal and how much they admire or enjoyed the work we did in this production with him sort of being a child growing into a man. And I have had audience members come up to me and say ‘That’s not the play for me, you are not my Hal, and I didn’t get any of that.’

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“It’s such a subjective thing. These two poles of honour versus the reality of political machinations – how we move through the world as political animals – anyone who comes in contact with the plays develops their own perspective on that. Maybe that is why it’s popular – not because it is one thing, but because it can be so many for people.

“I think that is really the strength of Michael’s direction in the show that he has been very specific about the acting and the tension and the characters – and been brave enough to let the plays breathe and let people feel the way they feel. I’ve been accosted on the street by people saying I’m their Hal or I am absolutely not their Hal. That’s a really fascinating experience to have lived through. It’s very interesting the way we do battle with each other about what these plays mean to a contemporary audience.”

What, for you, are these plays about?
“They are all about different things, which I think is the beautiful thing. Henry IV, Part 1 is such a coming-of-age story and it’s such a broad sort of summer blockbuster of Shakespeare plays – so much life and vitality and a real struggle for what kind of community we want to be. And Henry IV, Part 2, it’s sort of humble, forlorn. That’s one of the incredible things about these plays – they don’t really exist independently of each other in terms of the plot, but in terms of themes and character they are very different plays. One of these things that is fun to work on is I think you can really feel the playwright wrestling with these questions himself.”

Why is this specific part of history so popular right now?
“I always hate that they are called history plays because it’s not really history. Most of the character relationships are completely fictional. He was certainly inspired by what he read in the Holinshed about the history of England, but Hotspur and Hal never fought. Hotspur was a much older man and Hal was a little more than a child at the Battle of Shrewsbury. I think he was 16. There is an element of them that is a mythic play and I think that’s what audiences are drawn to today.”

What are some of your favourite moments in the plays?
“There are so many. The play-within-a-play with Falstaff in the tavern scene, the rejection and the foreshadowing of that. I love doing that with Stacy [Keach]. Stacy’s delightful to play with in that scene when everybody’s on stage together and you can really feel a live, thrilling sense of danger happening in that bar. Then rejecting Falstaff – ‘I know thee not, old man’ is one of the great scenes in Shakespeare. Two people coming to this impasse in their relationship where what they want or what they would desire if they were free is impossible. It comes to this awful conclusion and I think in our performance that that’s as difficult for Hal as it is for Falstaff. The writing in that bit is beautiful, the shifting of the pronouns from the royal pronoun to the personal pronoun. It’s a much more complicated speech than I gave it credit for.

“And then of course the bedroom scenes with Ed Gero, an incredible actor who is playing an incredible King Henry. When Henry is leaving and the two of them are sort of negotiating everything, it is certainly a contemporary father-son relationship. The ideas of ‘What am I passing on?’ and ‘What have you given me?’ Those scenes are delightful in the way that fathers and sons misunderstand each other.”

Read the full feature on this production of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 in Issue 3 of Shakespeare Magazine.

Secret Theatre’s swinging ’60s Hamlet makes debut at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

While traditionally Secret Theatre has kept their performances’ London locations secret – revealed only after tickets are purchased – they have announced that their Hamlet will debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year. Even though there may be no mystery about the performance’s location, this production will still have plenty of surprises.

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In this visionary staging of the play, Hamlet’s fatal quest for revenge is set against the political and social turmoil of the 1960s.

The production will not only feature costuming from this hedonistic time period, but also address the themes of “young people rebelling against the establishment, the sexual revolution, drug use, a woman’s changing place in society, Magdalene Asylums and the 27 Club.”

Starring Raphael Verrion as the Dane and directed by Brooke Johnston and founder Richard Crawford, this Hamlet also promises a unique interpretation of the script including the addition of a “completely overlooked subplot.”

Johnston says, “This is a really exciting interpretation of Hamlet which we wanted to share with the public and show Shakespeare doesn’t have to be an uptight production.” Despite the innovations though, the directors aim to stay true to Shakespeare’s text.

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Performances will take place from 31 July to 25 August at the C Too venue, St Columba’s by the Castle.

More from Secret Theatre.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival website and tickets.