The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gregory Doran completes his ambitious ‘King and Country’ tetralogy with rising star Alex Hassell in the title role of Henry V

[Images by Keith Pattison for the RSC]

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With the 600th anniversary of Agincourt on 25 October, Doran’s production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a standout tribute to both Shakespeare and the battle that helped define British history.

Returning to the role he so effortlessly made his own (opposite Antony Sher’s Falstaff) in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Alex Hassell is undoubtedly the star of the show.

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By the time he’s reciting the legendary St Crispin’s Day speech, Hassell deploys Shakespeare’s words so powerfully that the audience is ready to leap up and follow him into battle.

Hassell also brings some comedy to role of the English king who has left his notoriously misspent youth behind him.

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A particular highlight is the meeting of Henry and the French princess, Katherine, played by Jennifer Kirby. Hassell plays the scene as a Hugh Grant-type character as he petitions his prospective wife to love him whilst overcoming a language barrier.

Alex Hassell is definitely an actor to keep a close eye on as he progresses through his Shakespearean career.

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Other performances that stand out include Oliver Ford Davies as the cardigan-wearing Chorus, Antony Byrne as the fiery Pistol and Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel.

Despite Lapotaire only appearing in Act V, her presence is spellbinding and it’s a pleasure to witness her commanding the stage.

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The entire production was captivating from start to finish, and certainly a strong ending to the RSC’s run of history plays over the last couple of years.

Henry V will transfer to London’s Barbican Theatre in November before moving the New York in April 2016.

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Go here to book tickets for Henry V at the Barbican.

“Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point…” Teacher and Hour-Long Shakespeare author Matthew Jenkinson offers his tips on approaching Shakespeare with young people

“All’s Well That Ends Well is funny – if you’re fluent in Shakespearean English!” protested one GCSE English pupil to me recently. It is not an uncommon complaint, along with assertions that Shakespeare’s plays are too complicated or difficult for many school children. Well, quite rightly Shakespeare is not going to go away; quite the opposite, as the new National Curriculum puts even greater emphasis on his works.

So how can parents or teachers aid in the understanding of Shakespeare among their pupils or children? The most empowering thing you can say, at first, is “Do not worry about understanding all (or any) of the words”. It is amazing how quickly a pupil’s brain can shut down because they are panicking about ‘getting’ everything the first time around. Understanding comes with time, re-reading, and patient explanation.

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It is also enhanced by watching Shakespeare on the stage. But parents and teachers need to be judicious about this. Watching a poor stage production will have pupils running a mile in the opposite direction, and they certainly won’t feel inclined to explore the text in any greater depth. Watching a great stage production can have the opposite effect.

There is no need to traipse long distances to Stratford or London these days either. The Globe Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, respectively, have released some excellent DVDs of their recent stage productions. So you can now break up three-hour-long productions in the classroom or at home, pausing to discuss what is happening or to go to the loo.

Attending a live production can be exhilarating, but I would wait until the children have gained some traction. Making them stand in the rain at The Globe for three hours, as a first experience of Shakespeare, probably won’t have them begging for more.

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Watching a live performance enables pupils to work out plots by seeing the interaction between characters and hearing the tone employed by expert actors. I have used Roger Allam’s Falstaff scenes, performed at The Globe in 2010, to convey to pupils what happens in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. I have been amazed at how much laughter has come from individuals who just would not have understood the text if we had merely read it from the page.

The other way to get children engaged with Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, acting out parts. Again, a sensitive and judicious approach is necessary here. First of all, the choice of play is vital. Titus Andronicus probably wouldn’t be the best starting point. Parents and teachers also need to be understanding of the fact that many pupils, especially as they stumble through adolescence, will be quite reticent about standing up and delivering elaborate metaphors.

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There are two powerful ways to counter this. The first is to create a culture in school and at home where drama is an everyday feature – it is not nerdy or distant. The second – obviously – is to ‘differentiate’ the casting, ensuring that the allocation of parts reflects the confidence and ability of the pupils. Giving a reticent child the part of Macbeth will put them off Shakespeare for life, as will giving a confident actor the part of First Servingman. One of the joys of Shakespeare’s history plays, in particular, is the number of roles available, with differing levels of intensity; every pupil can find their niche.

There are very few schools out there that will be able to stage a full three-hour Shakespeare play, which is why I have been editing a new series of abridged versions in the Hour-Long Shakespeare series. As the title suggests, each play lasts about an hour when performed, with central characters and the overall narrative arcs preserved. This is by no means a novel project – the plays have been abridged since Shakespeare’s day, as evidenced by the discovery in 2014 of a First Folio in St Omer, France, in which Jesuits made cuts to suit their pupils.

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What is new about the Hour-Long series, aside from some original scene shifting (don’t use these texts in exams!), is the use of a Chorus in all of the plays. Shakespeare himself famously used a Chorus in Henry V, for example, but adopting this device in other plays enables any number of pupils to get involved as narrators, offering summaries of excised sections of plot, or acting as Roman citizens in Julius Caesar, the tyrant’s conscience in Richard III, or the witches in Macbeth – all with the text still in front of them.

Removing the pressures of learning vast amounts of lines, or spending too long on the stage, enables usually reticent pupils to engage with Shakespeare in performance. Maintaining juicy title roles with headline speeches attracts those keen actors who are ready for something more challenging. In sum, Shakespeare hopefully becomes more manageable for those who would normally be scared off.

Matthew Jenkinson is director of studies at New College School in Oxford. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Henry IV (Part 1), Henry V and Richard III is available now, priced £10. Hour-Long Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Julius Cesar will be published in September.

Even people who aren’t sure what a soliloquy is know that Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” is the most famous soliloquy in theatre history. There’s just one problem. It’s not actually a soliloquy.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

David Tennant played Hamlet with the RSC in 2008.

 

“To be or not to be…”

Spoken by the title character of Hamlet, the most famous speech in the history of theatre is 34 lines and 271 words long. Apart from providing titles for (or being quoted in) countless other plays, poems, novels, TV shows and movies, it has also appeared on posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and keyrings. It’s even been translated into Klingon (“taH pagh taHbe”). There are at least 379,000 hits on the internet for the first line alone.

This speech is many, many things. One thing it is not, however, is a soliloquy.

Maxine Peake's Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet debuted last year at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

The image of the ‘lone prince’, so endemic on the stage, duly made the transition to TV and motion pictures. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version placed Hamlet alone on a windswept tower of Elsinore. Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 version is another lone Hamlet, this time walking along the Danish shore. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film sees Hamlet alone in his father’s sepulchre. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film places Hamlet in a mirrored hall, practically alone but for Ophelia hiding out of sight. Peter Wellington’s 2003 adaptation of the speech for the series Slings & Arrows features a seated, lone Hamlet. Gregory Doran’s 2009 TV adaptation of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet has David Tennant’s Hamlet all alone, with Ophelia scurrying off immediately before the speech and tromping back on just as he finishes saying “Soft you now.”

New play 'Women Playing Hamlet' offers a fresh take on "To be or not to be" in 2015.

New play ‘Women Playing Hamlet’ offers a fresh take on “To be or not to be” in 2015.

Despite the entrenchment of the lone Hamlet on our cultural understanding of Hamlet, when we study the six quarto and three folio printings that comprise the original texts, we find the following: one, that the famous speech cannot be a soliloquy; two, that the entering Hamlet should know he is being spied upon; three, that Ophelia’s presence must be addressed; and, fourth and lastly, that Hamlet may be reading as he enters the scene.
My methodology does need some explanation. I believe in the primacy of the text: dramatic texts are the most important factor in creating a production. The words of a text are the skeleton of a play, and basing one’s interpretation on elements not in the text is problematic at best. Now, I’m not trying to say there is only one way of doing any play or moment from a play. I only distinguish between two kinds of performances – those that agree with the text and those that do not.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2007 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2007 Hamlet.

Soliloquies feature lone speakers, but all nine original Hamlet printings agree that Hamlet is not alone, as Ophelia is also onstage throughout the speech. Therefore, the classical understanding of “soliloquy” does not apply.
Further, the “To be or not to be” speech features none of the characteristics of Hamlet’s actual soliloquies. In those speeches, he follows a pattern – he speaks about Claudius, the late King Hamlet, and, usually, Gertrude. Hamlet does discuss his family with some other characters, but when he knows he is accompanied by potential spies, he stays away from the topic of his family. The “What a piece of work is a man” speech, delivered just after Hamlet discovers he cannot trust Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, is an elaborate deception. When Hamlet delivers his speech to appease his friends-turned-spies, he does not mention the circumstances of his father’s murder. He only mentions the King and Queen as the people to whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must report.
“I will tell you why, so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather.”

Gamut Theatre's 2015 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2015 Hamlet.

Since “To be or not to be” takes place with others on stage, and since it deviates from the patterns Shakespeare established in Hamlet’s actual soliloquies, it cannot be a soliloquy. Since the speech is not a soliloquy, it cannot be staged as a soliloquy and still be faithful to the text. Text-based stagings focus on what is written. For instance, Hamlet, entering into the scene, knows he is being observed. The original printings agree that, by this moment in the play, Hamlet has discovered that his schoolmates have been dispatched by the King to spy on him. Further, all but one of the printings agree that Hamlet enters into the scene because he has been sent for by the King. The remaining printing, the First Quarto, does not mention this at all. What happens next is a strange division; all folio printings agree that the King and Polonius hide before Hamlet enters, while all quartos state they exit after Hamlet enters.

Peter O'Toole's legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

Peter O’Toole’s legendary 1957 Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic.

The quarto texts allow Hamlet to see the King and his crony hide; Hamlet would clearly know he is being spied upon. In all three folio printings, the King and Polonius exit before Hamlet enters the scene. Even if a director chooses the folio option, it is still reasonable that Hamlet knows he is being spied upon. Hamlet already suspects Claudius on some level before the action of the play, as evidenced by his response to the Ghost’s news that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father: “O my prophetic soul! / Mine uncle?”
The King has just sent for Hamlet. If, as in the folios, Hamlet enters not seeing the King and Polonius, he still has another reason to be suspicious: the King is absent, but Ophelia is directly in his path.
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Let’s talk about Ophelia and the issue of the silent actor. In order to stage the scene, we must have a better understanding of Ophelia and her relationship with Hamlet. She has only appeared twice before, in scenes revolving around her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia speaks on this subject with her father, Polonius, saying her relationship with Hamlet is an honorable and affectionate one that has included every promise, save that of matrimony. Polonius dismisses this as Hamlet merely wanting to master her chaste treasure and commands her to never see Hamlet again.
When Ophelia is placed in Hamlet’s way, she is being used to provoke her boyfriend into showing why he is behaving so strangely. This is part of Polonius’ plan to discover if Hamlet is mad for his daughter’s love. Claudius accedes to the plan and, immediately before Hamlet’s entrance, describes his plan to Gertrude, that Hamlet should “affront” Ophelia.
The meaning of the word “affront” is crucial: “to put oneself in the way of so as to meet; to accost, address.” By strategically placing Ophelia onstage, Polonius and Claudius mean for her to come face to face with Hamlet so they can hear what follows between them. As a result, Ophelia could be Hamlet’s audience, either in part or in whole.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2001 Hamlet.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2001 Hamlet.

Before this passionate meeting, there is one more discovery to address: what Hamlet is doing as he enters the scene. The First Quarto offers a fascinating option. In it, before Hamlet enters for “To be or not to be”, the King says, “see where he comes poring upon a book.” This is similar to Gertrude’s statement in an earlier scene, “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading,” which appears in all other printings of the story. It may be the First Quarto misplaces Hamlet’s entrance, but this anomaly bears study. Hamlet does have a book in other scenes, so a Hamlet who enters reading can be textually valid. In fact, the book he reads may still exist.
Douce in 1839 and Hunter in 1845 noted that Girolamo Cardano’s 1576 book Comfort includes passages very similar to a portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“…saying, that [death] did not only remove sickness and all other griefs but… what should we accompt of death to be resembled to anything better then sleep… and to die is said to sleep.”
Compare all this talk of death, the easing of griefs, and sleeping to this famous portion of Hamlet’s speech:
“To die – to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”

Gamut Theatre's 2011 Hamlet.

Gamut Theatre’s 2011 Hamlet.

A reading Hamlet opens up a new possibility to the speech. If Hamlet is reading about death, his speech might refer to the book. Shakespeare gives us a similar situation in Henry IV, Part One, where, examining a letter from a confederate, Hotspur reads a phrase and then makes a scathing response. If this formula were applied to Hamlet’s speech, “the question” may refer to ideas raised in the book itself. A staging using this reading can allow the prop to help explain why Hamlet is in this frame of mind.
Studying the original texts with a respect for their primacy reveals that the cherished long-established vision of Hamlet simply does not agree with the text. The options revealed by the text and its established circumstances are many and must be explored in a production. After studying the evidence, I staged the scene two different ways. In the first, Hamlet entered reading, responded to the book like Hotspur in Henry IV, and discussed the contents with Ophelia. In the second staging, I took Hamlet’s book away, allowed him to see Claudius and Polonius exit, and had him confess his dark thoughts to Ophelia.
The first staging was greatly intellectual. Hamlet mused about the ideas of death, sharing them on that level with Ophelia. This Hamlet is the consummate philosopher, matching wits with Ophelia and even referring to the book she is carrying. The concepts of death and release are explored with great cerebral impact, so much so that, in directing a full production, I can easily see Hamlet reading voraciously through the early stages of the play.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

Haunting poster image for the upcoming Barbican Hamlet which will star Benedict Cumberbatch.

The second staging focused upon the circumstances of the characters. Hamlet, knowing he is spied upon, takes refuge in the arms of his forbidden love but is unable to tell her the whole truth of his problems. Ophelia, torn by duty to her father, her King, and her love, must react to Hamlet’s considering death and suicide. This staging speaks to the troubles as written by Shakespeare and had great emotional and visceral impact. Similar to the first staging, I can see a full production of this sort of Hamlet.
These are two very different interpretations of the “To be or not to be” speech, but it is vital to remember they are both based on Shakespeare’s texts.
“So what?” you may be thinking. “Why is this important?” Well, for hundreds of years the theatre world has embraced a version of Hamlet that does not agree with the words Shakespeare wrote. Elsewhere in Hamlet, Shakespeare commands “suit the action to the word”, charging us to base our versions of his work on the words he left behind. He did the job of a playwright well, creating the skeleton of his plays. It falls to us to give that skeleton a heart, a soul, and scars.

This article originally appeared in Shakespeare Magazine Issue 6. Go here to see the original version.

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.

Revolution Shakespeare performs Orson Welles’ Five Kings in Philadelphia Museum of Art

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To continue the US celebrations of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Revolution Shakespeare is staging Orson Welles’ Five Kings - a five-hour adaptation of Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V – in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

When Welles first staged (and starred in) Five Kings in 1938, the massive length hindered the production, forcing it to close amidst negative reviews before it finished its tour.

The original vision for the production entailed a second part to cover Henry VI and Richard III. However, after the negative reception of the first part, Welles never finished the second.

To make it more manageable, Revolution has divided the play into five one-hour performances and is presenting one portion of the play each week.

Rather than taking place on a stage, each performance is in a different gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The locations range from the rotunda - featuring Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – as the stage for Hal’s carousing, to the French Chapel for Henry V’s wooing of the French princess.

Taking place every Wednesday in July, performances start at 6pm. All performances are “Pay What You Wish”, and will feature a brief recap of the previous instalment for those who might have missed it.

Go here for more information.

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