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An interview with a Shakespeare Impresario

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The [Blackfriars] did the three Henry VI plays, one at a time, over the course of three seasons, with Richard III coming up next year.

We did a four-play repertoire of Shakespeare comedies and the Scottish play while rehearsing the entire Henriad. So I had actors who had nine playscripts in their book over a four-month period. Most recently, when we did the Henry VI plays, we did a similar thing where we had to do a repertoire of plays we knew in order to get the rehearsal time for the Henry plays over a two-month period. I'd come to the conclusion that if the Queen of England showed up on our stage and requested a fortnight's entertainment, we could do a different Shakespeare play every night for 14 days—not only that, we could do them well.

How many actors did you use for that?

I used 31. And I shouldn't have. It didn't require nearly as many as I thought. [He gets up from his chair, crosses to the other side of the room, picks up a T-shirt and brings it over to me. The T-shirt says “31 actors, 152 speaking roles, 17 battles, 38 unnatural deaths, seven severed heads, 3 parts of Henry VI.”] For somebody who does as much Shakespeare as me, you'd think I would be wise enough to understand it.

Especially when you get to the second part, the [casting] chart for it is just unbelievably massive. There are so many parts, so many people doing so many different things that my assumption was you needed a big company. That isn't the case. I didn't get it until we were doing revision nine or ten on the casting grid, and then I realized I actually only had five or six people who had massive line loads. Everybody else had smaller line loads because they were doing so many different parts. So many of those characters in those first two plays are doing functionary things, and they're introduced as Keeper One, Keeper Two, the Mayor of London and the Mayor of So and So, and they're only there for a brief amount of time. I think the entire thing could be done certainly with 21 actors, but more likely with 18 if you really doubled the men and women, maybe even fewer. I did have a lot of people who were just in one part or maybe they were in two parts; they had day jobs and we farmed them in. So I wasn't hell bent for leather to make it as small a company as possible, which is what I would try to do next time.

[Theaters] often take the three of these plays and squeeze them into two evenings, which is a really dumb thing to do. Number one, it's dumb because you could have sold three tickets and you chose to sell two. No wonder you're going broke. The other thing is, my final conclusion after doing the whole project was that those plays had been revised and streamlined over many, many, many years and that there was not a wasted syllable in the whole darn thing; there's no fat. I assumed there was, because they were like three-hour plays and there's three of them, so I assumed there was a lot of junk in there that didn't need to be there. Not so. Those plays were already refined, and they were already refined for a small acting company. Now, if you start pulling scenes out, then suddenly the doubling isn't going to work as well and you have to add actors to it.

They turned out to be just enormously gratifying plays, extremely well structured, and they had a lovely progression all the way through and it was just meaty and chopping heads off on stage…
Carrying heads on stage.
Carrying them on. But you know it was a progression too because you had to get into the second part before the heads started coming out. They had the one thing where the guy says, “Well, who's this dead soldier?” “Oh, I know this guy, I hated this guy, ‘Hey, you're not doing so well now, are you?'” and they're doing a ventriloquist act with this dead guy, and then they drop him and they say, “Take his head off.” So then you have to cut that head off on stage. “Give it here.” And scurry up to the battlement and, “Bring me that head.” They're tossing heads back and forth from the upper plane to the lower plane, and if you're going to follow the stage directions you have to do it on stage. What fun to get to do that, to figure out how to cut the head off on stage and work it in with the text. That's the kind of stuff that some idiot with a blue pencil comes in hacking through there because they're worried about their running time, and then they wind up missing the good bits. We got to where we just relished those crazy stage directions.

You like those plays as much as I do.

Oh, man, those are the best plays. If I ever get to where I do them again, and I certainly hope that does happen for me, I'm going to keep them in the repertoire for two or even three years. And I'm just not going to quit until everybody and their dog sees the damn things, because they are just so gratifying. It's just like a big meaty meal, and you get to see all levels of society; there's so much comedy in them you'd never know if you didn't have the nerve to go there.

I had some really good comedic actors. I had one guy, an English guy [John Curran] playing the gunner of France in Part One, and he was just dead serious. Normally, I do the casting and I'd have to stick with it, but with that massive project I did do some recasting after we started rehearsing because I just couldn't get my head around that many people. Maurice Ralston, he was available, so to John I said, “This isn't for you, let's take you out of that one and, Maurice, why don't you do that?” Maurice found this really ridiculous hat and he came out and [speaking Monty Pythonesque French], “I am the gunner of France!” [Laughs] He just had us in the aisles. And then little Matthew Felton came in with his little linstock and he picked right up on it and he's going, “Ah, poppa, how are you this fine day?!” So he's giving this instruction using this goofy French accent, and, oh man, it was just so satisfying to do that. Then, later, Maurice was a Welshman, so he got his hair all pouffed up and was using this outrageous pompous Welsh accent.

Got to make fun of everybody with an accent. It was good. Shakespeare would have approved.

The topic I want to get into is the fact that you've done every play in the canon.
And then some [laughs], like you saw last night.
By the way, I'm convinced that there is some Shakespeare hidden in that.

Well, then you're nuts [laughs]. The guy who foisted that onto the world [was the third influential editor of Shakespeare's works]. But I cannot hear the intelligence, certainly not late Shakespeare, which is what it would have had to have been.

Some of the stuff in Two Noble Kinsmen is pretty obtuse stuff. It's hard to get through. I don't think late Shakespeare is necessarily his best poetry.

Our Two Noble Kinsmen was terrific. Everybody wants us to keep it in the repertoire, and I will definitely bring that play back. We did do some cutting. But we know that was a collaboration. So when you say a little obtuse, there's some truth to that.

But any of those speeches [in Double Falsehood], certainly at the end when you start talking about what a parent is and the lieutenants of God, when I hear that stuff, I don't hear the intelligence, I don't hear the structure. The thing that's closest to Shakespeare in the whole thing is the Prologue, which is clearly written by a guy doing a homage to Shakespeare.

As opposed to say Edward III, which is of questionable provenance. But when I heard that, especially when I heard it night after night, the messenger speeches in particular are Shakespeare to the nth degree. Very early Shakespeare. And having just done the Henry Sixes, I decided for myself that Edward III is a Shakespeare play. Personally, I think it's his first play because it's not really producible—having produced it, I can say that; because of the structure of the story it would take too much work to make it producible. In my experience of having gone through all the Shakespeare, he wasn't very big for rewriting things. There's a lot of clunky stuff in the Shakespeare plays that could have easily been a little bit better with just a tiny bit of effort, but he chose not to do that. Now, he did rework certain things for certain purposes, to accommodate something that happened. But they weren't big on rewriting things. And Edward III, the plots don't complement or support each other. There was no back and forth, there was no structural building of tension, there was no multiple storyline; you do one thing and then you do the other. In order to break that apart and figure out how to make it work, a whole new thing would have had to have been added, and I think it was too much work and didn't happen.

The scholars say Edward III was not done because it makes fun of the Scots. It's only one little section, less than 200 lines. They could have easily made him a Welshman or anything else they wanted to make fun of. They could have just changed his name, made him King of the Welsh, could have made him the King of Bohemia, for all that mattered. It would have been very easy to rewrite that aspect of it without rewriting a single syllable, just change the guy's name.

Like he did with Oldcastle.

Yeah. Yeah. That's the kind of rewriting they would do. But it's structurally not there.

Next year we're doing the Evolution Series where we're going to do all the comedies in the order that they were written, and we're consulting with Gary Taylor, Stanley Wells, and a bunch of other hotshots at [the Royal Shakespeare Company] on the order of Shakespeare's plays. They put Edward III after the Henry VI plays, and after two or three of the comedies. I look at that and I just go, “You're nuts.” I'm sorry, you know? This was a journeyman's play, it was at the beginning, and if you assume that you have all these plays by one guy and one of them had to be the first, that's the odds-on favorite in my perspective.

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