From Stratford to Stratford – A Day at The Royal Shakespeare Company

The view of Stratford-Upon-Avon from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The view of Stratford-Upon-Avon from the RSC.

One thing our job involves is seeing productions before they reach us on tour. While an enjoyable task these trips help give us a sense of the production: how it will fit into the space of our theatre, who potential audiences might be, and allowing us to meet production and marketing teams.

Last month our Arts Marketing Trainee Nadia Newstead got the chance to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Parts I and II, both with us this November. Here’s how she got on…

Shakespeare’s History plays make me nervous. There’s always the slight concern that towards the interval I will get very twitchy or will have fallen asleep, despite my best efforts to try to prise my eyes open. You’re in a warm dark space, with actors reciting wonderful language – worryingly perfect conditions for a small snooze!

So when myself and Katherine, the Arts Management Trainee, headed up to Stratford-upon-Avon from Stratford (London) extremely early a couple of weeks ago I was more worried than usual. I was already very tired and I needed to be able to talk confidently to staff about the plays.

Katherine as we arrived at the RSC.

Katherine as we arrived at the RSC.

First things first – coffee, followed by a lovely discussion with Jeremy Adams, the producer, and Owen Horsley, the assistant director. They both talked about the plays warmly, emphasising the fact that they were not your typical history plays, there were some very funny moments and that there’s no need to see them in order or even both: they stand alone as separate pieces of drama.

I was rather sceptical. I know that when you are involved in a production you see it differently to an audience member, no matter how much you try to put yourself in their shoes. So after a re-fuel (lunch) and a chat with some of the staff (who were all absolutely lovely) we headed into Henry IV, Part I.

For the first ten minutes, the typical Shakespeare History play format played out: between two-four men enter stage and discuss the state of affairs in England and then exit, followed by a different two-four men from the opposite side, who enter, discuss the same affairs and then exit, and so on and so forth.

However, the mood quickly shifts when we enter the world of the Elizabethan tavern with Prince Hal, played by Alex Hassell, and Sir John Falstaff, played by Antony Sher. I smiled, I giggled inwardly, I laughed out loud. They weren’t lying – it was really funny!

Quite a large part of both plays is a slanging match of various Shakespearean insults between the tavern characters. ‘[Thou] leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, knot-pated, agatering, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch!’ is just one of many from Henry IV Part I.

Reading through my programme during the interval I discovered why these tavern culture scenes exist in what could otherwise be an extremely serious and classic history play.

The history was fascinating. Henry IV took the throne from Richard II who was forced to abdicate and then murdered in prison by Henry. Taking the throne from the rightful king was something that did not sit well with Elizabeth I. She even imprisoned a historian in the Tower of London for writing a book about Henry IV. As a woman on the throne, the need to cling onto power was paramount and to have someone circulating a precedent for effectively stealing the crown was something that she couldn’t abide.

And so to avoid trouble but still make a point, Shakespeare focused on the tavern culture of the time, and the father-son relationship, with Henry IV despairing of the company his wayward teenage son was keeping. The on-stage chemistry between Hassel and Sher is lovely to watch and through the lack of scenes with his royal father, you really get a sense that Falstaff has become a father figure to the young prince, although perhaps not leading him in the right direction.

Antony Sher as Sir John Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Antony Sher as Sir John Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I. Photo by Kwame Lestrade.

Antony Sher as Falstaff is sublime. His comic timing and way with the language makes every line perfectly understandable and engaging. His scenes with Oliver Ford Davies in Henry IV Part II are both funny and moving as two older men try to battle on in life, with the civil war raging on in the background.

As with most Shakespearean comedy, the laughter rarely exists without pathos and these scenes between the two older gentlemen, and also those at the end between the dying King and his son, are filled with emotion.

This is not high-brow Shakespeare where you can only grasp every other speech; this is accessible to all and displays true human feeling.

And so, I have to swallow my words and agree with those who know the play best – these productions are accessible, they are funny, they are not your typical history plays and you don’t need to see both to grasp the narrative. I would thoroughly recommend them to sceptics and Shakespeare addicts alike, and encourage them to relish in the throwing off of any pre-conceived ideas and just enjoy the plays!

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Parts I and II come to The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury from Tuesday 11 – Saturday 15 November.

Part II will be screened at the Gulbenkian on Wednesday 18 June. Check out this video trailer.