Can you tell us a bit about digital innovations in GSC productions over the last 12 months and how you go about adapting Henry V to an online medium?
If somebody told me that over the course of the year we’d be presenting live theatre experiences from not only different rooms but also different parts of the country, and that the director for Henry V is on the Isle of Man and our stage manager elsewhere, and people all over the world will see it, I would have said: ‘Really? That’s not possible’. But in many ways it’s been really freeing from a creative point of view. In part, you’re dealing with a very different way of working because you are on screen and all of the cast are expected to be their own stage managers and technicians, with changing backgrounds, changing cameras, changing costumes, and transforming their bedrooms to green screen studios and things like that. As a company, we’ve been learning and the technology has evolved very quickly. Beth Mann, our resident Company Stage Manager, has designed all of the digital backgrounds and developed what is possible with them. So a lot of our success has been down to her creative genius: we’ve got moving backgrounds behind us with battlements on fire, but then we can turn off the video and suddenly I’m in my bedroom in front of a green screen. So there’s a wonderful rawness and immediacy, and perhaps one of the things that we have lacked with theatre in the last year or so is the immediacy of it and having a shared experience. GSC co-founder, Sarah Gobran, and I felt it was very important to recreate that shared, live experience as much as possible, for people sitting in their living rooms.
This medium ties in so nicely to the play’s prologue, doesn’t it? Working ‘on your imaginary forces’ and recognizing the limitations of theatre but also making strengths of that.
The Chorus asks, ‘Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?’, and asks the audience to ‘Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts’. And so this idea of just five actors presenting this epic story, which goes between countries and has huge battles, horses, and thousands of soldiers, is possible. Shakespeare says, ‘You’ve just got to imagine it’. There is a raw honesty about what it is that theatre stands for, the magic of that suspension of disbelief, transporting you to different places. And we’ve sought to harness that and bring it to the small screen online.
Matt, you’re playing multiple roles in this play, like Bardolph, Scroop, the Dauphin, Fluellen, Alice, Erpingham, and Bates. That kind of doubling seems eminently Shakespearian! Can you tell us more about the thinking behind having a smaller cast?
The original concept in our 2014 production of the play, which was adapted and directed by Caroline Devlin, was to have five actors in Henry V. And that was part of the challenge but also part of the joy for audiences, to see these actors transform into different characters. They change costume in front of the audience, put on a new character, and so often audiences come away saying, ‘I can’t believe there were only five actors in the curtain call!’ But I think, like you say, Darren, that there is a nod to the original practices of Shakespeare’s theatre, where the core team of actors would have been around just 10 to 15 strong.
We also love the fact that GSC put out an open call to aspiring artists – of any age, ability, and medium – to share their creative responses to this play. What was the thinking behind this wonderful offer of collaboration and how does it reflect GSC’s values?
A lot of creativity has been stifled in the last 12 months because there has been an inability to share in our normal ways. Our director, Caroline Devlin, felt that we could give people a platform because yes, Henry V is about blood and battles and crowns and things like that. But it’s also a play about hope and new beginnings. Henry inherits a country that has been ravaged by political infighting during his father’s reign. Henry transforms not only the fortunes of England and the crown in a period of crisis, but also people’s lives. We wanted to give aspiring artists the opportunity to engage with these themes and show what they can do. That collaboration is very important to GSC. We are very much part of our community here in Surrey. We’ve been going for 15 years now and part of our longevity is that our community here took us to their hearts and really feel that we are part of their cultural landscape and seasonal calendar. Our Education and Outreach department work with some 5000 people young and old every year, including free-to-access social inclusion programmes. I hope that in the last 12 months we have played our part in keeping the arts alive for our community and the freelancers we work with.
And what’s it like working with Caroline Devlin, who has directed around a dozen GSC shows?
It is the first time I’ve worked with Caroline and I’m so grateful. She’s a really open person and just gets to the heart of things. In lockdown I’ve been listening to lots of podcasts on management and being a leader and that is obviously reflected in playing Henry. I love working with a leader like Caroline, who gives you a relaxed feeling, because that’s when you do your best work, although we’re also doing very detailed work.
I agree there, Gavin. Caroline has this wonderful balance. In 2011, she directed Hamlet, which was her first show with us. And we were blown away by her forensic knowledge of the text, but also her vision for what she wanted onstage.
On that subject of leadership, what’s your approach to the character of Henry, Gavin? How do you interpret him as a leader?
I approach him as a young man who has taken a fragmented country and knows there are many people who question whether he’s actually up to the job, especially the Dauphin. I’m 32 and I know Henry was slightly younger at the time, albeit living in a different environment where you had to grow up very fast. That transition is where the interesting stuff happens in life and you see it happen to the character of Henry; he comes from an insecure place, knowing his own truth within him but not having put it out to the world. It’s make or break. You either step up or you don’t. And it’s so great to play a character who does step up and shows real courage. But you can’t have courage without experiencing fear, and I’m tapping into that in rehearsals: the internal challenges he faces as a young man, the big boots of his father while, at the same time, trying to carve his own way. It all leads up to those wonderful speeches, like the St Crispin’s Day speech.
So what are the key messages you’re seeking to convey with this production?
The key message, I suppose, comes back to what I was talking about with the invitation to collaborate with artists. The play is about hope and new beginnings. As the last 12 months have shown in lockdown, where we can only buy one packet of toilet roll when we get to the supermarket, and we can’t travel too far, and we need to avoid putting pressure on the NHS, we can come through this unprecedented time together. If we work together anything is achievable.
So this production offers hope in the midst of what has been a very bleak couple of years for audiences and creatives?
Absolutely. We want to reassure audiences that we’re still here for you. And give us another couple of months and we will be back on stage in front of you in the open air.
Can you tell us more about your fellow cast members?
Chris Porter, who is playing Exeter, Jamy, Duke of Bourbon, Duke of Burgundy, and Grey has worked for us since 2012, from playing Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows to Iago in Othello. Paula James, who is playing Westmoreland, Nym, Cambridge, King of France, Macmorris, Mountjoy, and Williams, was in Robin Hood and Love’s Labour’s Lost with Gavin. And Emily Tucker, who is playing the French ambassador, Katherine, Boy, Constable, Gower, and the Governor memorably played the Fool and Cordelia in King Lear alongside Brian Blessed, which was also directed by Caroline. We love finding new actors to work with but it is equally wonderful to know you have what you might call ‘family members’ who like to come back and work with us. It’s that ‘band of brothers’ idea, I guess.
Chris Porter, Paula James, and I did a mad eight weeks together in putting Robin Hood on in a forest area with drawbridges tied to the trees and then rehearsing Love’s Labour’s Lost during the day. It taps into why you do it: sharing an experience with an audience and fellow actors in such different environments; in this case it will be a green screen. As for Emily Tucker, I did National Youth Theatre with her aged 16. So it’s really funny actually, because I’ve not seen her for 15 years. She’s so fun and playful. As Matt said, it’s a family. It’s a real joy to finally work with her as well as the others again.
So you’ve not seen Emily for 15 years and now you’re wooing her in the guise of Katherine of Valois! How do you approach that scene near the close of the play? On one level you could be cynical and say Henry is just being politically pragmatic. Or is there genuineness to the courtship?
We’re going to play that relationship as very authentic and genuine. Henry could just demand the marriage in the context of the play. But the writing is so warm and human. It’s not just a tactical ploy. I don’t think you can really fake the authenticity that Shakespeare touches upon between those two people. When you have a connection with someone, you can just feel it. And that’s what makes Katherine so keen to learn English. It’s like finally getting to see your crush who you always had a thing for. Nervousness comes with that. I’m thinking of Notting Hill when Julia Roberts says that although she’s a movie star, really she’s just a girl standing in front of a boy. Maybe that’s where Richard Curtis got it from. Hah, I get it now! I’m really looking forward to doing that scene.
It’s so lovely hearing you both speak about GSC as a family.
We’re climbing a mountain and going on an escapade together, working as a team. I love watching everyone in rehearsal and I’m really enjoying it.
Our rehearsal time is compressed. We’re doing tech rehearsals at the same time as first-time scene rehearsals. But this affords that ‘Let’s put the play on right here’ energy.
You can book tickets for Henry V – Online, 22-25 April 2021, Adapted and Directed by Caroline Devlin, now from the Guildford Shakespeare Company.