Day 16: June 10, 2019
“Let me try something.” Frankie Alvarez who is reading Prince Hal in H4.1
Ah, it’s a double day in which we welcome MERRY WIVES and HENRY 4.2 into the house. Playwright Yvette Nolan and dramaturg Waylon Lenk are already here working on H4.1. They have devised quite the schedule to be able to bounce back and forth between rooms. Thank goodness our line producer Sally Cade set us up in the same building.
It’s also the first day for Sophie. For some inexplicable reason, she thinks it is a fun way to spend three weeks of her summer vacation before heading to college traipsing around trying to keep track of me. Send her all the best. I’ve never had an assistant before but it’s clear that someone needs to be in charge of me.
For other inexplicable reasons that I cannot recall, we had decided some time ago that Taylor would get a few days away. I am hating him big time right now, because I am suddenly in the hot seat. I am not a calm presence. I was an Equity stage manager once (this should frighten everyone) and I did manage to stop before someone got really hurt. But I’m not good in an emergency. I have a laugh reflex that kicks in when a crisis happens. And in general that’s not a helpful response. (It does explain, however, my deep empathy for laughter as an involuntary response. And how I rarely think laughter is an inappropriate response in the theater. In real life, not such much, as my nephew used to say. But theater is the safe place to explore “contentious subjects.” Perhaps all plays are problem plays with that definition?)
So we have three Falstaffs in the house for two days. It is often a production concept to cast the same actor as Prince Hal in the Henry 4’s and Henry 5. As well as cast the same actor as Falstaff in the two Henry 4’s. We can’t do that this time, as the rehearsals overlap because I want to hear them in a rapid-fire sequence. And so it is that we have cast three different actors as Falstaff, and three different actors as Prince Hal in the Henry 4’s and King Henry 5 in Henry 5. (There are four Bardolphs too, who, like Hal/Henry, may be the only character in all four plays.)
I want to test these translations on many levels. How fast can the actors get to the heart of the matter if they aren’t spending that much time poring over footnotes, for instance. How easy is it for actors with less Shakespeare experience to get into the flow of the language. And conversely, how do actors with such experience use that experience in this process. (In one of our first workshops, we had cast a very experienced Shakespeare actor to read for us. And when he came into the room, he said to me, “Lue, you don’t need me to speak this text.” I smiled, and said, “Perhaps that will be true, but thank you for being a part of this workshop.” We read the play, and afterwards, he said, “Oh, I see why you wanted someone with my experience. The thoughts are still spread out over many lines and follow the thought pattern of the original.” I smiled again. “Yes,” I said, “honoring that structure is what I am asking the playwrights to do.” He had come in with a pre-conceived notion that we were dumbing down the language. I don’t know why people have jumped to that conclusion. We have said over and over again that’s not what we are doing. And still and yet, people are skeptical. Until they hear one.
Having these sets of actors is like a living laboratory. What will we learn about those two characters. I also placed MWW in between because there is something about the character of Falstaff in that play that I think is useful for how Falstaff behaves in part two? Something about being humiliated in a “joking” way sets us up for him being devastated in a real way at the end of part two. I doubt we will ever know how Shakespeare plotted these plays. Whether he just dashed off MWW because Queen Elizabeth wanted a play about the fat knight. (This is an apocryphal story, by the way, that first came to light some 100 years later.)
There’s a lot of decisions one must make re: a staged reading. Aside from the usual things – how to distinguish characters, what stage directions are needed, how to do the fight scenes – we are discovering the challenge of what we are calling “music stand-ography” and “cup-o-sack-ography.” Some readings are asking for real letters – a request came in for parchment paper – and some are miming swords and goblets. But sometimes it’s just helpful to have some facsimile of the item being described.
I slip into the H4.1 room as Hal is playing his practical trick on poor Francis. And Frankie, who’s reading Hal, gets this idea about how to use the row of music stands during the scene. Francis is being pulled between Hal and Poins, who is in another room shouting for him, and in order to create more tension and make Francis work even harder, Frankie moves one stand at a time away from where Poins is standing and Paul Kite, who is reading Francis, has further to run in between them. It’s a great illustration of matching staging with the emotional tensions in a scene.
And the fun begins for translator Yvette Nolan and dramaturg Waylon Lenk, as H4.2 begins today. They have plotted how to split up the duties between the two rooms. And the tone between the two rooms couldn’t be starker. But that’s because the tone of those two plays is stark. Part One full of life; Part Two, the decline of life.
Meanwhile in Windsor, using characters from the Henrys but placing them in contemporary times (aka 1600), the cast is trying to land the plot. It seems like it’s all plot. I know there is some poetry in there – Fenton has a moment, maybe? – but really, it’s about driving long prose. They are exhausted by the end of the day. And true to form, the comedy rooms aren’t exactly a laugh riot. Tasso’s trying to figure out what a Welsh accent might sound like – as if most of us would ever know! – and they’re trying to figure out conventions for getting Jake, aka Falstaff, into a buck basket.
I placed MUCH ADO at the end of our second week for several reasons: one is that I thought a comedy on a Monday night might appeal to people. I had no idea that the Public Theater’s MUCH ADO was going to open the next night, but Dave Hitz did. And so he will hear our reading tonight and then attend the Public production tomorrow night. I am looking forward to hearing how our translation is a good prep for attending a production of Shakespeare’s texts.
The second reason is because I find it a kind of transition piece. We just went through six plays with a high percentage of poetry in them, and in this play, Shakespeare is striking more of a balance. And the comedies are getting more serious, certainly beginning with MERCHANT, which is listed in the comedy column in the First Folio. In MERCHANT it is not the nobility that sets off the action, but, rather, those in economic power. In MUCH ADO it is the actions of the noble class that turn the world upside down. I think all Shakespeare plays deal with issues of abuse of power, whether it is economic, political, religious, or domestic. And we’re about the enter the Henriad (Henry 4.1, 4.2, 5) in which we will watch the maturing and making of a king. (You get to decide how earnest or cynical Shakespeare is in these portrayals.)
There is a really nice sized house for the reading. Ranjit Bolt, the translator, was one of the first writers I approached about this project more than seven years ago. I had worked with him on a TARTUFFE at OSF years ago, and loved working with him. He has a flair for the classical comedy. He’s also British, and there are some phrases that make sense to a British ear than does to an American one. Dramaturg Lydia Garcia and I think we have scrubbed most of those, but there are some curious holdovers. The assignment to the writers was not that they have to fix everything. Good golly, there have been 400 years of scholarship and productions since they were first written, and there are still things people don’t quite grasp. So I just asked that they see what they can figure out.
Some people think that MUCH ADO is actually LOVE’S LABOUR’S WON which is name of a play for sale according to a bookseller’s list that has been recently found. There is a connection between Rosaline/Berowne and Beatrice/Benedick. Perhaps the former are the first draft for the second. But here’s the thing: I don’t think B&B are very funny. Their jokes don’t land – and I don’t know if it’s because they are so British, or what. For me, this is a clue about how you have to enter the play. You have to enter it as true. Shakespeare is hitting a stride with writing character and situational comedies, not farces with two-dimensional characters.
There is a huge challenge with this play because there is such a dramatic tonal change that must take place. In the recent OSF production directed by Lileana Blaine-Cruz, at the moment that Claudio accuses Hero of being unfaithful, the petals dropped from the canopy above their heads and the stage lights went from a soft sunlight to a stark florescent. It illustrated how big that moment was for sure. And still with those clues, it’s hard to grab our attentions to something really serious. Because we know it’s much ado about nothing. We’re privy to the plot, we know Hero is chaste, and the Don Juan is the malcontent trying to muck up anything he can.
Still, the actors in that moment, believe that what they saw is the truth – seeing is believing, right? – and Hero is so shocked that she faints “dead away” as we used to say when we play-acted as kids. What was so interesting about hearing this play is that i think we were able to make that tonal shift and go along with the characters because we were in on the plot, and I found myself interested to see how it would unravel, not be worried about the realism of it.
Without the gestures or clownish clothes or pratfalls, there is much more in these comedies than people realize. And that has been a great outcome of this play reading series.
Tomorrow H5 comes into the house. The year of 1599 will officially begin.