Why Henry V and why all-female?
Matt Dann (Director): I think that the play, as well as being about war and nationhood, which are the themes which are quite regularly explored in the play, is about performance and the nature of performance in relation to war. So we have in the play the device of the chorus, which isn’t a device Shakespeare regularly employs, where at the beginning of Henry V the chorus comes on and says: we can’t show you battlefields and horses and armies so you’re going to have to use your imagination to flesh out what we can provide.
The all-female cast was tapping into that idea; so we’re not trying to buy into the idea of this cast of female actors as men from medieval history, you have to use your thoughts to furnish the performances that they give. So the line “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” was really the motivating factor behind the production and I wanted to explore the meta-theatre with a female company.
How was the experience of casting the play? Is there a wealth of talent?
MD: There’s a wealth of female acting talent in Durham and a lot of it I think is tragically under-used. I mean it’s just a sad fact that a lot of plays out there, particularly older plays which are done a lot here, we don’t have so much modern drama done, tend to be very male-centred. Which means you can get female actors who don’t get to play the sort of parts that their talent merits. So this is partly about giving an opportunity to that wide body of the female acting talent in Durham.
In terms of casting Henry V, it’s a play where there’s a whole range of social classes. We go from the King and his court to the very lowest of the low in terms of the English conscript. And then we’ve got the French, representations of Welsh, Irish, Scottish, so yeah, fortunately there’s a great mix of parts as well as a great body of talent. A variety which is wonderful; I feel like we have a real mix of talent on display.
Does the all-female aspect shed any light on the conventionally male sphere of warfare?
MD: Yes, I think there are certain elements in the play which you notice more, for example, the language. There is a lot of gendered language surrounding warfare. Exeter says “But I had not so much of man in me, / But all my mother came into mine eyes” to describe the act of crying as feminine. Moments like that become more noticeable when you hear it spoken by a female actor.
The few female characters in the play itself are interesting to look at as well. In the context of war, they function very much as pawns or property in the business or political transactions of the male leaders.
What do you think Shakespeare was saying about war?
MD: I think he presents a multi-faceted picture of war in the play, incredibly complex. On the one hand, he’s admiring of the rhetoric and charisma of the king and how he manages to rouse his men to combat. All the famous speeches that everyone knows from the play are incredibly moving and I think even the most hardened cynic would find it difficult to not be moved by the power of the language.
So on the one hand, it is a play that revels in that kind of rhetoric but at the same time he regularly undercuts that and he frequently exposes that rhetoric as a façade, under which there is something not at all reputable or admirable going on. The whole war with France is sort of a political manoeuvre by Henry and by the church and often we see elements of Henry’s character that disgust us and repel us. I mean he is incredibly violent; he’s incredibly quick to condemn his friends to death–
Lewis Meade (Producer): He’s a dirty man!
What has it been like to play a man?
George Franklin (Actress, King Henry): It’s really interesting actually, especially because as a girl you don’t expect to play the likes of Othello, Iago, and Hamlet; the big male roles with lots of lines. They portray such a huge sector of emotion throughout the play so it’s quite a challenge.
But I think what we’re going for is we’re not asking people to make a big thing about the gender, it’s very much about the performance aspect. It’s all about showing that Henry never really shows one particular aspect of himself, he is never a singular person. In that sense we’re playing more off the fact that they’re militaristic, they’re soldiers. We’re more playing off their contexts than what their genders are about necessarily. It would be really stupid to try and walk like a man or talk like a man; it might detract a bit…
LM: Although we have tried.
GF: We have… it was absolutely hilarious! Eighteen girls walking around really awkwardly.
LM: It was the easiest thing I’ve ever had to do, just walk in front of them and they were like ‘you’re so good!’…
GF: But you feel self-conscious about your walk, you change your walk!
LM: When you have to think about it, you think: oh god, what am I doing?!
GF: I don’t think Matt noticed this but during the read-throughs a lot of us started mirroring Matt in what he did. If you looked around there were all these girls doing what he was doing…
LM: I don’t think Matt sits like a normal guy anyway!
GF: …We’re throwing up a lot of questions about our own genders here.
Do you like Henry and do you think audiences will like him?
GF: Henry’s a really interesting character and the more you look at his speeches the more you love him but also find him quite irritating. He can be quite selfish and quite narrow-minded in some senses. But in the speeches he has, I think you can’t help but feel empathy for him. You’re not privy to a lot of soliloquys, I think we only have one, and so the audience is in the same position as the soldiers. If Henry can win over the soldiers he wins over the audience as well. The emphasis is on the rallying speeches, ‘Once more unto the breach’, that kind of thing. And you really feel for him because I think he isn’t just a glorified hero. It’s much more about the difficulties of war, the fact that people will blame him if it goes wrong. Their death is on his hands and he definitely acknowledges that.
It’s also light-hearted as well, the elements of Henry IV Part I where he’s friends with a lot of the lower class individuals; he uses that; that’s why he can win over his soldiers so well. So I do like Henry and I think he definitely comes across as someone to be admired and a leader of men as well as someone who can perform.
How have you dealt with the challenge of staging?
LM: From our perspective, there’s always a challenge with any Shakespeare play. There’s always a certain feeling of wanting to create something different that no one has done before. Shakespeare is done so much. With this production, we’re not shying away from reminding people that they’re in a theatre. There are going to be elements of the backdrop where you can see the raftings. So I don’t think we’re telling people that they’re in a battlefield, they’re in a palace. We’re reminding people from the off that these are women, these are girls playing men, and we’re in a theatre.
Matilda Hunter (Producer): It all ties into the performance aspect that the characters are a part of, so if we can mimic that as well from the production side, the two can complement each other. We want to facilitate that kind of set-up.
LM: One of the hardest things from our perspective is the sheer number of characters. For example there are about five earls. There’s a lot of multi-roling.
MH: Even within that there’s a huge cast.
LM: There’s a cast of eighteen and within that there are about thirty characters so from our perspective you’ve got to be able to distinguish between them all.
Do you have a favourite costume?
LM: My favourite costume is going to be Catherine’s dress. It’s going to be the only beautiful thing in the show!
What’s your favourite thing about the play and why should people come?
MD: I think it’s going to be a very unique production, to my knowledge I don’t think there’s been an all-female Shakespeare done in Durham before, certainly not while we’ve been here.
It’s a unique interpretation of a really great play, a play that is not very well-performed and yet we all know so well. We’ve had recent London productions with Jude Law and it’s coming back into the public consciousness I think. Particularly in this oh-so significant year with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Asking those sorts of questions about war at a time like this is something which I think people should engage with.
On top of that, it’s a fantastic cast, I mean it’s a really talented group. It’s such a funny play, such a tragic play. I think as soon as you label a play a history it might seem a bit tiresome, it’s fast-paced, and our production is going for fast-paced.
LM: It’s one of the reasons I like the play so much, in spite of all the dramatic speeches, Shakespeare is still able to find many comedy elements. I mean there are really, really funny scenes in there.
MD: It’s very funny, it’s very moving, and it has some of the greatest war poetry ever written.
LM: To conclude, I think Shakespeare was a bit of a don.
‘Henry V’ will be performed at The Assembly Rooms from June 25th to 27th.
Photograph: Rose Innes