Mon 9 Aug 2010
This is Joel L. Schindlbeck, chiming in again. For Henry V my doublings are: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Duke of Bedford, the King of France and the Governor of Harfleur. When the board of directors (on which I sit) was meeting last year to plan out what roles we had interest in for the 2010 Season I was ambivalent about playing Polonius in our Hamlet, but most certain that I wanted to play the Archbishop of Canterbury in Henry V. At the time, my motivation for this choice was the famous “Bee Speech” (a beautiful and, in my opinion, perfect example of rhetoric and conceit.) It was, however, many months later and not until we began rehearsals for Henry V that I realized that Canterbury has the longest speech in Shakespeare’s canon. It wasn’t the “Bee Speech” however, but the monologue before which lists the reasons why King Henry V has every right to fight for the crown of France.
From my performance history research (something I only do AFTER rehearsals have set in their ways, per se, and when I believe I’m at a point that I won’t let it affect my performance), I’ve discovered that this rather convoluted and seemingly erratic speech is often covered in bit work and business on both the Archbishop’s side (as, in many instances, a toddering, old and forgetful fool) and the English Court’s (as a yawning and eye-rolling mass of students staring at the clock, waiting for their lecture to be over so they can go play.) Besides that being the easy route, a route I detest taking when it comes to monologues, the idea of bit work and business is something that our company does not treat lightly.
PCSC strongly moderates bit work for myriad reasons, but mainly because we do not believe that Shakespeare’s language needs extraneous gestures, jokes or actions to get the job done. One does not put a Picasso in a over-sized and over-articulate frame to appreciate it’s beauty, nor do we add “schtick” to Shakespeare’s masterpieces, unless the action of the play specifically calls for it. We have many terms for this: “Acting On The Lines,” “Speaking With the Verse Line,” “Embedded Stage Direction” and so forth. In our rehearsals, the moment an actor makes a choice about possibly adding bit work, the company’s skin tightens as we reconvert all energy into making sure that even the smallest action adheres to our philosophies.
A fellow actor told me of a performance of Henry V that he had seen in which the Bishop of Ely followed Canterbury on stage, over-burdened with scrolls and texts that Canterbury would use to prove the points of his argument. When the actor would reach a point of reference or fact in his speech (of which there are about 10 to 20 at least), he would turn to Ely and wait for him to retrieve the scroll with said information on it. Apparently, the audience had found this hysterical. Of course, one can easily drum up comparisons to Jerry Lewis’ frantic characterizations, and find this sort of bit work hilarious; however my initial reaction was one of utter surprise and exhaustion. The speech consists of 65 lines uncut, easily two minutes on stage. Now add in a three to five second pause as Ely searches for reference texts and you’ve added almost two whole minutes, doubling the length of the speech entirely! How dare I bog down the audience with more and more business, especially when a modern audience has trouble sitting through a two hour play as is?!
In the beginning of the rehearsal process, I stared at this speech and vowed that I would not make it last any longer than necessary on stage. Necessity! I did end up using props and a subservient Ely to carry them, but I refused to let this action happen in silence. Canterbury uses three props: a map of northwest Europe, a timeline of French History and the Carolignian Royal Family Tree. When Canterbury reached one of the references in his speech, I simply pointed my cane at the area on the prop where the fact was represented, and never stopped talking.
At one point in rehearsal, another fellow actor told me that she was finding it difficult to NOT follow what I was saying and thus, to be bored or confused as per the typical performance of this scene. Immediately, my sensors raised. Was I taking this speech too seriously? Was I delivering it too well, per se, and thus losing the essence of the speech and scene as a whole? As usual, I turned to our philosophies on the Original Practices for reassurance.
Basically, if by following the tenets put forth by the Original Practices movement, new discoveries are made regarding the time-tried performances, then I must rely on them as valid. I looked at the scene as a whole, and, as we all know very well, saw that something in this speech must solidify to the King that his cause is just. The speech MUST WORK. Yes, it is long. Yes, it is a bit painful. But that doesn’t make it any less valid an argument.
God, I love breaking conventions and pre-formed ideas of how things “should be.” It really makes me feel like a true artist when I can apply theory and practice to my art to produce wondrous new things.
Until next time…