Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Shakespeare's birthday

It’s Shakespeare’s birthday and I’m two-thirds of the way through Henry VI and three-quarters of the way through the Royal Shakespeare Company's histories season at Camden’s Roundhouse. (Henry VI Part III is tomorrow night, with Richard III to come on 3 May.)

Last night, Jonathan Slinger made an enticing cameo appearance as the future Richard III in Henry VI Part II. He’s already raised the Roundhouse roof with his portrayal of Richard II (pictured), as well as filling in between times as Francis Feeble in Henry IV Part II, Captain Fluellen in Henry V, the Bastard of Orleans in Henry VI Part I and as a member of Jack Cade’s rebel army in Henry VI Part II.

Confused? So was he on at least one occasion apparently. According to his fellow RSC ensemble member Nick Asbury (Pistol in Henry V, Somerset in Henry VI Part II etc etc), Slinger was in the middle of a Richard III speech in one performance ‘when he launched seamlessly into Richard II for a line before returning, ashen faced, back to Richard III’. Geoffrey Streatfield (a magnificent Henry V, among other parts) has also had his difficult moments. He was warming up for Henry V at half past six one night when Asbury says he ‘had a little mental blank and had to go to the props cupboard behind the audience to establish which play it was we were doing. I think he was faintly surprised and alarmed to find it was Henry V.’

It took me the best part of a morning simply to sort out my diary in order to be able to book the eight plays in chronological order. Some of the actors are having to perform up to half a dozen parts in as many days. Jonathan Slinger was doing several in one performance last night.

The RSC’s production of all eight histories at the same time is one of the theatrical events of the decade, probably of a lifetime. If I have one minor criticism to make, it is only that in a small number of cases the same actors don’t play the same characters through into the subsequent plays. So it's confusing enough when Richard Cordery plays the Duke of York in Richard II, only to turn into Henry V’s brother Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, in Henry VI. But having Humphrey played by someone else again in Henry V leaves you requiring not only a degree in the medieval nobility to keep up with who’s who among the competing claimants to the throne but a working knowledge of which actor's playing which part in each individual performance.

Last night John McKay, previously the Dauphin in Henry VI Part I, played a gloriously camp Jack Cade in Part II. Jack Cade has a thing about people who can read or write and condemns the Clerk of Chatham to be hanged ‘with his pen and inkhorn about his neck’. Cade's rebel army hauls a member of the audience onto the stage for this part of the performance and they go through his bag while the rest of us laugh at his humilation. ‘Ooooh, Coutts,’ the actors sneer when they find his cheque book.

Stunning acting and class hatred too, eh? Shakespeare was never this good at school.

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